In a field in Missouri outside a public library, a few teenagers stood with homemade rockets they’d made alongside a librarian in a white lab coat leading a countdown. It was a warm fall day, with the smell of prairie grass baking in the sunshine. Tyler Clark, a recent physics graduate volunteering for the library’s first rocket launch, was working a bike pump to generate compressed air to shoot the rockets. Clark and Shawnna Thompson, the librarian, had built a launch tube out of PVC pipes and bike valves donated from a local bike shop.

“Everyone run in opposite directions if I yell, ‘Scatter,’” Clark joked.

This Saturday at Nixa Public Library, the teens had learned how to build and launch rockets using just cardboard tubes and compressed air. With paper and tape they made fins and a nose. Clark explained how to make their rockets aerodynamic and fly high. As they set up a launch outside in the field, other kids and library patrons stopped in the parking lot to watch.

Shawnna Thompson and Tyler Clark lead a rocket launch at Nixa Public Library.
Image: Photo courtesy of Emily Belz

Shawnna Thompson and Tyler Clark lead a rocket launch at Nixa Public Library.

“Can I get a countdown?” Thompson said, holding the pipe at launch angle.

“Three hundred seventy-six … seven … one … go,” one of the teenagers said.

With a whoosh, one of the teen’s rockets shot up about 80 feet into the sky, farther than expected. She had designed the nose with more weight as Clark had taught them. The teens launched the rockets over and over, trying to go higher and farther, then went running and slipping and falling in excitement across the field to retrieve their rockets for another launch.

Clark applauded the beginning of the Christian County Space Program and had all the kids sign the PVC launcher for its inauguration. As they packed up, one teenager turned to the librarian and said, “Today was a good day.”

Generally overlooked in the library battles raging around controversial books—and in some cases, defunding—is the reality of what many librarians spend most of their time doing: stewarding public spaces for needy communities. Librarians who are also Christians often feel caught in the crossfire when conflicts arise over content in books and when their work is challenged primarily by conservative Christians. A 2020 study showed that librarians were already experiencing low morale over conflicts with patrons and an ever-growing job description, including things like responding to drug overdoses.

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“Christians can be Christian and not a bunch of hotheads,” said Lowell Walters regarding today’s library conflicts and controversies. Walters, a Christian, directs a county library in Arkansas, not far from a nearby library that is embroiled in a defunding controversy. “Just have faith and confidence in God to live your life,” he said. “This isn’t the time to withdraw into your church. … You need to be out there. Do things kindly and do things right.”

Most of the recent book conflicts have occurred in public schools. A Florida public school moved 115 challenged books to a restricted section, and the state of Arizona banned books with descriptions of sexual conduct from public schools.

But some public libraries are facing defunding over the same issues. Voters cut the funding for Craighead County Library in Arkansas by 50 percent after residents became upset about a gay pride display at the library. Voters defunded Patmos Library in western Michigan in August over graphic novels with sexual content. One campaign sign there read, “50% INCREASE to GROOM our kids? Vote NO on Library!”

In some ways, these controversies mirror sex education debates. Some titles are indeed controversial for youth. For example, Gender Queer, one of the most regularly challenged titles, is a graphic novel targeted to teens that depicts oral sex and masturbation. And on the other side of the debate, sometimes more activist-minded library defenders will claim, “Book ban!” when a parent questions any title in a collection, often rallying a national outcry.

Academics have noticed in the past 20 years that the public’s understanding of libraries has shifted from that of a “public good” to that of entities providing services to customers, like McDonald’s. If the customers are happy, the libraries get money. In conservative counties, customers are mad about sexual content in books, and in liberal counties, customers want more liberal activism.

As in society at large, the political tensions seem unsolvable. But if Christian librarians can work for pluralism in the public library—finding ways to serve their communities and coworkers no matter their faith background—can we work for it elsewhere? Faithful public librarians can show how to live in a community with passionate and serious disagreements by listening to criticism, trying to find solutions, and making their libraries welcoming to as many different people in their communities as they can.

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Back in Nixa, Missouri, while the teenagers were launching rockets outside, Renee Brumett, a Christian and the executive director of the Christian County Library System, was working in her office.

She is like the mayor of a small town, tending to book challenges but also to tree trimmings and roof leaks at buildings across the county. Recently, she had to figure out what to do with some controversial speed bumps. One new library branch installed speed bumps in the parking lot to deter cars from slicing through the lot as a shortcut. But the bumps were too severe, designed to slow cars to 1 to 2 mph, and patrons complained. One day a library patron using a motorized wheelchair got stuck on a bump. Brumett and her staff figured out a $900 fix to lower the height of one hump and narrow another by 36 inches.

The library aims to reach and welcome locals in a variety of ways. About 10 percent of the county population lives far enough from library branches that, in more rural spots, it set up book pickups and drop-offs at a gas station and a burger shop. The library gives away seed packets in the spring. Paula Bishop, a longtime Christian County resident, got zucchini seeds, planted them, and ate their fruit this summer.

Christian County is rural but growing and changing rapidly. In 1970, Nixa had 1,600 residents; now, it has about 24,000. That growth has brought anxiety from some residents that the politically conservative and literally Christian county is changing.

The county is a bedroom community of Springfield, which is home to several Christian colleges (Baptist Bible College, Drury University, and Evangel University) as well as the headquarters for the Assemblies of God. Walk into a coffee shop on a weekday morning and men are meeting for a Bible study. Go to a high school football game and teenagers are wearing Christian pregnancy center shirts.

Brumett shares their faith, but she can feel caught in the middle between library critics and library defenders.

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In Nixa, the school board last year voted to remove two books from the public school’s library and restrict 10 others over sexually explicit content. One parent at a meeting called for the school librarian to resign and for staff allowing “pornographic” books to go on a sex offender registry.

Bishop, a Christian County Library board member, told CT she has had a library card in the county for 55 years; she doesn’t remember libraries getting caught up in political debates before. If the community can work its way through these controversies, she hopes, “Maybe people will see the value of the library. … It’s easy to deny something you don’t use.”

That’s how these Christian librarians are approaching controversies too: hoping that the way they do their work builds trust with coworkers and the community. One day, the Sparta branch of the county library was short-staffed, so Brumett went to work the desk for a few hours. A 92-year-old man came in asking for help to renew his radio license, which had to be done online. Brumett sat with him for half an hour filling out the form. The license was good for 14 years, and the man wondered if he should have gone to all the trouble.

“These are the things we do to help people continue to feel valuable and active throughout their life, even when they feel left behind,” Brumett said.

Inside the tiny Nixa branch, one wall features a row of empty coat hooks with a sign above them that says, “Invisibility Cloaks, Take One.” People can check out Wi-Fi hotspots—helpful in a rural area. Another branch, Ozark Public Library, is across from Finley River and lends out fishing poles.

In glass-walled study rooms that surround the main stacks at Nixa, tutors meet with students and a rug-hooking group convenes to make rugs together. One Bible study uses the rooms to meet regularly. Some parents drop off their sick kids at the library on their way to work (which the librarians don’t endorse, but they try to make the best of it). “My biggest concern is restraints on the library being able to be the library,” Brumett said.

Public librarians for the most part are hesitant to speak publicly, especially about their faith. Ben Brick, who works at the Omaha Public Library, said Christian librarians tend to keep their faith quiet because they work for a government institution. “Add to that, a fair mix of us tend to be quiet in general,” he said. Brick often is surprised to learn another staffer he has worked with is a Christian.

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Christian public librarians know of few resources for living their faith in their vocation, especially as it becomes more challenging. Brick leads a public librarians’ interest group within the Association of Christian Librarians, but it is relatively inactive, he said.

Ricardo Cárdenas, a librarian who also serves as a pastor around the corner from his library in Colorado, feels like he has to do translating in both directions: to non-Christians who have stereotypes about Christians and to Christians who have reservations about libraries.

At Anythink, the independent library district outside of Denver where he works, almost all of the staff are Spanish-speaking, reflecting the surrounding community. The staff see poverty and other community problems. Librarians now train to de-escalate mental health crises and recognize signs of domestic abuse. Cárdenas recalled librarians responding to drug overdoses in the library. But they try to focus on hospitality and have hosted concerts where they serve empanadas and horchata.

He wants Christians to recover the view of libraries as a public good, seeing through the Kuyperian theological tradition that God’s grace is, as he puts it, in “the joints and cracks of all of life.” In his library, groups of adults with disabilities were spending their days in the building, so the staff decided to start running programming for them, including story time and mini concerts.

“You can’t look at those things and not say, ‘That’s good,’” Cárdenas told CT. “If it’s good, it must come from God at some level.”

As a librarian, Cárdenas naturally started looking for more reading on all of this. He’s read one of the few academic books on the topic, Christian Librarianship: Essays on the Integration of Faith and Profession, edited by Gregory Smith at Liberty University. Smith has written numerous articles about faith and librarianship and found only six Christian institutions in the US that offer master’s degrees in library science; four of the six are Catholic.

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Cárdenas also read Craig Bartholomew’s Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, Richard Mouw’s All That God Cares About, and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.

“If you trust what the Scriptures say, which is that anything good comes from above, then we should praise God and find hope,” Cárdenas said. “And there’s lots of places to find hope in this world, including our public libraries, including in public schools.”

Librarians in his district have been trained in how to handle people who are angry about books. One man came up to Cárdenas furious about a book that was critical of former president Donald Trump. Cárdenas told him that the library had other books that were supportive of Trump, but the man left in a huff.

Brick sees this too in library work now, explaining that just interacting with people—whether patrons or fellow staff—results in more conflicts than it did before the pandemic. “As a country, we’ve come through a traumatic time,” he said. “People are showing signs of that trauma.”

Lowell Walters, the Arkansas library director, runs the Mississippi County Library System, which has six branches. The area is centered around the steel industry and experiences a low literacy rate and rural poverty.

Some children come to the library hungry, often with parents not very involved in their lives. They might not have internet access at home, or they may be taking care of their younger siblings.

Walters keeps a chinchilla named Romeo in the library to help engage children and said he would have more “critters” if he had the staff to take care of them. Children “in their generational conversation thing” would never talk to staff, but he said they’ll talk to librarians when they’re taking care of Romeo.

Walters also builds model railroads as a hobby, so the library is going to have children build one in a branch as a STEM project, teaching them electronics and art.

The librarians see the darker side of life too; Walters had to ban a man who they discovered was propositioning young girls on library computers and in person at the library.

On book controversies, Walters says the community regularly requests bodice rippers: “Society wants the trash. That’s an evangelism problem, not a public library problem.” He added that libraries are free spaces for collections to have LGBT and Christian material too: “The more Christians want to censor things, the more then that can come back and censor Christianity. That’s the nature of censorship.”

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The first book challenge Brumett, the Missouri librarian, received as director of a county library system was about an Amish romance novel. A patron complained that it was too steamy to be shelved in the regular fiction section. Brumett read the book and agreed (in addition to thinking it was terrible). She moved it to the shelves with the other romance fiction.

Brumett’s philosophy on controversial titles is to make sure patrons know what they’re getting; whether it’s a bodice ripper or other content, she doesn’t want people to be surprised. When the library did a Pride book display, Brumett got one angry phone call and talked it through with the person, explaining that the collection is trying to represent everyone in the community. That’s what she wants: one-on-one conversations, not shouting on social media. She tries to find a way to say yes to something when conflicts arise.

“It’s easy to feel that there’s this big cloud looming overhead,” Brumett said about controversies that might come her way. But she tells herself: “Think through what can go wrong but also what can go right. ... People just want to be heard.”

Brumett loves driving between her library branches in the fall. The weekend of the rocket launches, the trees were in full color and the sun was setting at the Ozark Public Library, which was hosting an outdoor concert featuring a local singer. The librarians put out cider, and kids ran around throwing paper airplanes while the music played. Some solo elderly people arrived carrying lawn chairs. One girl got a cut and asked the librarian for Band-Aids. After the sun set and the music ended, people stuck around to talk.

Emily Belz is CT’s news writer.

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