Changes in technology also bring other kinds of changes. Technologies shape the way that people envision reality. They help to form or dismantle social relationships. They either reinforce or erode cultures.
Much of what conservatives—including me—say and write about technology focuses on its unintended consequences, many of which are negative. We feel an obligation to point out how our new toys often serve to diminish our humanity. The naïve deployment of new technologies heedless of their unintended consequences can produce disastrous results.
No one can deny, however, that technologies also bring benefits—sometimes spectacular benefits. Occasionally, even we conservatives feel inclined to point out the benefits of a technological advance when it really is an advance. The recognition of these benefits and the willingness to enjoy them is one of the factors that distinguish conservatives from mere Luddites.
Electronic books are such an advance. Because print books are physical objects, they are both bulky and spatially fixed. Not only do they take up room on a shelf, but they can occupy only one shelf (or desk, or hand) at a time. These are just the limitations that make electronic books better by whole orders of magnitude.
Naturally, ebooks have their disadvantages, too. Probably the principal difficulty with electronic texts is that they have to be read from a screen. In the old days of 640x480 monochrome monitors, that could lead to a bit of eyestrain. Visual interfaces have improved so dramatically, however, that reading from a screen is almost always as easy as reading from a printed page. Sometimes it is even easier. With the right device, we can read our ebooks in the dark. Personally, I have never found reading from a screen to be terribly difficult. For the past decade or so I have probably done more reading on computers than I have from the printed page.
Electronic books offer a huge advantage in compactness and portability. Even a smart phone has enough capacity to store dozens of books. A laptop computer or a portable hard drive can store thousands. Since WiFi has become readily available, the “cloud” can make entire electronic libraries available to multiple devices. For pastors and seminarians, two of these libraries really stand out.
Most theological students are acquainted with the Logos program. While it is less useful for technical exegesis than the Bibleworks package (I have both), it has always offered significant advantages as a digital library. The introduction of apps for iOS and Android have made it by far the most useful tool that a pastor or seminarian could own. Users have access to their entire libraries, not only on their desktop and laptop computers, but also on their tablets and even their smart phones.
When I was in seminary, the question was whether a student should buy his own typewriter, and one of my professors used to say, “If you haven’t bought a typewriter, you just haven’t prayed about it.” Today, I think that the same could be said about Logos. Wherever possible I am moving my library away from hard copies and toward Logos. A book on my shelf in Minneapolis does me no good when I am in Toronto, but my Android phone can access any volume in my Logos library from anywhere in the world.
The other library that has become exceptionally useful is Amazon’s Kindle. I avoided Kindle for years because I didn’t like the feel of Amazon’s little reading devices. Truthfully, I still don’t—and I am still bothered by the fact that Amazon does not provide a slot for an SD chip. As if to compensate for these small liabilities, however, Kindle software is available for free. The Kindle platform can be supported on virtually any notebook, tablet, or smart phone. Amazon stores each user’s Kindle library in the cloud (though volumes can also be downloaded to the individual physical device). Amazon even provides a way to convert other texts into Kindle files.
The cost per volume for both Kindle and Logos books is significantly less than the cost of print books. In many instances (especially with Kindle) some resources are available for free (Logos has fewer free offerings, but when it restores full functionality to its Personal Book Builder, users can again distribute their own Logos-compatible materials). Both Logos and Kindle also offer sale prices on a regular basis. Low cost. Small footprint. Magnificent portability. Why would a pastor or student not want to run this software?
The only disadvantage to both Logos and Kindle is that they are not quite reliable enough to cite in formal papers. With Kindle, the problem is pagination: how does one cite a page number from a flowing text stream? With Logos, the problem lies in the occasional typographical error (though these are becoming less frequent). I still tell my students to look up every reference in print before they cite a source for a paper.
That is just where two internet libraries come into the picture. Both Google Books and the lesser-known Internet Archive Library have spent years producing photographic-quality PDF scans of books. Many of these books are in the public domain and are available online to researchers.
Generally speaking, books in the public domain are those that were published before 1923. Consequently, one cannot download the latest and greatest resources from these sites. For projects that require older sources, however, these collections are a dream come true.
For example, I recently had to do a good bit of reading on the subject of Baptist distinctives and polity. Between Google Books and Internet Archive, I discovered dozens of relevant volumes and downloaded them to my own hard drive. As recently as a decade ago, accessing all of these books would have meant negotiating inter-library loans or even traveling to libraries across the country. Now a few clicks of a mouse and the books are mine.
The same has proven true for a current project on the development of American liberal theology. Once again, dozens of books were at my fingertips. Sometimes a bit of creativity was necessary in manipulating the search engines, but (as in any research) one source led to another until I had more at my disposal than a researcher could have gathered in a year’s labor when I was in seminary. Because these sources are photographic quality, they can be cited just as if they were the original print works.
The only problem is that I now have more to read than I can begin to work my way through. The advantage is that the reading is with me all the time. I have the three volumes of Rolland McCune’s Systematic Theology in my pocket right now, thanks to Logos. While I’ve read a draft of one volume and parts of the others, I’ve never worked my way through all three books from start to finish. That comes next on my reading agenda. And I can do my reading at home, from the study, in the car, or under a shade tree, all thanks to the power of electronic books.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!