Kate Arhel is having a good day. After a tortuous online treasure hunt, Tyndale House’s Deputy Librarian has managed to locate an esoteric manuscript for a reader. “Tracking down obscure books that we don’t have in the collection is one of my favourite parts of the job,” she smiles, “particularly if it’s a title that’s a bit challenging.”
Today’s search enabled her to find a book for a reader who is working towards their PhD. “They told me about a woman they met at a conference whose thesis is relevant to their research. The only problem was, they couldn’t remember her name, or which university she was affiliated to. The only details they could recall were that the university was in the north of England, the thesis had been written in the past five years, and it was ‘something about Luke’s Gospel’.
We kept a fully articulated skeleton – dubbed “Bony Tony” by a medical student — in a cupboard by the exit. Sometimes readers would open the wrong door and get a shock. Occasionally we’d come in on Monday morning to find him striking a pose in one of the aisles.”
What drew Arhel to Tyndale House after many years of library experience in the University of Cambridge was the sense of fellowship – of a community with a common goal. “Our readers aren’t just customers, you get to know their names, you meet their families. I’ve done babysitting for readers, I’ve pitched in with house moves, I helped a new mum hang out her washing.” She also makes a point of finding out in depth about what they’re working on, so that she can actively help with their research.
The fact that everybody – staff and readers – meets twice every day to have tea together is a big part of that team mentality. “Over tea, a reader might mention that they’re working on some obscure verse in Habakkuk and I realise I’ve seen a relevant book on the pile of new stock in my office. Or they might mention that a particular journal they have an article in has just changed publisher and that’s the first I’ve heard of it, so I can go back and check what’s happened.”
“Many of our readers are from overseas, so you get to make friends with people from all over the world. Just recently we’ve had people from Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Mongolia, Japan and Sweden. You get to find out what it’s like to be a Christian in those cultures. I always ask about libraries back home and they always say ‘I can’t find this book back home but the librarian won’t buy it because I’m the only person doing this subject.’ Because we have such a high concentration of readers in a very specialised field we can justify buying the vast majority of titles that are needed.”
At Tyndale House it’s not just the readers who come from overseas – a substantial number of the books are foreign titles, which means the librarians have to be able to work in a range of languages. “My degree was in French, which helps,” says Arhel, “but a lot of Bible scholarship titles come from Germany. My German vocabulary is quite specific to the job – I know what theologiegeschichtliche Kontextualisierung means, and can name the books of the Bible, but I couldn’t have a conversation about the weather.” It helps to be adept at picking up new skills. “I catalogued a book today whose foreword was in Latin,” she adds.
As Deputy Librarian, as well as keeping the bookshelves up-to-date Arhel is responsible for organising the books so that readers can intuitively find what they need. The library is broadly based on the Dewey Decimal Classification system, but because it is so specialised much of the classification has to be bespoke. “Dewey Decimal has only a handful of numbers for the whole Bible,” says Arhel, “but this accounts for the majority of our collection, so within that we have to design our own numbering system that makes academic sense to our current readers and is able to accommodate future directions in Bible research. For example, I just added a classification number for cognitive linguistics because this is an area of biblical scholarship that is emerging almost from scratch. One of our scholars is researching cognitive narratology in the Gospel of Mark, and there isn’t much published at the moment. In a situation like that I work out on the existing tree of knowledge where its closest cousin is and classify it accordingly.”
For this reason, Tyndale House librarians have to be particularly well-trained in theories of knowledge, and Arhel has a postgraduate qualification from University College London in Information Studies. “When I’m classifying a book I need to think about where a reader would expect to find it. If it covers two or three disciplines, where is the most logical place for it to go? In creating subject headings we think about the book’s four or five key concepts and construct hierarchical subject strings using the Library of Congress’s controlled vocabulary to make sure books are described in a consistent and logical way. This helps readers browse the catalogue easily for books on the same, or broader, or narrower topics."
As well as working closely with Tyndale House readers, Arhel is part of a nationwide network of librarians for Bible-focused collections. “There is a blog where we share ideas, and a number of mailing lists for librarians in biblical scholarship and related areas such as philosophy. It all helps with spotting trends and patterns in the field, which can inform purchasing decisions. It’s a balancing act between riding the wave of the latest thing but not neglecting other areas because of that.”
Outside Arhel’s office, the library gong sounds for afternoon tea. As she leaves, my final question is what she likes best about work. “I love what it means practically to be part of a Christian organisation, for example that going to chapel every week is part of my working life. Occasionally that means praying with readers – I remember standing by the photocopier one day praying for a reader who was struggling because of a bad neck.”
“But the other thing I like is that there’s a lot of free cake. We have a tradition that readers bring in treats on their birthday or when they’ve completed their thesis or published an article, so there is a steady stream of delicious baked goods. You don’t get that everywhere.”
Kay Carter is Director of Communications at Tyndale House
Photograph of Kate by Ruth Guthrie. Tyndale House Library photographs by Tavis Bohlinger.