Meeting the challenges facing ecclesiastical libraries

BETH are a European group of national organisations representing librarians working in theological college, seminary, Church and monastic libraries. Solo librarians or librarians working in small teams are characteristic of their membership, although there is also representation from University libraries. I attended their conference on the theme of Challenges facing ecclesiastical libraries in Cordoba, Spain on 30/9/23-4/10/23, to share a paper about partnership working between Church and University in New College Library.

Cordoba BETH Conference 2023

BETH Conference 2023

What are the challenges for ecclesiastical libraries?

A number of recurring challenges were underlying themes for the conference.

  1. The decline in religious vocations and in church membership and attendance, which is also linked to a decline in available funding for church libraries, as funding must come from a diminishing church populace.
  2. The effects of war, military action and other political and social conflicts.
  3. Delivering professional management of historic collections under both of these circumstances with the particular needs and financial demands of historic and rare collections.

How can ecclesiastical libraries be successful in avoiding crisis and collapse?

  1. Reach out to new audiences.

Several papers spoke positively about developing new engagement activities consistent with the aims and objectives of their organisation / religious foundations. For smaller religious libraries that could mean reviewing what they are for – (e.g.  they may have supported university study in the past but is that needed now?) – and moving to adopt a more community centred approach. These libraries are offering outreach including workshops for children in the library, cultural events, interaction with publishers or publishing their own book series and inviting students to write book reviews. Examples included the PIME Missionary Library in Milan and Monza, which has been able to identify funding to extend the library to create new public spaces for cultural programmes. They identified “taking care of people” as part of the historic aims of their organisation, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. The Franciscan Library in Tomislavgrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has opened up to the public and attracted over 700 new members in a fairly remote, mountainous region. Having broadened its collections with literature, philosophy and literature to appeal to a broader audience, the library is now offering cultural programmes and workshops for children and adults.

  1. Reach out to new partners to pool efforts.

The Diocesan Library in Sandomierz, Poland faced challenges of fires, pests and thefts to its historical collections. Co-operative projects in partnership with the Fides Foundation created a shared Central catalogue of Church libraries, and promoting the library’s value helped them to apply for project grants to preserve and digitize their collections. In Germany, a Co-ordination Office for the Preservation of Written Cultural Heritage did not initially consider church libraries due to separation of Church and state, but a new project for Historic Holdings in German ecclesiastical institutions is working to map out the landscape and support church libraries to apply for state grants. Marian Lefferts from CERL spoke about how information sharing through CERL databases could support collections security for rare items and also help libraries to share expertise within their community.

Episcopal palace, Cordoba

Episcopal palace, Cordoba

  1. Go Large.

Another direction of travel is for smaller collections to merge or make deposits with a larger University library who can take on the task of making the collections available and safeguarding them. This has happened with the Church of Scotland’s library collections at New College Library, University of Edinburgh. We also heard from the Freie Universität Berlin, where the Seminary of Catholic Theology Library was one of 24 small libraries to be integrated to form the new large Campus library of FUB. In Flanders, where the number of small active ecclesiastical libraries has declined, as the library of the theological faculty at Leuven University has grown. Dozens of convent libraries have been transferred to Leuven University, and even larger church libraries such as the Augustijns-Historisch Institut face a bleak funding future which may lead them in the same direction.

  1. Go digital

Going digital has often been problematic for church libraries, who may not be able to access the technology or funding required. The second day of the conference explored some intriguing ways in which ecclesiastical libraries are going digital.

Confronted by war, the Ukrainian Catholic University has pursued digitization as the best way of preserving historic Ukrainian collections against physical destruction from military action. It has been made an extraordinary member of ATLA so as to be able apply for digitization grants. Digital collections were also a welcome development for the Ukrainian Theological Seminary, which previously relied on print collections. When rocket attacks meant that the library collections were located in an off limits military zone, the library adopted digital collections made freely available by publishers and partners.

The Association of British Theological and Philosophical Librarians (ABTAPL) presented a striking paper on Perlego – Friend or Foe. Twelve members of ABTAPL have adopted the online library Perlego so far, with the simplicity of model, processes and pricing appealing to solo librarians in small colleges. Librarians were also impressed by the amount of theological and religious studies content (over 63K titles), often coming from smaller publishers. Perlego also generates attractive statistics, such as the value of books per student used each year. Librarians are playing an active role in managing the cohorts of students registered for Perlego licences, and supporting training and enquiries on Perlego functionality.

Cordoba Mosque / Cathedral

Cordoba Mosque / Cathedral

What happens when ecclesiastical libraries cannot escape a crisis?

The worst case scenario that can result from these challenges is that libraries and their collections are destroyed, sold, disposed of, or dispersed.

Anna James, Librarian at St Pauls’s Cathedral, presented a paper on the Lives and Afterlives of Anglican theological college libraries, with three case studies of libraries that have been repurposed via an ecumenical merger, donated to a University for diocesan use and redistributed to a non-residential training centre. More radical was the solution offered by the Digital Theological Library (DTL) in the US. For smaller protestant theological colleges, there has been a rapid and lasting transition towards online and non-residential theological education, for which the pandemic was a catalyst. Drawing on earlier library digitization projects, the DTL are invited by colleges closing their campuses to dispose of their print libraries. The DTL undertakes to provide the college with like for like digital access to the print holdings, which it does via public domain and licensed routes. Rare items from the print libraries are put into storage, but the majority of collections are recycled or sold to dealers. Could a similar European organisation be set up? Copyright is the challenge.

The BETH conference was a fascinating overview of European theological libraries, in the beautiful city of Cordoba, and it was a real privilege to be able to attend.

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