June 25 2010 by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service

    SALEM, Mass. — Inside a locked reading room atop a staircase at the Salem Athenaeum, hundreds of theological books — including some that are nearly 500 years old — are once again stirring up debate. It’s not the subject matter that’s contentious this time, since most modern-day readers have little interest in centuries-old treatises.

    At issue now is how to save these religious texts, and others kept in cash-strapped private libraries, from the ravages of time.

    Here, a 1564 biblical commentary by Protestant reformer John Calvin and collections of 18th-century sermons require delicate handling as threads peek through thin, brittle bindings.

    At New York’s General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, librarian Melanie James says “a lot of the religious books haven’t been touched (in preservation efforts). They’re kind of falling apart.”

    At the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth, N.H., centuries-old books on holy topics cry out for repair in a bindery, but the library can only afford to mend a few books — and not necessarily theological ones — each year, according to research librarian Carolyn Marvin.

    RNS photo by Bryce Vickmark

    Jean Marie Procious, director of the Salem Athenaeum in Salem, Mass., holds a 1561 book of Aristotle printed in Greek that may deteriorate if the library does not get adequate funding for preservation.


    For some custodians, preservation means the expensive prospect of building climate-controlled environments, where temperature, humidity and lighting are set to optimal conditions for extending shelf life.

    One such project at the Boston Athenaeum in the early 1990s cost about $33 million. At the Salem Athenaeum, only books and pamphlets with high appraisal values are kept in a small, climate-controlled vault. The rest, said Francie King, president of the Salem Athenaeum’s board of trustees, face a bleak destiny.

    “They’re going to turn to dust,” King said. “We just can’t afford to do what it takes to preserve them, unless someone were to give us millions.”

    Others fear, however, that calls for help could backfire and hasten the destruction of old books, especially those that aren’t ultra-rare.

    Michael Suarez, a Jesuit priest who directs the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, says old book collections have sometimes been destroyed because custodians figured they were doomed to crumble and that the content was likely being digitized somewhere.

    The logic: if it’s already doomed, why not save space by destroying it now?

    “Alarmist language (about books crumbling has) led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of newspapers and books from the 19th century in particular,” Suarez said. “It’s a myth that these things will crumble into dust just by sitting on the shelf ... It’s a myth that small libraries have a need for millions and millions of dollars that they can’t possibly get.”

    America has only 16 private, membership libraries, where borrowing is restricted to dues-paying members.

    Still, they contain a disproportionate number of the nation’s theological treasures. That’s because these institutions commonly date to the 18th and 19th centuries, when they ranked among the top collectors of books and filled shelves with theological writings of the day.

    Librarians at private libraries note that books published more than 150 years ago have at least one advantage against the elements: they’re printed on fabric-based paper, which is more durable than today’s paper made from wood.

    Suarez adds that libraries can preserve most old books by taking simple, money-saving steps, such as keeping heat turned down in book stacks and avoiding exposure to direct sunlight.

    Today, librarians disagree about the urgency of preservation efforts. James, from the New York library, sees no great rush to raise funds to save religious texts, in part because they’re not frequently read, and they’re not central to her institution’s mission.

    “A lot of the really old ones (in our collection) have been digitized,” James said. “They’re out of copyright, so it’s just a matter of finding a copy and digitizing it.”

    Yet Suarez cautioned that what gets digitized might not be the best available copy of a book. He adds that books convey more meaning than mere words on a page: how they’re packaged and marked up by readers long ago also add to a reader’s understanding.

    Another issue: will digital books forever be accessible? Maybe not, some say.

    “Archives and libraries are full of things that you can’t get a reader for anymore, such as old cassettes and old film,” said Jean Marie Procious, director of the Salem Athenaeum. “You might have it there but you can’t access it. That is always a concern with digitizing ... Whereas with a book, you’re always going to be able to read it.”
    6/25/2010 2:14:00 AM by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service | with 1 comments




Comments
Dr. James Willingham
As a possessor of a large library (somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 volumes), I can well appreciate the problems of book preservation faced by libraries. The value of the knowledge in those books cannot be gainsaid. Research, whether on sermon, historical, or other topics, is one of the keys to getting an understanding of truth. In the Spring of 1963, due to the ecouragement of a Black professor at Lincoln University in Missouri, I began doing research in church history. That effort lasted fo 6 years and resulted in some 3000 5x8 notecards covering more than 250 sources, a Master's thesis in American Social & Intellectual History, and some years spent in teaching American History, Philosophy, Political Science, Church History, Baptist History, Hebrews, Isaiah, Systematic Theology, Sermon Preparation, etc. It also led to other research projects, one of which was the pericope on Agape love in I Corinthians. That was like scaling a mountain, one where you will never reach the top in this life, but, oh, the benefits of even trying. Every effort ought to be made to preserve books and all forms of communication (when I was chairman of the historical committee of the Baptist State Convention, we instituted the visual historical collection of North Carolina Baptists). Why? The knowledge often has a value far beyond our comprehension, a value which can only be realized in the light of much later learning.

For example, one of the realities that I stumbled across in my research was the transformation of the Protestant churches, changing them from a Gospel recovery, contentious, often combative movement into an outgoing, creative, winsome force bent on missionizing and evangelizing the world by peaceful and seemingly impossible means. I have been impressed with the fact that when Matthew T. Yates was launched on his mission service, he began with a church whose abstract of principles only knew of Christ dying for the Church (no mention of the world or of everyone in it). In fact, I was stunned to learn that the Great Century of Missions began with people who were committed calvinists/sovereign grace believers. In other areas of study, I found answers to the anomalies posed by what was a seemingly incongruous theology for such an undertaking. The answer out of pscyhiatry, psychology, and professional counseling was and is what are called paradoxes. Such therapists use paradoxical techniques in therapeutic treatments of individual problems. Interestingly enough, I also found that the believers of the generation of the Awakenings and the launching of the Missionary Movement were very much aware of the paradoxical nature of the theology, they were preaching. As late as 1859, the Southern Baptist Publication Society/Committee(?) published a work on Christian Paradoxes. Paradoxes, it seems, somehow or other, enable and empower the individual to become responsible. It seems likely, therefore, that if we are to have another awakening in our civilization, we must go back and take another look at the Sovereignty of God and the more so-called calvinistic theology (I still prefer the term Sovereign Grace). While we have beheld with dismay how such views have been used to justify the refusal to discharge responsible, we are also aware of how historians have found that when believers have these views right, they are some of the most reponsible and persevering people in history. This is especially noted by American intellectual Historians in their studies of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Reformation type groups in early American History.

The theology of sovereign grace is a paradoxical theology, and such theology is so constituted that it enables a person to be balanced, flexible, creative, and magnetic which might well explain why our ancestors and predecessors were able to accomplish so much in that period from 1740-1820. Near the end of that period, one who had lived through such events, declared in a Circular Letter in Ketocton Baptist Associational Minutes in 1816:

While we reflect with the highest pleasure on the rich and sovereign mercy
of God and contrast the means employed with the end accomplished, the conclusion
is irresistible: "It is the Lord's doing, marvelous indeed in our eyes." ....Our
ministers, with very few exceptions, were called from ploughing or some other la-
borious employment to proclaim to poor sinners the glad tidings of salvation
through the dear Redeemer...the situation of Virginia at the time required some-
thing of an extraordinary nature to be done, and although nothing really miracu-
lous did...and we may wth almost entire certainty conclude that we never shall
see such another set of preachers...no is it necessary that we should.

Books, records, preserved documents, from our Baptist past opened a new world of understanding for me. It ignited in my heart thehope of a possibility for a better future than what we are led to anticipate, considering the present eschatalogical, political, economic, and environmental climate. It led me to begin praying in the Spring of 1973 for a Third Great Awakening, a prayer effort enhanced by the fact that the pastors of the Sandy Creek Association were then involved in a prayer effort for revival. I preached the fifth anniversary and the tenth anniversary serices of the prayer meeting. The Great Century of Missions (Kenneth Scott Latourette's term for the 1800s) was launched by people in prayer pleading the promises which Jonathan Edwards recorded in his treatise, Humble Attempt, which called on Christians in all denominations to unite in prayer for the spread of the Gospel among all nations. Among those who rose to his challenge were William Carey and Andrew Fuller, Cary is called the Father of Modern Missions. We need to reconsider the promises set forth by Edwards and to plead them in prayer meetings once more. Then, perhaps, we shall see a real Gospel Resurgence in our world, and all due to the preservation of records.
6/25/2010 10:49:57 AM

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