Why the Church Library Is Still Relevant

The right plan can deliver a helpful ministry in tough times

Not a Sunday morning passes that someone doesn't happen upon our church library for the first time, often by accident on the way to pick up a latte at the coffee shop. I like to watch for it—the look—an expression that says, "I've stumbled upon a treasure chest full of goodies." Bible study materials, family-friendly movies, the latest and greatest Christian fiction, and VeggieTales for the kids, all free and available for checkout any time the building is open.

While some pastors see libraries as "old school," choosing to discontinue them or to replace them with bookstores, church libraries can still be vital and relevant ministries.

In fact, the tough economic times of the past couple of years have made this more evident than ever.

The main purpose of a church library should be to support the mission of the local body. Rita Kirkland, a librarian at First Baptist Church in Euless, Texas, aptly describes it as "encircling the ministries in our church and supporting them with our resources and talents." A church library is a storehouse of materials that reinforces a church's message or aids people who want to dig deeper. Libraries have also become a place where individuals and families can find entertainment that uplifts spirits and enlightens minds instead of assaulting their values.

The library is not just a place, however. It is also a ministry that requires dedicated volunteers with a heart for people, not just a love of reading. People dealing with the difficult experiences of life, like the loss of a spouse or a wayward teen, often will read a book before they seek counsel. As librarians, we often hear their heartbreaking stories as they explain what kind of book they are looking for. On many occasions, we provide kind words and hugs before leading them to the appropriate shelf. The right book with a Biblical perspective may help people through a bumpy part of life's journey, and it might just help them see their need for pastoral care.

The recession further demonstrates the ministry aspect of a church library. Tight personal budgets don't allow families the discretionary funds to purchase all the books, CDs, and DVDs they used to buy. Church libraries can fill the void.

A young mom told me recently that her husband's business income took a huge dive last summer. They make weekly trips to the church library to pick up movies for the family to watch at home; it is their main source of entertainment. Monthly usage of our library has increased 47 percent since 2008. A growing congregation explains it in part, but I believe the downturn in the economy has contributed as well.

If your church doesn't already have a library ministry, should you start one? While a church library is certainly a valuable resource to a congregation, it is a ministry that requires long-term commitment and dedicated volunteers. You should consider whether you have the support, space, and manpower required to begin and maintain a church library.

Getting the Pastor's Blessing

A key to starting a library ministry and keeping one going is pastor support. Ceil Carey, a church librarian who plans workshops for the Evangelical Church Library Association, says it makes a difference if you have a pastor who is enthusiastic about the library ministry.

"The pastor can go to bat for you, for instance, at a budget decision-making meeting when you might be requesting more money for a specific project," Carey says. "The pastor can see the importance of it and really be an advocate for the library." While most pastors are avid readers themselves, that doesn't automatically make them library boosters. They need to understand who will be using the library and why, and so do the staff persons in the area of ministry where the library will fall (adult, education, outreach, and so on) A survey of your congregation can help determine the interest among your members and might help you identify people who could spearhead the project. Many churches form a library committee that includes a staff representative and interested members of the congregation. During the planning stages, the professional librarians in your congregation can be a great help in determining the feasibility of starting a library ministry and the space and funding one would require.

Making a Long-Term Investment

In addition to support from the pastor and staff, a library requires funding. A good selling point for your church budget manager is that a library is a resource that builds over time—your investment in books and other materials is never lost. In fact, that $25 spent on a C.S. Lewis classic goes a long way when you consider how many people will have the opportunity to read it over its shelf life. The amount of space you have available for a library will, in large part, determine how extensive a collection you will be able to hold and how much funding you will need, but you don't have to have every shelf filled to open your doors. Your library can grow year after year as your budget allows.

It will cost more to start a library than to keep one going. Once you have identified a space, you will have the start-up costs for shelving and furniture. You will need basic library supplies, such as book pockets, checkout cards, book covers, and so on, as well as resource books on the Dewey Decimal system to help you catalog your collection. You also need to decide if you want a computerized library system. Manual systems work just fine for many church libraries, but they require more manpower than those using library automation software. Ceil Carey said the most popular software programs that church libraries use are Concourse, ResourceMate, and Surpass, which can run anywhere from $300 to $1,200 or more, depending on the capabilities chosen.

Funding for materials like books, DVDs, and CDs is also a must. You will probably get lots of donations from the congregation when you announce that you are starting a library ministry, but you don't want to depend on donations for the bulk of your collection. People won't come to the library if it only offers out-of-date books; they will be looking for the latest Karen Kingsbury novel, the Max Lucado book everyone is talking about, a CD by the singer that just visited your church, or inspiring movies like The Blind Side as soon as they are released on DVD. You need funds to buy these kinds of materials, and these are the items that people don't often donate.

Giving It Space

If there is an issue church librarians complain about more than lean budgets it is the space available for the library. It comes down to two issues: (1) how much space you have and (2) where the space is physically located.

The space dedicated to a church library is never large enough. Not only do you need a room where the books are located, but you also need some dedicated space for a work area. This is where you house the books that are being evaluated, and your library supplies; it's also where you process books into the collection. You learn to live within the space allotted, and librarians become, by necessity, crack space planners, fully maximizing every available inch. When it reached capacity, the librarians at a large church in a nearby town put some of their collection on bookshelves lining the hallway outside the library proper.

When space is short, librarians decide what stays and what goes.

"There has to be a lot of weeding continually done in order to house the things you want to have," Carey says.

The materials weeded out of our library are donated to a local mission for the homeless, which has satellite libraries at nine sites around the city. If you establish a relationship with a Christian organization, prison, or even another church library in your area, your excess material will be a blessing to others.

As any real estate agent will tell you, when it comes to a property's value, the determining factor is location, location, location. Library use rises and falls depending on where the ministry is located in your building. Put it on the second floor and down a long hall, and it will be deserted on Sunday morning. Put it across from the coffee shop near the main gathering area (where ours is located) and business will boom between services. When the only space you have is in an out-of-the-way section of the church, you have to work harder to draw attention to the library's existence. The librarians at Carey's church load up a library cart with the most popular books, DVDs, and CDs, and take it to their foyer on Sunday morning. Members can check out items from the cart without having to go to the library itself, which is located on an upper floor.

Finding Good Help

It takes some time and specialized knowledge to serve in the role of church librarian, but you don't need a library degree to be a good librarian. What kind of volunteers should you look for?

"Generally it's somebody who loves to read, who is really passionate about reading and libraries," Carey says. "Of course, there are others who actually have a library degree or work in a library, but I'd say the majority of church librarians fell into it for one reason or another."

Volunteers also need the same kind of qualities you look for in volunteers in other ministry areas, such as a love of people and a sincere desire to help others. Beyond that, they should have logical minds and good organizational skills. Those in your congregation with library experience should be tapped to provide their expertise, even if it is on a short-term, project-by-project basis. For example, a school librarian in our congregation installed our library automation software when we computerized our collection and trained me and my co-leader—a freelance writer and a truck driver, respectively—on how to use it.

One caveat: Because it takes specialized training to do some (but not all) of the work in a church library, you want volunteers who view this as a long-term commitment. I have been a library volunteer for 10 years, and my co-leader has been one even longer. When people indicate an interest in volunteering with us, we don't train them to do every job right away. We begin with the simpler tasks, like shelving books, which helps them understand how the library materials are organized. We have found that volunteers weed themselves out within a month or two; the library is either their thing or it is not. For those who take to it, they will let you know when they are ready to go on to the next level of training and will likely serve in the ministry for a long time.

The number of volunteers you need depends on how you plan to operate your library. Will it be open only on Sunday mornings or at other scheduled times during the week? Our library is open any time the building is open on a self-checkout basis. Church members, as well as anyone from the community who uses our building (parents with kids in the basketball league, ladies attending the aerobics classes, and so on), may check out materials. Because of the self-checkout system, three volunteers run the whole ministry. A similar-sized library at a church not far from ours uses a traditional checkout system. Because it is only open when a librarian is onsite, they need a team of 20 volunteers.

At our library, we don't keep a tight a rein on our materials by design. You might be surprised to know that we only lose 50 items per year on average out of a collection of 9,500. That's less than 1 percent—a small price in light of the goodwill our library's open-use policy engenders. Regarding overdue items, we like to say we practice "grace, not fines."

Getting Started

Before you start a library ministry, have your committee or library volunteers visit church libraries in your area and take back the information to your pastor and staff. If you decide it is feasible to open a library in your building, take advantage of the many resources available.

The Evangelical Church Library Association, the National Church Library Association, and the Church & Synagogue Library Association are all support organizations that offer workshops, conferences, and publications that are helpful to new librarians. The ECLA offers a program that matches up new librarians with more experienced ones so they can begin a mentoring relationship via e-mail.

Ning is a social networking site that functions like Facebook but is for people who share a specific interest or passion. A group of church librarians has set up a page, www.churchlibrarians.ning.com, where you can ask questions or share information with church librarians across the country. Unlike Facebook, you can view others' posts on Ning without registering yourself. If you want to become a part of the group, you can register and create your own profile page.

Blackburn is co-leader of the library ministry at Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

October

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