Theological Librarian

July 27, 2014

Meet Alumnus Mr. Paul Fields (M.A.R. '77)

What brought you to Westminster?
When I was in high school, our small Reformed Presbyterian church called a Westminster graduate who was a fine preacher and teacher. His ability to handle questions was impressive and his admiration for Westminster was high, so it became in my mind an ideal place to study theology. In college I was a history and philosophy major with a desire to attend seminary but not to enter the pastoral ministry. Following graduation I attended Westminster for the sheer joy of reading theology at a school known for being staunchly reformed.

What are some memories of your time at Westminster?
I remember hours of long reading assignments for every course and late night discussions with folks who loved the Bible, theology, and academic rigor. The old teaching guard was pretty much gone, although Dr. Van Til would drive onto campus, and students would quickly congregate around his car. I took Dr. Wooley’s last American church history course. I still have all my course notes; I can’t quite throw them out. Two of us persuaded Dr. Godfrey to let us do an independent study on the Reformation for the month of January in Geneva and other parts of Europe—all for academic edification of course. It was a great time, and we still keep in touch.

How have your studies at Westminster contributed to your past and current roles?
Westminster was a great place to soak up an appreciation for dealing with tough Biblical, theological, and ethical issues on the basis of a recognized theological foundation. Obviously there was then, as now, lots of behind-the-scenes discussion concerning what that means in an academic setting. On a basic level, I was given the tools to use when thinking about topics theologically and Biblically. In choosing materials for our library, and we collect materials from many different theological perspectives, I have some insight into where the authors are coming from and am able to give some direction if asked about a particular work. We are not a church library but a library for educational institutions, so we collect widely and thoughtfully.

Also, the Westminster name has benefited me many times. A degree from Westminster has opened doors even at places or with people who might disagree with Reformed theology.

Describe your current role at the library.
Because the Hekman Library serves the students of both Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, I work with both undergraduates as well as M.A., M.Div., and Ph.D. students on a daily basis, answering reference questions and selecting materials for the collection. Also, I am the curator of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies collection, which is a great deal of fun. My goal is to collect books, dissertations/theses, articles, and ephemeral materials in any language, whether pro or con, which deal with John Calvin and sixteenth century Calvinism. The Center’s focus is quite specific so we’re careful with what we add to the collection. I publish the annual Calvin Bibliography in the November issue of the Calvin Theological Journal. We also collect Calvin’s works from the 16th century to the present. For example we have Calvin’s first work—De Clementia—from 1532. Also, the Center annually hosts graduate students, pastors, and scholars in the field who may apply for fellowships. Information concerning these stipends, as well as resources, is on the Center’s website. The library and the Center work together to support and foster scholarship through National Endowment for the Humanities seminars, quarterly lectures, and paleography courses, as well as daily interaction with professors, students, and visitors of all kinds.

What led to an interest in Calvin?
The young pastor I mentioned earlier had a respect for Reformed and Presbyterian theology, grounded in the works of the reformers and the Westminster standards; so, because of my interest in history and theology, I wanted to know more. Calvinism per se didn’t mean much to me for quite a while; I was more interested in the theology of these early Reformers and only later realized I was thinking within a certain framework. The more I was taught by people who had obviously thought a great deal about what it meant to live within a Calvinist framework, the more impressed I became.

What have been some highlights of being a theological librarian?
Over the years a number of students have camped out on the tables near my office to study; conversations have begun, and questions, theological or otherwise, have expanded into all sorts of areas. Some of these interactions have resulted in folks entering seminary, pursuing medical school, or in going back to the family farm.

In another vein, because of the incredible growth in information technology and its impact on the library world, I have the opportunity to consider, along with very good colleagues, how we are going to evaluate, purchase, encourage, or discourage use of quickly changing formats and integrate them within a traditional collection and building. In the 16th century, an abbot by the name of Trithemius wrote a 200-page book entitled In Praise of Scribes, in which he denounced printed materials and couldn’t say enough good things about producing handwritten materials on parchment; ironically his book was printed. There are days I think I’m following in his footsteps by criticizing all the e-book hype and wishing we could go back to the good old days when the genie was still in the bottle.

How can theological libraries continue to serve the church in an age marked largely by digitization?
Theological libraries may serve the Church the way theological libraries have always served the church. Digitization is only another technology and format which needs to be used wisely. The printing press was revolutionary; we’re now dealing with other production processes and means of access at a time when technology is changing faster than we can imagine. Volumes have been written on the psychological and social impact of technological change. As much as these changes are unsettling, they also provide tremendous opportunities. Although we may enjoy sitting down with a magazine or journal and browsing through it, often we simply want a specific article, which is found through an electronic resource, which points us to the online version of the article, which we will often print. Books, print or electronic, are still in an uneasy balance. The subject matter—sciences versus humanities, scholarly versus popular—still seems to influence the type of format preferred. What are folks willing to read on their various devices? That is changing as the population ages; however, I recently heard a publisher state that the desire for e-books has plateaued and that only about one-third of their materials are produced electronically. Will that change as those raised with electronic devices come of age? Probably! However, the numbers of books and articles written have not diminished. Libraries will still have to provide them thoughtfully and within any format possible.

Please pray for Mr. Fields as he ministers to the students and staff of Calvin College and Seminary.