Some reflections on cooperation between theological libraries and the future of theological libraries in (and outside) Europe
Don’t expect from me a coherent speech ending up in a clear conclusion, my presentation are my thoughts on cooperation between theological libraries and the future of theological libraries, because I think these two things are closely connected, not only in Europe but worldwide.
First: what do I mean with a theological (or religious) library?
Within the European associations of theological library organizations you will meet very different kinds of libraries
– libraries of theological seminaries big and small
– libraries of theological faculties within larger universities (public or private –mostly catholic)
– abbey/monastery libraries
– libraries for use by church officials
– public libraries with a large (and sometimes very old) collection of religious books
– special research libraries
Today I will focus on the first category although sometimes I will say a word on those other categories, especially on libraries of theological faculties. But in my presentation when I speak of theological libraries I mean the libraries of independent theological institutes for higher education.
I do this for two reasons:
– First, I am the librarian of such a seminary library
– Second, our guest of honour, mrs Hilda Putong is the director of a seminary library
– Third, the Stichting Library Development Indonesia has done a lot of work to assist just these libraries
Second: what does it mean when I speak of European theological libraries?
To say it plainly: nothing. There is no special characteristic of European theological libraries. The differences between European libraries can be more than the differences between the libraries in Indonesia and the Netherlands, especially since the PThU send its books to the Far East. Of course most of the European theological libraries are located in the European Community, with its own rules, its budgets etc. but that does not alter the fact that the differences between the library of the PThU and libraries in, for example, Croatia are huge.
However, there is one important point to make here: many European libraries – but certainly not all, think of Croatia – have big and sometimes very old collections of books, many more than in other parts of the world.
That brings me to my third reflection.
At my university, the Protestant Theological University in Kampen (PTU) we always had students from Korea. When I started to work in my library more than 25 years ago, these students were poor. They were supported by our Dutch churches. But a lot of the money they had they spend on photocopying. They copied complete books and send many boxes filled with these copies back home to Korea. 25 year later we still have students from Korea. They are no longer poor students, they don’t need Dutch money, but rich Korean churches and sponsors are supporting them. But they are still heavy users of our copiers, or to say it modern: our multifunctionals. However, they are no longer sending boxes with photocopies to Korea, but terabytes of scans. Because although they now have money (even more money than we have), we have the stuff, the books. Or better we still have the stuff. Because: for how long can we rely on this advantage in Europe?
That brings me to my fourth reflection. What these Korean students (but also students from Eastern Europe) are doing for private use, is done by Google and other internet giants on a mass scale. The Korean students no longer need to copy the works of Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder, because they can read their works online on archive.org or dbnl.nl.
Our theological heritage is digitized at a great pace and we are making our collections obsolete. Of course most of the 20th and 21st century books are not available on the internet, at least not in open access. However many publishers are rapidly digitizing their backlists. For example, Walter de Gruyter proudly declares that they are able to deliver all the books they have published since the company started in the 18th century. But of course we have to pay for these electronic versions, even though we already paid for the paper version. And sometimes we do because we like the added features like searching on a word base through the complete works of say Karl Barth.
This all means that the balance between the libraries with the big book collections in Europe and the libraries of newer institutes in other parts of the world is changing. Decisive will be no longer the size of the physical collection but the size of the budget for buying e-resources.
And we all know that money is not fairly distributed in this world, not between people but also not between libraries https://advising.wisc.edu/facstaff/sites/all/libraries/d3/js/photoshop-cs6-mac.html. And we also know that theological institutes in Europe are no longer the richest in the world.
How can we make the best of these new circumstances?
- We have to use our money more cleverly. Here is a big difference between theological libraries and the state university libraries. The university libraries tend to buy as many eBooks as possible through big package deals with publishers and through collective negotiations (e.g. by SURF in the Netherlands). The result is that the e-collections of these universities resemble each other more and more. But the prices for these collections are prohibitive for most of the theological libraries. So they should present themselves by buying individual titles. But buying individual eBooks offers new opportunities. In the past librarians bought books anticipating the use of these books. But eBooks are never sold out. And that means that a librarian can wait until a researcher asks for a book. And the delivery time of an eBook is very short: usually less than 48 hours.
- Theological libraries should remain critical towards eBooks. The university libraries have embraced the eBook phenomenon and try to buy each books as an eBook. But in some cases staff and students prefer a physical copy of a book especially of monographs. Theological librarians are often able to bear this in mind and decide in favour of a print copy, just because they buy individual titles. Moreover, contrary to what many people think: for a library buying an ebook is more expensive than buying a conventional book. Usually the price of an ebook is the same as the price of a hardback (so three times higher than a paperback). However, the tax (VAT/BTW) on ebooks in the Netherlands is 21%, on paper copies it is only 6%.
- Theological libraries should cooperate with other libraries, not only with other theological libraries but also with university libraries, public libraries etc. Although interlibrary loan is not allowed for eBooks, theological libraries should work on good relations with other libraries in order to refer their students and researchers to these libraries. In the Netherlands but also in for example Norway and Poland there is a close cooperation between the independent theological institutes and the state universities in the national associations. But in some other countries like Germany or Hungary these contacts are rare. For Catholic libraries the Maurits Sabbe library in Louvain, the library of the Institut Catholique de Paris and similar institutes are offering help internationally.
- Theological libraries should cooperate worldwide in negotiating with publishers. There are few kinds of libraries that are so well organised internationally like theological libraries. Thanks to the British association of theological libraries (ABTAPL) the publisher Sage has reduced the prices of several of its journals for theological seminaries.
- The biggest difference between theological seminaries and other institutes like state universities is that seminaries still have a religious mission/drive. That means that they are not only keen on promoting their own institute but also on promoting their mission in other parts of the world.
An appeal on their mission must therefore be the most urgent argument for cooperation and mutual assistance. It is my experience that theological librarians from all parts of the world are eager to assist their colleagues in seminaries who are less well-off. That gives me plenty of confidence in the future for theological libraries.