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Building a one-of-a-kind library

Elon physics professor Pranab Das has guided creation of the definitive library of books on science and religion.

Pranab Das has a complete set of the 225 books in the library in his office in McMichael Science Center.

Pranab Das doesn’t hesitate in describing the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) Library Project as “profoundly energizing” and “the most intellectually satisfying pursuit” of his life. But that’s quickly followed by a description of the incredible logistical challenges that went into building a unique collection of 225 books, purchasing and binding 35,000 volumes and shipping them to universities and research centers in 47 countries on six continents.

It’s safe to say that Das didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he accepted a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and took on the role as executive editor and programme manager for the project. While he had long had a passion for studies at the intersection of science and religion, there was no way he could be prepared for the daunting challenge of choosing the most useful core collection on this field.

“We started with a universe of about 2,000 books, narrowed that down to 600 and then picked more than 400 finalists,” Das explains. “Then we had to obtain copies of all those books and assemble an editorial board, four scholars from around the world who agreed to read and evaluate every book.”

That’s when the fun began. Authors included historians, philosophers, theologians and scientists. There were books about Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism and many others related to faith. And there were books about biology, physics, cosmology, mathematics, ecology and others related to the scientific world. There were classic works by Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant, along with contemporary books by authors on bioethics, biotechnology and sustainability.

Weighing and debating the relative values of such works over a series of conference calls over two years was intense.

“It was like being a seminar leader among the world’s most brilliant and sophisticated conversants,” Das says. “Examining these issues was an intellectual opportunity like no other. Science and religion are the two great enduring human knowledge systems. Through these traditions we have come to our way of knowing. Over the centuries these two fields have complemented one another and also been in conflict.”

Das knows the selection process affected his own thinking on the complex issues related to science and religion, but he’s still reflecting on and processing the experience. His thoughts will be explored in an upcoming volume.

Selection of the final 225 volumes for the library was only a step on the way to completing the project. Das then assembled essayists to write introductory pieces on each book. Next came the process of purchasing and custom binding the books into 150 complete sets and choosing the most deserving libraries around the world to house the collections.

Even packing and shipping the books became a complicated and expensive challenge, as Das worked through bureaucratic channels with some governments that have tight reins on the flow of information. When two countries attempted to delete certain books from the collection, Das and his colleagues decided that the ISSR library must remain intact and instead found other nations willing to accept the entire collection.

About 40 sets of the library were awarded to sites in the United States, including Elon University, which houses its collection in the Truitt Center for Religious & Spiritual Life.
With the ISSR collection now housed in libraries around the world, Das takes tremendous satisfaction in knowing that he has played a role in exposing people to ideas and perspectives they otherwise would not have encountered.

“I’m so proud to have been a part of this interdisciplinary work,” Das says. “Religious and theological perspectives are widely represented here, but so are naturalist and non-religious ones. Deep scientific background is available, as is philosophy. We hope that this collection can fruitfully serve students, scholars, and lay readers by offering the most important idea systems, underlying information and categories of analysis relevant to each of the main strands of dialogue in science and the human spirit.”

Dan Anderson,
8/30/2012 9:35 AM