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The Evangelical Library revisited

June 2005 | by Mike Iliff

Surprisingly, my last visit found its way into the pages of ETso it seemed appropriate to comment on this visit as well – to attend the dedication and opening of ‘The Robert Sheehan Puritan Room and Research Centre’.

As reported on page 3, there was a dedication ceremony, with contributions from Mrs Wendy Sheehan, Professor Paul Helm and Pastor Mostyn Roberts. It was a pleasure to meet several people I knew only via the phone or e-mail, and others for the first time.

Benefit to visitors

There was certainly a great difference; and the hard work put in by the staff was apparent. The new room is a tangible demonstration of what the whole library could be. It is light, and spacious, with a restored wood block floor. There was even a PC running XP Pro with a TFT screen! The older rare books are housed in two new glass fronted cabinets.

In other parts of the library there are still a great many boxes of books, but I saw no black bags this time. I also managed to access back issues of ETwith ease, though the route to the periodical room was not so easily accessible.

There is a desperate need for more shelf space, while whole areas of the library need a significant facelift. Some partition walls could perhaps come down, and windows now hidden behind bookshelves could be cleared to give more light – as in the new reading room.

The vision

To fully realise the vision of Bob Sheehan and the trustees, the library still needs considerable financial input and effort. I am pleased and encouraged that (to quote the web site) ‘the original vision has not changed … The aims of this unique resource are to provide the researching author and student with an unrivalled source of materials; the teaching minister with an extensive archive to aid his ministry; and the Christian who seeks personal growth and maturity with the spiritual insights and wisdom of those who have gone before’ (http://www.elib.org.uk).

However, the library urgently needs to fully utilise today’s information technology to avoid ending up as an evangelical museum piece. With more than 80,000 books, plus extensive journal holdings, this is no small -undertaking.

Any volunteers?

Though I understand the reasons for the library remaining in London, I still think it should move out of the capital. But living in the Midlands I would say that! On the other hand, the location would be less important if the information could be accessed from anywhere around the globe.

Until then, to read some of the rare works a personal visit will be unavoidable. Presumably, there is a catalogue of all the library holdings but it will require an army of people to make these resources available electronically. Any volunteers?

The Evangelical Library, then, is a tremendous resource and is making progress with modernisation. However, in the twenty-first century it faces some significant challenges.

Internet

One such challenge is the wide availability of inexpensive Christian books. Many, I believe, would rather purchase their own copies for handy reference (and marking!) than make a time-consuming, though profitable, visit to the library.

Again, Internet resources grow apace and good Puritan and Reformed works are increasingly available online.

For example, the Jonathan Edwards Centre at Yale aims to ‘produce a comprehensive online archive of Edwards’ writings and publications that will serve the needs of researchers and readers’ (http://edwards.yale.edu/about-jec/mission/). Access may require a fee, but many of Edwards’ works are already available free at www.jonathanedwards.com.

Projects such as these will become more widespread, but are expensive to do well. The library needs the support of the evangelical community if, over time, it is to make its rare works available to the widest possible readership – and add an online membership category!

Pastors’ needs

Pastors study the Word and ‘feed’ themselves in order to build up and spiritually nourish the ‘sheep’. But congregations should, perhaps, do more to encourage their ministers to read and study as a priority – not just for sermon preparation but also for the whole man.

Perhaps pastors and congregations together should reassess the priority of the minister’s private study, and consider more deeply how it relates to the individual congregation and the church as a whole.

It is in this context that the library’s work should be seen. Ultimately, it serves the Lord Jesus Christ by building up his people in their most holy faith and thereby bringing the gospel to a dying world.

These comments should not be seen as discouraging but rather as a challenge to value our heritage as Evangelicals. If they raise the profile of the library and encourage honest debate about its role and relevance, they will strengthen the work and will not have been in vain.

If you are ever in London with time to do so, go and pay the library a visit!