Creating our lending library, which we call our “Theological Library for Young People,” has been a result of focused, slow, and ongoing attention over many years. When I started at my current church, a cabinet had already been devoted to a collection of books, and the previous minister had created the initial foundations and organization with a parishioner. They had (thankfully) removed quite a few of the dated or theologically inappropriate materials. Still there have been huge changes in children’s book publishing and in the sensibilities of our households (especially around accessibility, representation, racial justice, and gendered language). At the outset, this library was intended to be a robust resource around which households could orient parts of at-home faith practices, parishioners (and staff/clergy!) could be confident that books were vetted thoroughly before a household decided to purchase one for their own library or as a gift, and I could feel comfortable with Sunday School teachers using options from our library for their class lessons. This is a long-game project, a piece of infrastructure and a resource that can outlive the ministerial and teacher transitions at a church and a gift that you can leave for your parish.
How To Create A Lending Library
Establish your Priorities, Values, and a Vision
- Name what matters. Decide how books are important for your programs. I wanted: books that could be used by teachers, sent home with students, rotated seasonally in a place where adults gather and might be looking for a book to check out or a gift for a visiting godchild or grandchild, and books around which we could form communities of discussion.
- Identify content areas that are important in order to meet your vision and priorities. We have the following broad categories into which books are sorted: Baptism, Eucharist, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, Lent/Holy Week, Easter/Pentecost, Saints, Old Testament, New Testament, Racial Justice, Christian Life, Music and Art.
- Focus on quality not quantity. If a book doesn’t fit into your goals and it isn’t useful for your programs, teachers, or households, then you do not need it.
Strategize and Plan
- Make purchasing a regular part of your budget. This is the slow part! It would have been impossible to build our library in one year, so we didn’t. We grew one book at a time. Every year, I set aside a portion of our programming budget for books.
- Create needed infrastructure and plan for growth. This can take quite a bit of time, but in order to be used, the library needs to be in front of people. We started with our main library. This is our mother library and where we keep the majority of our titles the majority of the time. Additionally, we have a movable library on wheels to move selections from the library into larger fellowship areas, a set of forward-facing rails in our children’s chapel for selections related to our monthly chapel theme, and baskets in each classroom.
- Use these books in your program. This is probably the easiest step for some of us. Make picture books a part of all of your programming by using them, referencing and talking about them, sharing stories and books in Sunday school and chapel, walking new members and visitors through your space and stopping at the library.
- Create a simple system. The simpler the better! Put white cardstock half-sheets in each book labelled with the title of the book and its copy number. Label the books. Emboss or stamp your church name and address along with the copy number inside each book. For example, for The Lord’s Prayer illustrated by Tim Ludwig I have four copies, each assigned and labelled a number and given a corresponding card. These work exactly like old library cards. Each household writes their name and email on the next available line and drops the card in a basket.
- Create sub-libraries for teachers and parents. Our Theological Library for Young People revolves around picture books, but they aren’t the only books that we keep in our library collection. We have a sub-library for teachers that includes children’s Bibles, atlases and maps, Christian art, and resources specific to teaching. We have another sub-library for parents and caretakers who may want household devotions or guides for particular seasons, books about parenting and faith, etc. These are available for checkout, too. Usually these are checked out in conversation with me. For these, I have several copies.
- Plan for losses and duds. It is inevitable that you will order a book that does not work because it is ill-fitting in terms of theology, suitability for age groups, or has problematic language or illustrations. Accept at the outset that these “duds” are part of the process. Sometimes these books are good for art projects, passing along to another church for which they are a better fit, or donating. Occasionally, a book will be an almost-fit. It can be used for a picture book workshop with parents or in classrooms with revised language (Yes! I will write in the book and put a note at the start for our Sunday School teachers). For these books, I do not purchase additional copies. You will also incur some losses from folks who do not return titles. In my experience, this is a small number of books.
- Plan for receiving donations. I am very clear when I receive donations that not every book is a good fit. I ask “If this book doesn’t work for us, would you like it to be returned to you or may I pass it on to a household, church, or organization for which it is a good fit?”
- Purge often. Aside from the books that will sneak into your collection from well-meaning parishioners clearing out books from their own homes, there will be books that you keep that are not ultimately useful or do not fit perfectly with your church’s needs long-term. I go through our library annually and look at every title. The book that was kept a few years ago because it was the only book about women in the Bible, can now be cleared out because that is something publishers have started paying significantly more attention to and now your library is much fuller and growing in that area. Maybe there is a set of books that a particular Sunday School teacher loved to use, but they have moved on and you and other teachers do not love them. Clear them out.
- Use your annual scan to incorporate under-appreciated titles in your programming. While some titles become a part of the annual purge others have renewed use. I use my annual scan to note titles that I should order more copies due to loss or because they have turned out to be popular with households or useful in our programming. I do this after Summer VBS programs and before I put pen to paper on other programming ideas for the year.
Image provided by the author.
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