ACQUIRING AND MAINTAINING THE PASTOR’S INTELLECTUAL TOOLBOX.
Kenton C. Anderson
I love books. I love the smell of them. I love the feel of them. I love the way they encourage me to think. I love the way they take me to far-away places. I like to keep my books. My wife is always trying to encourage me to use the library, but my problem with that is that when I find I love the book, I won’t want to take it back. Then I’m going to have to go out and buy the book I have already read because I want to keep the books I love. Some of you know what I am talking about.
Owning books is a wonderful thing, but it is not without its difficulties. I occasionally see offers of “free books” around our campus, but I have learned that books are never free. Books need to be read, filed, stored, and when you come to move to a new home or office, you will have to transport them. Books are heavy and movers charge by the pound. Still, I can’t help myself. I’m going to accumulate books. The challenge, then, is to learn how to make my library as orderly and useful as possible.
The most important way of managing one’s library is to be careful about what one acquires. Like a skilled emergency room nursing staff, I try to determine which books are a priority and which ones might not merit accumulation. For example, I spent some time at my favorite bookstore this morning and found at least five books that I thought would be worth reading. I was successful, however, in resisting the urge to purchase them, due to consideration of a number of factors.
First, there is the matter of value. Not all books are equally worthy of one’s limited time. With the multiplicity of books available on virtually every subject, one would do well only to select those resources that will be of greatest use. If it requires some time reading reviews, that time is worth spending, when one considers the amount of time that could be wasted reading things of limited value.
A great way to discover things that are worth reading is to check the bibliography in books that have really helped you. When you find yourself helped by one book, try to discover what that author has been reading. If she or he is quoting someone a lot, you might want to check the book for yourself. Another surprising source of this kind of information are the customer reviews on amazon.com. You don’t want to put too much confidence into these, but I have found them helpful in getting a sense of how the books are being received by the general public. I would recommend you go to encounteronline.org and click on the link labeled “The Best Resources for Studying Scripture.” This is an outstanding list of resources including a list of some of the best commentaries for each book of the Bible. For resources on preaching, you could go to the preaching.org reviews section (click under “resources.”
Second is the question of redundance. Once you have mastered and retained a particular theme, there is little need to add more to the same pile of materials. This is not to say that one should ever completely stop reading in a particular category. Just that it is not necessary to retain every book written on a particular theme. Just keep the best ones.
Third, we could consider utility. I have kept a number of books on my shelf that have not been opened in many years. Young’s Complete Concordance, The New York Public Library Desk Reference, and many of my dictionaries and language tools are no longer useful given that I can access the information that they offer much more quickly via my computer. Given that these are some of the largest books I own, relieving myself of them creates a significant amount of valuable shelf space.
While the best way to manage this is to control the intake of materials, it remains necessary to cull the books that may have been previously useful to see if they are still suitable for inclusion. Some books, that have had value in previous years, no longer are suitable for retention years later.
Remember the recycle bin is your friend. Having the courage to get rid of books we once found useful can actually increase accessibility to the truly good things we have collected. Recycling is also good for the environment God has given us.
Consider gifting books that are no longer useful to you but could be of value to someone else. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. It occurred to me a few years ago that my large collection of youth ministry materials was no longer of value to me, given that I was no longer actively involved in youth ministry. Some of the stuff was junk and I treated it accordingly. Our church youth pastor, however, was pleased to receive the good stuff. When you can’t think of anyone who could make good use of the book you have in mind, remember there is always ebay. If nobody wants it there, it really ought to find its way into the trash.
Some years ago, I moved into a new and smaller office. There was simply not enough room to store all the books that I had gathered. I ended up putting several heavy boxes into the crawl space underneath our house. It took a few years, but inevitably I hauled the heavy boxes out from under my house and disposed of them. If a book is going into long-term storage, it probably isn’t ever going to be worth keeping.
Once we have determined which books are worth retaining, there is still the question of how we are going to store them.
Shelving hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. My dorm room, years ago, was a maze of planks and patio blocks. Today my shelves are more respectable, but their utility hasn’t much improved. Remember that if you are going to bother putting your books on shelves in your office, it isn’t for the purposes of display. I know that pastors have often shelved their books for the purpose of impressing or sometimes even intimidating the people who would come into their offices. In fact, the only reason we should truly want to store our resources is so that we can find them when we need them. The most important issues with respect to shelving has to do with how accessible the most-used books will be. If I have to get up out of my seat to retrieve them, they probably are not going come to hand as often.
Increasingly, there are software solutions for the storage of books, particularly the classics in public domain. Years ago, I purchased a CD that contained original full-text versions of 700 pieces of “the world’s greatest literature.” The disk contained everything from Mark Twain to John Donne to the Greek storyteller Aesop and his famous fables. It is handy to be able to do keyword searches of these books without having to store them all on shelves. Logos and other companies offer hundreds of useful full-text books in electronic form, easily searchable as part of one’s Bible study software.
Google Book and Google Scholar are increasingly becoming useful sources for information. While not everything is available in complete full-text form, there is a remarkable keyword search capacity making available a massive amount of useful information. This resource will only improve over time as the various legal issues find resolution and usage increases. Questia.comis another full-text book resource that allows for online reading or keyword searches. You might not always find the exact book you are looking for. None of the books I’ve written came up in a keyword search, for instance (sigh), but when I typed the words “biblical studies” into Questia, I came up with more than 1,000 books, many of them recent.
Simply having the books on our shelves is one thing. Being able to effectively retrieve the information is another matter altogether. In my early days of library-building, I spent many hours meticulously building a 3×5 card filing system so that I could retrieve the information that I felt would be valuable. When computers became available, I was an early-adopter. I spent countless hours building databases that would not only catalogue my library but made the essential contents of the books accessible.
What a colossal waste of time! While all of this work may have had some utility initially, the true usefulness of the material became apparent when I upgraded computers, rendering obsolete and inaccessible all my previous work. Redoubling my efforts, I set out to build a new and better system. A fatal computer crash a few years later destroyed all of that hard work. While I could be berated for lacking foresight and for not backing up my work effectively, the truth is, I hardly missed the materials I lost.
This is not to say that filing has no value. It is just that it can take years for a person to learn just what is worth saving and what is not. Things that seemed indispensable years ago are now more readily googled.
There are many software solutions available for cataloguing and organizing small libraries. A listing and description of these various resources can be found at <a href = “http://www.librarysupportstaff.com/4automate.html” target = “_blank”>librarysupportstaff.com. Here you will find affordable ways of managing your personal library database, including checkout capabilities just like a real library. Offering dozens of products, this site is sure to offer a product that will suit your particular needs.
For smaller items, bits of information, sermon illustrations, and other snippets and clippings, I have found it useful to use the “Notes” software that is part of the Microsoft Office suite. I have hundreds of such notes entered in Entourage that sync automatically with my Palm Treo so that I have them with me everywhere I go. This is a remarkably useful way of managing ideas, and it has the added benefit of automatic backup.
For example, one of these notes might include some particularly useful quotations from a book that I have read. Another will feature ideas that I have been generating for a new book or article. Still another will feature ideas I recorded while listening to a conference speaker. These can then be assigned “categories” for the purpose of organization. The great thing about these notes is that they can all be keyword searched despite the fact that they are different in nature. It is like having a drawer full of scrap pages and restaurant napkins all covered with important information. With this search capability the exact note your are looking for is easily retrieved.
Finally, integrated desktop searching on your computer allows you to find that needle in the haystack so elusive in the past. I’m running OSX on my Powerbook. A program called Spotlightis built into the desktop allowing me to keyword search my entire hard drive, including the content of documents, in seconds. Similar products are available for Windows computers fromYahoo, Google and Microsoft (MSN Search Toolbar, Windows Desktop Search). This function allows instant accessibility to all of the digital content that is stored on your computer.
This morning, one of my students told me that his hard-drive had crashed rendering all of his digital material inaccessible. Imagine having to rebuild everything you have – from nothing. Of course, this pastor’s tragic tale could have been avoided through regular backups of his hard drive. Electronic material can be wiped out, and so storage redundancy is important.
I am told that CDs are only guaranteed to last about three years before their performance becomes unreliable. The advent of High Definition DVDs should help both with the quantity of storage space and a longer period of reliability, but nothing lasts forever. Whatever system we use, we need to keep backup copies and keep everything fresh by replacing data on new hard drives and disks every few years. Data itself does not corrupt, but the storage media does.
Loving your Library
I have read that the Italian writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, has a personal library of some 40,000 volumes. For Eco, books are something to accumulate whether or not one reads them. He loves to walk through his stacks simply to browse. Obviously the expense of storage and cataloguing of this many books would require a budget and staff beyond the capacity of most of us. Still, something about this appeals to me. I love books – I even love to read them. But we have to be a good steward of our money and our books.
This week the student lounge at my seminary was crowded with tables full of “free books” donated by a deceased former pastor. I looked lovingly at several find books but eventually put them all back on the table. Before incurring the time and expense of adding new books to my collection, I want to do justice to the ones I already have.