In the past couple weeks, I wrote two posts arguing that most people do not need a Logos digital theological library (Five Reasons Not to Buy Logos and Logos Groupthink). Most of the push-back I received stemmed from statements I made about pastors and missionaries not needing to own a lot of books. Of course, anyone in a preaching or teaching ministry needs to read a great many books. However, pastors and missionaries do not need to personally own all those books in order to profit from them repeatedly.
Friday evening, I spent about ninety minutes reading John MacArthur’s The Ultimate Priority (Moody 1983). I will never buy a copy of this book, but by practicing good reading habits, I gained most of what the book has to offer and preserved that knowledge for later use. While my system isn’t perfect, perhaps some will find it helpful.
1. Read Before You Buy
Whenever possible, read books before you buy them. This is relatively easy in college and graduate school. Instead of just buying every book assigned for a class, read as many as you can by using the course reserves or checking out one of the library’s additional copies. You will often find that you do not need a personal copy of the work.
This practice becomes more difficult after one graduates. However, you can borrow books from friends, get books via inter-library loan, and take advantage of those times when you are near a theological library. In the case of MacArthur’s The Ultimate Priority, I had the opportunity to visit a seminary library and do some reading.
2. Create a Digital Card File
Whenever I read anything (even fiction), I’m always on the lookout for the things I want to remember. Generally, these consist of key definitions, poignant statements, helpful lists, concise illustrations, strong arguments (whether or not I agree), and surprising elements.
I record most of what I read in Word files formatted to print on 4×6 index cards. There is nothing magical about this format. Honestly, it’s mostly a hangover from my intercollegiate debate days. However, I have found that the space limitation pushes me to look for the best quotations and write clearer summaries. Additionally, the resulting cards are a handy size if you ever decide you want to print a few out. Here are a couple examples.
While most cards I make are quotations about the length of the card above, I do frequently create cards summarizing longer sections (often chapter length) of a work as seen below.
Here are five tips. First, double and triple check your quotations. You are making these cards so you don’t need the book. That means you won’t have access to the book to find errors later. Second, always include full bibliographic details including page numbers. Third, include notes of things like chapter titles or anything else you think would be helpful to a stranger looking at your cards. You probably won’t look at the cards again for years. Your future self will have forgotten a lot. Fourth, include slugs at the top of your cards. This makes skimming the cards easier and will improve your keyword search results. Fifth, create your cards in separate files organized by broad topics. This is a stability issue more than anything. Microsoft Word sometimes does crazy things when files get incredibly long.
3. Scan and Save Important Pages
Sometimes books contain short sections of very valuable material. In the case of The Ultimate Priority, I plan to base both a lecture segment and a sermon upon a five-page discussion of unacceptable worship. In a case like this, I simply scan the pages to a PDF (along with the title page, copyright, and table of contents) and create a summary card to remind myself of the material.
Please note: copying short sections of a book for personal use falls under “fair use” and does not violate copyright. However, before you start making a lot of copies, I would advise you to read about what does and does not constitute “fair use.”
4. Find and Download Historical Sources
On page 118, MacArthur uses a quotation from Andrew Bonar’s diary regarding worship in the Spirit. I thought that the quotation would work great as an illustration in a sermon or lecture on worship, but I did not make a card right away because never quote a secondary source if possible. Since Bonar’s diary is in public domain, why not get a free book?
The process is pretty easy. I went to Google Books, searched for “Andrew Bonar Diary” (without quotes), and downloaded the book for free. I then deleted the annoying first page Google attaches, found the page with the quotation, ran OCR on the individual page, highlighted the quotation, added a bookmark for the page, saved, copied the quotation to my card file, began running OCR on the entire book, and went back to reading MacArthur. This sounds like a complicated process but it only takes a couple minutes. [Hint: Don’t run OCR on the entire book until you are completely done with the PDF. The task takes about 20 minutes depending on the length of the book and the speed of your computer.] After the OCR was finished, I renamed the file “Bonar, Andrew – Diary and Letters (1894)” and saved it to “library/theology/sermons and misc writings” on my external hard drive. If anyone is curious, this was the quotation.
5. Maintain an Organized Filing System
If you want this system to work out, you must develop an organized filing system. This means you need to completely and predictably name every file you create or download. I use “lastname, firstname – title of work (date)” for everything. I also include edition, volume, and page numbers if applicable. Furthermore, you need to create a file tree to organize your documents. For example, in my folder Library/Theology, I have sixteen subdirectories: Archeology, Biblical Theology, Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Historical Theology, Issues, Missiology, Music, Pastoral Theology, Periodicals, Practical Theology, Religion, Scriptures, Sermons and Misc Writings, Systematic Theology, Unpublished Material, and Unsorted. Each of these directories is subdivided much further (except for “Unsorted,” which is a temporary slot to save things I don’t have time to sort until later). I cannot overstress the need for an organized filing system. It is the key to being able to find any of your research.
If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. However, you cannot profit from books by merely downloading them or placing them on your self. The only books that will profit you are those that you actually read. By taking good reading notes, you can often avoid needing those books on your self or hard drive completely. Pastors and missionaries need to own the concepts contained in books. Possessing the books themselves is merely a luxury.