Posted in theology

How I Built a Theological Library on a Budget

By Elizabeth Prata

My library room. I usually sit in the chair on the right and turn on the lamp just over my shoulder.
My Library room, the other side

Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition (a site I do not generally recommend) wrote an essay on how to build a theological library on a budget. I thought there were some helpful ideas, and so I link it here.

Mr. Carter mentioned some ways to build a library that didn’t work for me. One of the ways he recommended building a library was to focus on access, not ownership. I like owning a book to borrowing one. I stick Post-it arrows, dog ear the pages (gasp!) and sometimes make notes in the margins. Can’t do that with borrowed books. He also mentioned e-books. I am old. My eyes get tired easily. I never adjusted to reading on a screen. I just can’t. Also, he mentioned thinking beyond books, like Theological Journals. Journals are fine, but I like books.

So while I think his tips might work for many people, I wanted to share how I built a theological library of 1000 books on a budget. And by budget, I mean budget!!

1. Be patient.

It took me a long time, 15 years to get to this point. One book at a time. You can build any library fast. Building the library you want takes time. It is also fun, the thrill of the hunt.

2. Be strong. Don’t buy books just because, or when you’re at a low point budget wise. Withstand temptation, and make sure you can afford the book you want.

2a. Mind the format.

That said, also be strong and withstand buying books in a format you dislike, just to buy it. If you prefer ebooks, then withstand temptation to buy hard copy. If you prefer hardcover, withstand temptation to buy paperback. If you hate used books that have been written in or highlighted, same- don’t get it. The idea is to own a library you enjoy.

3. Set aside time to browse

Accumulating books takes time and buying the right book also takes time. Look at the bookshelves at the store carefully. It’s easy to miss a title because you’re hurrying. Set aside time to browse well.

One thrift store I haunt has a wall of books. I take a chair and sit down in front of each section so I can see the bottom shelves and so I won’t get impatient as my arthritic knee kicks up. I’m not in anyone’s way and if I am I just move aside for a while and let others browse.

4. Make an Amazon wish list

People like to help. There was someone on Twitter whose house burned and with it, his entire theological library. People asked him to post a list of books so we could help replace them. It felt good to contribute. If you have some desires for certain books, make a wishlist, Amazon has them and other online booksellers do too. People might enjoy knowing exactly what to get you for Christmas or your birthday. And be sure to contribute once in a while to others’ wish lists!

5. Be focused.

Know what ‘holes’ exist in your library and focus on filling those. What is your focus? Do you have a specific focus in the library you’re trying to build? Commentaries? Christian Life? Missionary bios? If you do, concentrate on titles related to your focus, first. Bring a list if it helps you remain focused. I do. I tend to be like a squirrel in a thrift/bookstore!

6. Repeat your successes

Have a few favorite places on hand where you have had success before. I have a few places I go to first where I am more likely to find inexpensive books in my favored genres. Make it a point to swing by frequently. I go once a month. If you are in an area near where there are a lot of churches or religious people, even better. As pastors dispense with libraries, or seminaries off-load books, as people donate because they’re moving (I live near a college town) scour those places first.

I have real good luck at a re-use store associated with a domestic violence shelter. I learned that 100% of my $ goes toward the store, (where people fleeing an abusive situation can shop with free vouchers to start life again in a new home) so I feel good about spending my money there. Thrift stores in wealthy residential areas work well too and yield fine books.

7. Library book sales

Can’t be beat! Find out when your local library(ies) have their Friends of the Library book sales. Rock bottom prices. I look not just at the table but at the boxes underneath the table. Sometimes I go twice, once near the beginning and once near the end, because they refresh the inventory.

7a. Look for other sales.

I rarely spend more than $5 on a book. But when John MacArthur finished his New Testament Commentaries, Grace To You put it on a celebratory sale. The $500 commentary set was offered for half price. A friend generously gave me half of that as a surprise gift, so I ended up paying $125 for the entire set. Moral of the story is, when you see a good deal, a once in a lifetime thing, don’t be so frugal that you pass it up. Sometimes you gotta spend to save.

8. Be wary & discerning

Just because a book is stocked in the ‘religious’ section or ‘Christian’ section, doesn’t mean it is written by a solid Christian. A lot of false teachers produce books. If you’re unfamiliar with an author, first, look at who recommended the book on the book blurbs on the back. If solid men you’re familiar with recommended the book, it’s a safer bet. If false teachers recommended the book, pass on it. You can also use your phone to google it to see reviews. Thinking that it’s only a dollar so what the hey, I’ll get it and worry about the author later, invites false teachers into your home. Don’t do it. (2 John 1:10). Your soul is worth more than a dollar.

9. Inventory your books

This is a good idea for many reasons. If a flood or fire comes, you can replicate your loss. For homeowner’s or renter’s insurance purposes. (I HIGHLY recommend renter’s insurance if you rent an abode and don’t have this insurance). And for our purposes today, so you don’t buy 2 of the same book. I’ve done that a couple of time and it annoys me because I don’t have extra to spend, and my accidental duplications were on new books!

10. Ligonier’s $5 Friday

Really, books are $5. Other material too like DVDs and audiobooks, sermon/teaching series etc. Watch the shipping though, If you buy a lot of books it spreads the shipping out so it’s still a deal, but buying one or two books, with their shipping fee hovering at $6 or $7, it makes the books regular price., every Friday.

11. Chapel Library/Open Library

Open Library is part of the Internet Archive. Go to and click on BOOKS at the top. They also have videos and audio, all free. I said I hate reading on screen, but there was a book that was out of print, I absolutely could not get it in hard copy. I was wild to read it, and I found it on Open Library at the Web Archive. Phew, that scratched an itch for sure! Blurb-

“The Internet Archive and participating libraries have selected digitized books from their collections that are available to be borrowed by one patron at a time from anywhere in the world for free. These books are available in BookReader format and usually in PDF and ePub formats. You can choose which format you prefer. BookReader editions may be read online immediately in your web browser. No special software is required. Other Internet Archive loans are managed through Adobe Digital Editions and will require software installation on your device. Any book that you can borrow from Open Library is also available in audio form.” Now THAT is a super deal!!

Chapel Library is part of the Mt. Zion Church’s ministry in FLorida. You can read much material for free on screen, or order it in pamphlet form sent thru the mail FREE. There are also periodicals and audio.

“We are often asked about how we select the titles that Chapel Library publishes. After prayer and careful reading, we have made regular additions over the years of tracts, booklets, and paperbacks to our catalogue that now number more than 850 titles. Chapel’s aim is to make available Christ-centered, grace-exalting literature without charge, publishing great teachers and preachers of the past, such as, Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther, Ryle, Bonar, Pink, Bunyan, the Puritans, and many more.”

I’ve been asked to show the titles in my library. OK, here you go! I think if you right-click on particular photos you can see them larger in new tab.

The idea is that you’ve built a library that you can and DO actually use. Read your books. Here are a few articles on Reading Books.

Why You Should Read the Book Rather Than Watch the Movie

23 Tips from 23 Years of Book Reading

Four Good Reasons to Read Good Books

Those are my tips, what tips and tricks do you have for building a library on a budget? Thanks for reading!


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

Thank you for reading The End Time!

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