Help! I Run the Church Library

Even professional librarians may be unsure where to start if they are invited to organise lending libraries in their local churches. SARAH ETHERIDGE shares her experiences as a volunteer church librarian and suggests some practical tips

HELP! I RUN THE CHURCH LIBRARY

Church libraries play a vital role in helping their congregations to access the great Christian literature that is continuously being produced. Yet setting up or looking after a church library can feel a daunting task, and sometimes a tricky road to navigate. I’ve looked after two church libraries, the first of which I took on before I had any experience in library work. For me, one of the main challenges has been working in isolation: managing the library is often assigned to one volunteer, you don’t always have library experience or contact with library managers at other churches, and you can often feel that you’re having to re-invent a rather tricky and unexpectedly time-consuming wheel! For anyone currently in the throes of taking on church library management, I’ve therefore put together my top ten tips from the lessons I’ve learnt from things I’ve got right and (usually) wrong in the course of my church library experience. It would be great to hear back from other church library managers and Christian LIS professionals with your recommendations and advice!

Strategise with church leaders

For me, a key first step is to establish what the church leadership would like to see in the library, and whether they have any particular requirements for how they would like it to run.

It can also be useful to establish a position on potentially tricky issues before they arise, possibly even writing this down as a policy. An issue in point can be donations: occasionally donations offered may not fit well with the library’s collection, due to their condition, theological perspective, literature type etc. It can then be more straightforward and less personal to turn down items if you can refer back to a policy: for example, that items over a certain age aren’t accepted, or that items are accepted at the discretion of the library manager and vicar (as it’s often more appropriate for the vicar to explain why s/he is not happy for an item to be added if it is for theological reasons).

Look for the best books on a breadth of subjects, in the best condition

Church leaders can often recommend publishers and booksellers, as well as particular titles/authors. Signing up to the bookseller or publisher’s mailing list and looking out for book reviews from trusted sources helps to keep abreast of new releases.

While not every book in the library needs to be a recent release – there are of course lots of classics that readers will benefit from – making sure that the copies held are in good condition and ideally up-to-date editions can prevent the library looking out-dated and unappealing.

Support the church’s teaching plan

Look ahead at the church’s programme for the year, and seek books that will support it. If your church runs small groups or one-to-one Bible reading sessions, how about finding study guides on the upcoming topics? To help your congregation follow up the teaching themes, readable commentaries or books exploring the topic may help. If your library is also supporting church leaders who are preparing sermons, more detailed commentaries may assist.

Seek an annual budget and good deals

While donations from church members can be a great way of stocking the library, it’s often not sufficient for getting the latest, immediately relevant books into the library. Other costs such as protective coverings for books can also add up, so even a small budget from the church for books and materials can make a big difference in helping the library stay appealing, relevant, and lasting.

Help can be found: Speaking Volumes, for example, is a trust that gives grants to book- and DVD-lending community spaces, including church libraries, to purchase Christian material. They also run the Speaking Volumes Christian Book Awards – a great place to hear about the latest highlights in Christian literature. Speaking Volumes’ website is www.speakingvolumes.org.uk.

Christian exhibitions and conferences can be great places to find a bargain.

Protect the Books

Covering books with tacky-back or crystal jackets (often known as ‘lyfjackets’) keeps them looking fresh and lasting longer. Tacky-back is cheaper and suits non-standard sized items, but can’t be replaced if it wears, and can be a nightmare to apply! Crystal jackets offer more protection and a pleasant feel, and they can be replaced once worn, but the price adds up. Eden.co.uk can be a good place to source covers.

Stamping books can be a quick way to remind people that a book they find in their house came from the library! Web-sites like Vistaprint.co.uk allow you to order rubber stamps with your text (e.g. church name) added.

Organise shelves simply

You may want to use an established classification system, or to design one that works for your collection. Generally, thinking about the kinds of books that you aim to have in the library, and dividing these into easily-communicated categories (Biography, Christian Living, Commentaries, Doctrine, for example) can be a good place to start with this.

Once categories or a scheme are chosen, these can be marked on shelves and added to a spine label on the book, possibly in class-mark format. If using an in-house system, a class-mark can be created, for example, by adding the first few letters of the author or title after a book’s category name or abbreviated name: a book on doctrine by Stott might be class-marked as ‘Doctrine STO’ or ‘D STO’.

Catalogue the books

Printed lists by author and subject, card indexes and online catalogues can all be good ways to log what you have and to make it searchable.

For me, if your congregation members are used to using computers or smartphones at all, then having an on-line catalogue is invaluable in allowing the church family to get into the habit of checking the library whenever they hear of a book they’d like to read, or a topic they’d like to investigate.

On-line catalogues can be cheap, easy and efficient: sites such as www.librarything.com are free for up to two hundred books, and cost $10 per year or $25 for lifetime membership for up to 20,000 books. They offer a shortcut to a thorough catalogue – LibraryThing, for example, has an App allowing you to scan the books’ barcodes using a smartphone camera, and it will add them to your catalogue and pull in item details from a library or bookseller.

Keep track of where your books are – simply and discretely

Simple check in/out

The easier it is to check books in and out of the library, the more likely it is that people will do it. When I first took on a church library, I tried to simulate a mini public library system, without success.

While electronic library management systems can be found cheaply and can offer everything from a check in/out function to statistical reports, this only really works if the church will have a computer/tablet available by the library, ready to go at all times. It also often puts off all but the most computer-loving individuals. However, if this route would suit your church, options such as Readerware Books Database (www.readerware.com, costing $39.95) may be affordable.

No-frills paper-based systems can work well. My current strategy is to have Borrowing Slips (a simple form that people fill in with the book title and author, plus their name and e-mail/phone number) and Returning Slips, which people put in a Borrowing Box or Returning Box. I then have a ‘Recently returned’ desktop shelf for people to put returned books on, saving them time, helping to avoid mis-shelving, and creating an instant display of books to get other people’s interest. It is then still possible to add ‘on loan’ statuses/tags to an online catalogue if you want to give people an idea of whether a book will be on the shelf (though this is only as up-to-date as when you last input the slips).

Similarly, keeping loan periods simple (for example, one month) seems to work well.

Discrete check in/out

As Christian books sometimes address sensitive life issues, a confidential way of checking in/out books can help readers to feel uninhibited from borrowing whatever they need. Even a simple system like putting borrowing slips into a box that only the library manager can access can provide a reassuring offer of privacy.

Promote the books

A slot up-front in a service, book reviews in the newsletter, post-it notes of recommendations from church members can all help to encourage people to explore. Book displays and even just positioning selected books front-forward on a bookstand all add to the library’s capacity to engage.

Remember God’s got it in hand

Finally, and most importantly, as Christians we know the amazing reassurance that God is in control – every good work that we do was prepared by God for us and can only be done in His strength

(Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 4:13). So thankfully we don’t need to panic! It’s a privilege to play a part in God’s plans, and He’s far bigger than our shortcomings – whether our library is in perfect order or not, God will use it exactly how He wants.

Sarah Etheridge, BA (Hons), MA (LIS) works at Lambeth Palace Library as a Library Assistant / Acting Collections Librarian and is Volunteer Library Manager at All Saints Church, Crowborough. Sarah serves on the executive committee of Christians in Library and Information Services as Recruitment Secretary.

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