The Common Good
May 2009

Confessions of a (Reforming) Bookaholic

by Dale Hanson Bourke | May 2009

Books get a second life in a global library.

It’s possible that we finally get it. We live in the land of excess, consuming more than we possibly need. But having confessed our sins, how do we atone for our transgressions? Or simply put, now what do we do with all our stuff?

Clothes, shoes, dishes are easy. But if you love books, as I do, you find yourself contemplating a process that has far more emotion attached. It’s not good enough to just give books away. You have to find a worthy home for your volumes, especially the long-treasured ones.

And that’s where the Theological Book Network comes in. The network will gratefully accept your books and then find homes for them overseas where they are not only desperately needed but will make all the difference in the lives of students and scholars.

True, they are not looking for just any old books. They are helping build libraries, especially in developing world seminaries. (Think Ellul, not Ludlum.) But the staff members of the network are certified bibliophiles who would never consider sending a book to a home where it was not going to be treasured.

I have had the pleasure of walking through their warehouse with Kurt Berends, the executive director. Berends spends more time in the warehouse than behind a desk because that’s where the books are. Like a kid in a candy store, he loves to show where the volumes are thoughtfully sorted, how they are matched with requests from overseas, even how the boxes for overseas shipments are packed by him and the other members of the staff, most more qualified to be professors than packing clerks.

THERE IS SOMETHING almost sacred about the process. Berends and his staff love books, get excited to open boxes and find theology texts, are even more thrilled to get requests from poor countries where books are rare and students are desperate to learn.

Having been a professor at both Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame, Berends understands the importance of textbooks. So when he first visited a school in Africa where his father was working and discovered that many classes shared only one book and the libraries were “pathetic” by Western standards or simply nonexistent, he knew he had to find a way to help. What began in his garage became the Theological Book Network, an organization he likes to say “brings access from our excess.”

Most of the books come from libraries that are paring back to accommodate more electronic databases. Some come from publishers with extra inventory. And some books come from individuals, including such notable preachers as Martin Marty and Roberta Hestenes, who donated their extensive theological libraries to the network so theologians in poor countries could benefit.

Individuals can send scholarly books on topics including theology, history, philosophy, and literature. Old encyclopedias and dictionaries are welcomed, but Bibles and popular literature should probably go to your local book sale.

Since the network is a nonprofit, it will issue a receipt for the books donated. Books can be sent economically via media mail, for a fraction of the cost of first class. (Staff can arrange for pickup of larger collections at a reasonable cost.)

The recycling of books is only part of the way the network is environmentally sensitive. All packaging that brings books into the warehouse is reused in whatever way possible to send books overseas. The warehouse is lit only enough for safety, and little heating or cooling is used. “The Theological Book Network is committed to practices that use the fewest resources to achieve the greatest results,” says Berends.

So when I pack up a box of my books to send to the network, I do it with joy. The very texts that opened my eyes to Augustine and Wesley are on their way to a library where dozens of eager students can share my treasures. And soon my shelves will not be overflowing, at least not quite so excessively.

Dale Hanson Bourke is president of the CIDRZ Foundation and author of The Skeptic’s Guide to Global Poverty. See www.theologicalbooknetwork.org for more information.

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