July 7, 2009

Begin With YOU: Starting a Church Library

By Dolores Walker

So your church doesn’t have a library, but you think it’s a good idea to have one. Where do you begin? Who should you talk to? What do you need?

Begin with YOU
Don’t wait for someone else to light the fire under the bacon. You’re the one with the desire, the enthusiasm. Why not you?

Who should you talk to? Lots of people. Your pastor, for one, but don’t start with him/her/them. Wait until you have a good case, then you’ll be ready to sell the idea if necessary. Float the idea with other avid readers. Brainstorm the kind of materials you think a library should provide, the kind of books people in your congregation would likely read—and need. Speculate about a suitable place and how it would be run.

Don’t go it alone!
Let’s say you find you aren’t the only one who thinks a library is a good idea. Church libraries require time and work. See if you can enlist people who will commit to help set it up and keep it going if you get an okay from headquarters. Many a project has permanently stalled at one stage or another because the idea lacked backers. If you don’t find sufficient support, drop the idea at least for a while. Pray about it. Consider alternatives. Would a book club, say, serve the purpose you have in mind?

The purpose-driven library
Why should a church have a library anyway? Especially in this world of public libraries, and books for sale in grocery stores and airport shops, not to mention wonderful book discount sites. Wouldn’t it be much cheaper and simpler to search the Internet for religious information than pour money into a series of Bible commentaries?

Why should your church, specifically, have a library? Are there wants and needs that cannot be filled by the aforementioned avenues? Seriously explore these questions with others. How about joining forces with other churches to form a Christian media resource center in your community?

Warning: If you start from the proposition “a church library should have,” you may gather a fine collection of books that no one will check out—if they even bother to see what you offer. Success is far more likely if you customize your collection to the reading habits and needs of your congregation. For example, you may have readers who like Christian novels. Even if they belong to a Christian novel book club, the church library could be a repository of novels they are willing to share with others. Spiritual Growth is another category of books that are less available outside churches.

Preach to the choir
Don’t worry about non-readers. Make an effort to learn which people in your congregation read and focus on them. They’ll supply the most powerful publicity, to wit: “That’s a terrific book! I donated my copy to the library, and you can get it there.” When you add books, do it with those readers in mind, and be sure you let them know it.

Keep it simple!
Has the Dewey Decimal system gone the way of the dinosaurs? Surprise! It hasn’t. Most people are familiar with this system from school days. And if you “computerize” your collection, the software is most likely to use Dewey.

You may be tempting to set up a less formal organizational system. But churches that have tried other ways of organizing their books have usually found it wasn’t as simple and effective as they expected. An acceptable compromise might be to stop at one number past the decimal rather than be more specific, and post subject categories on the shelves for quick directions.

Make an easily accessed, easily used library your goal. The traditional tried and true Dewey Decimal System serves that purpose.

Zero financing?
Do you really need a library budget? If your church values its library, it will provide funds to buy cataloging supplies as well as an influx of new books.

Beyond such basic funding, your library can benefit greatly from a wise approach to donations. With so many people buying books—and often discarding them after reading—a judicious openness to donations can swell your collection of newer books. A clear library policy that specifies what you will accept is essential, but make it equally clear that you do welcome donations—and be on the lookout for and even solicit them. Otherwise, good books that you’d love to have in your library may wind up being donated to the church rummage sale instead. You may occasionally be offered a personal library from a church member’s estate, which can be overwhelming. Subject those books to your usual acceptance standards, and pre-weed older material and that less likely to circulate. But be sure to express gratitude for the gems you keep.

Many churches invest in a computer and library software, which can be a great help to both librarian and reader. Look into covering that sizeable expense through Memorial funds, or perhaps a personal donation. So far as you can, make sure the computer is powerful enough to cover future needs.

And the verdict is . . .

After you prayerfully contemplate whether your church should undertake a ministry for readers, and examine its feasibility and begin to flesh out a vision, you will deliver the verdict.

As our tanking economy slows down book sales it also may cause readers to take a second look at the church library. This may be the perfect time to provide one.