Carnegie Library at Syracuse UniversityJohn Kimbrough of the University of Chicago Library, recently submitted a thoughtful piece to the university’s Divinity School publication “Sightings on the implications of being a librarian of faith who views his job as “library ministry.” As a former (and, God knows, perhaps eventually a future) academic librarian who shares the Christian tradition, this article caught my eye last week.

Kimbrough makes what most of us in the library field would concede as an obvious point, and indeed, most of the teaching faculty would concede it as well. He notes that “Entering undergraduates often do not know how to use our collections effectively.” Absolutely true, although I would stick my neck out just a little further to emend the last phrase to “do not know how to use our collections at all.” It is also my own observation that graduating seniors and, heaven help us, graduate students are only marginally better at effective collection use. And yes, the internet is partly to blame; Kimbrough rightly points out that “the library is just another website among thousands that students have at their disposal.” But this is a smoke-screen for the larger problem, which is that the librarians themselves are promoting this mentality by providing more and more bibliographies that are available on the library’s websites or reference kiosks that give students the impression that all they could possibly need for their study of religion (or whatever) can simply be picked up at their convenience. I have been guilty of this myself, having developed a number of such bibliographies and research guides. As a reference librarian, students would trickle in for reference assistance, but it was exceedingly rare for a researcher to actually ask a serious research question. Librarian (me): Can I help you with something? Student: No, I think I’m all set, I just grabbed this research guide. Thanks, though. Librarians who are better than I was might pursue the student’s interests a little more here, but usually the student was more than happy to take his or her three-page printed list of reference works and websites and go home and write their paper. And then, the library directors and trustees are perplexed by ever-declining reference statistics and bemoan the loss of the library and its budget.

Now, I’m all for using whatever information resources we as scholars, students, researchers, and teachers have at our disposal. But these can only take us so far if we truly seek knowledge and not simply “information.” Knowledge implies being able to separate the sheep from the goats (theological librarians will understand that remark). In the field of religion, this means assisting in imparting knowledge about texts such as the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an in the Abrahamic faiths, for example. Library ministry here, as Kimbrough expresses it, would imply the librarian’s ability to sensitively direct students to these texts as well as to sources about them (and there’s no shortage of that). Yet not every student that seeks to read the Hebrew Bible is Jewish, and still less may that student be a religion major, and even less may the student be seeking an academic career in religion. It should be the librarian’s duty, or “ministry,” to grant these students genuine opportunities for authentic textual encounters with the sacred texts and religions of the world.