What the well-equipped workshop is to the wood craftsman, the well-stocked theological library is to the minister. Having a good library is one of the most important resources you can have in your ministry. If you happen to live near a major university or seminary, then you have a tremendous blessing of having a wealth of bibliographic resources within close reach. If, however, you live far from a seminary or in a rural area, then the books that you own will be vital to the execution of your ministry. But how, exactly, should you go about building a library. I can offer some general principles.
First, as nice as it looks to walk into a minister’s office and see walls of books, if you’re just starting out, remember that building a quality library will take time. When I finished seminary, I think I owned about thirty books. In the ensuing twenty-two years, let’s just say that the collection has grown. It did not grow, however, overnight. So remember, don’t be in a rush to spend money and buy lots of books. You want to be selective and cautious because, chances are your money, storage space, and time are limited. You only have so much money, so many linear feet of bookshelves, and so much time to read books. So, choose wisely and take your time.
Second, start purchasing books based upon your immediate work needs. If you’re preaching through Matthew, then find out the best commentaries on Matthew and purchase two or three of them. If you’re teaching a Sunday School class on a particular subject, then purchase the necessary books.
Third, have a strategic plan for your book purchasing habits. My medium range goals for my library were to acquire two or three excellent commentaries on each book of the Bible. My goal was to have these purchased within the first two years of ministry. While one-volume commentaries on the Bible are useful, chances are they won’t go into the level of detail that you’ll need. My regular fear was that someone would ask me a question about an obscure part of the Bible and I’d be stumped and without good commentaries to investigate an answer. If you don’t know what commentaries to buy, then consult two very useful books, D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey, 7th ed., and Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey, 4th ed. Ask fellow colleagues or your seminary professors what commentaries you should buy.
Fourth, avoid buying commentary sets. They’re very appealing—publishers sell them at reduced prices, you can often get an entire set of commentaries on huge portions of the Bible, and they look really pretty sitting on your bookshelf. On the other hand, the general rule of thumb is that a commentary set is only as good as its individual contributors. Some authors, to be frank, are better than others. Be a mercenary to the best rather than locked into the contributors that a publisher deems best.
Fifth, learn to buy books like a librarian. This is a skill that will take time. You should peruse book reviews, preferably in good theological journals, and identify what are excellent theological works, whether past, present, or future. You might find a well-reviewed book on an important ethical topic but then perhaps not purchase it because you think you won’t be able to read it right away. I frequently buy books because I know they’re quality works but also knowing that I will not read it for a while. Sometimes it’s been several years and the time will be right and I’ll pull that book off the shelf and read it. Think of yourself like a squirrel packing away food for the winter—there’ll come a day when you’ll need the book and might not have it. If you have the money and interest, purchase the book and keep it on hand.
Sixth, make sure you have good historical surveys of the major periods of church history: apostolic, patristic, medieval, reformation, and post-reformation periods are the major divisions. You will find the need to consult these over the years.
Seventh, ensure you have adequate reference works, such as lexicons, dictionaries, atlases, and the like. You’d be surprised how useful they can be and how often you might consult them.
These are seven suggestions for building your library. Have fun!