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Starting a Parish Lending Library

By John W. Truslow, Jr.

This article is written in the hope that you, with God's help, will pray for and build a parish/mission lending library for the good of your own community and for your own edification as well. Enough details will be set forth so that you can actually get started with the information given to you. Consider these central propositions:

First: Parish lending libraries are one significant part of the life-long, generation-after-generation discipleship ministry of the Orthodox Church with the great objective of deification — by God's grace with our cooperation — for every person.

Second: Lending libraries are easy and fun to create and to operate continually in a parish or mission, but only if three key rules are continually observed in practice: Keep it Small, Simple, and Spiritual (KISSS for ease of memory).

Third: If the parish priest and his parish council are in conscious agreement with the above and if one or two parishioners are initially willing to act in accord with that willingness, then a lending library can start within three months.

Nine years ago in the adult education classes in the parish where I am a member, someone said, "You know we could all learn more about the Faith if we had good Orthodox materials readily available to us here. We ought to have a parish library." About two dozen people said, "Amen! What a great idea!" It was four years after that comment before we could actually start a library largely because: (1) we had trouble articulating the reasons for a library to others; (2) we had no shared concept of what operational principals should guide us toward the right kind of library for an Orthodox parish; and, (3) quite reasonably, given (1) and (2), the priest and council regularly saw other needs as having priority over a library.

Once we agreed on the basic concepts set forth in this article, we were in operation loaning good Orthodox materials to the faithful within three months. And now, over five years later, we are still loaning 400 items a year on average in a parish with 187 households. We have reached our design goal of 500 Orthodox items and continue to focus upon constantly encouraging our fellow parishioners to use these materials. Almost any willing parish/mission can have a parish lending library in operation within a calendar quarter. I've seen this actually happen successfully in a mission not far from our parish.

Two things about the word library need saying here. First parish/mission lending libraries simply must not be seen as being comparable or in competition with either of the following:

(a) seminary libraries with all their many obligations and objectives including research and scholarly publication; or,

(b) public libraries with their incredible apparent mandate to be all things to all interest groups in the general body politic.

Second, the word library (from the Latin word for book) today communicates not so much the format (which narrowly could mean just "books") but rather the idea of assistance in access to Orthodox information which may be 80% books and 20% "other" formats such as Orthodox music CDs, CD-ROMs, audio cassette tapes, video tapes, internet providers, etc.

What then is a lending library appropriate to the needs of an Orthodox Christian parish or mission? Let's reconsider proposition number one.

We — like the twelve Disciples — are "in training" as we fellow Christ in His Church. Our ultimate objective is "deification" or the restoration, by God's grace, of the image and likeness of God in us. Orthodoxy holds as true the idea that we are to cooperate our whole lives with God in achieving this objective. There are many proper ways to be doing this, of which a lending library is just one — but it is one! Christ read and we imitate Him.

Next we should consider what guidelines will best describe the functioning of a library which will best serve this general discipleship objective. To do this we may review our second proposition.

This KISSS device is a way to keep the parish lending library on the right track "forever" as it faces many unpredictable situations.

Small means you need not have much space and often no available "extra room with 4 walls." Small means that you can start and maintain a really good library with 150-200 paperback Orthodox books in an attractive lockable cabinet sitting on a sturdy dolly with castors (both available at your office supply store). When the floor must be waxed or space needed desperately for a parish festival, no problem. The library is simply rolled off into a corner until the excitement dies down. To expand just buy a second cabinet.

If you are a mission in rented space having to set up each Sunday, you too could have a lending library. Aim for 50 paperbacks in a small foot locker carried in for the fellowship hour after Divine Liturgy on Sunday. The point is that every parish/mission needs a Library; do not let fantasies of what a library "should be" keep you from doing what you can do given your present facilities.

But, right from the beginning, you need self-imposed size limits for your library. You must control collection growth because you library can easily get out of hand over time and become too big for the other competing, legitimate needs for space. A mission renting space for Sundays with 25 households and a "movable footlocker library" should hold the size down to 50-75 items. The mission with 50 households and its own space for a "rolling cabinet" should hold the collection to about 150-200 items. The small-to-medium parish with 100-200 households may have 5 cabinets and 500-750 items. Even large parishes should have clear limits. Think small for success!

No effective parish lending library is ever merely a warehouse for books. You want a library with a relatively small collection that is really being used (10-15% should be out on loan at all times.) Weekly ads in the Sunday bulletin, posters promoting reading, and personal persuasion of members of the congregation will help keep circulation high. A huge collection with 1% in circulation is a net waste of resources. And, if you get too big, you can become intimidating.

Another reason for a small lending library is so it can be deliberately placed "in the way" of the parishioners. The best place is often near the coffee pots where the people gather for fellowship. A small library (relative to your parish size) with good Orthodox books actually being lent and read is the ideal!

Simplicity is possible for you, whereas it would be an absolute disaster for the larger, multi-disciplinary library. You have no need for a complex book classification system when your library is essentially about one discipline called "Orthodoxy." You can have virtually all your books in alphabetical order on the shelves by the first important word (skipping aan, and the) in the spine title. However, books for youth and children are often better held in their own section and organized by shelves for the different ages/grades.

Circulation of materials means that what goes out must come back in. While not attended the library must be locked up or otherwise secured or else you will soon not have a library at all. The books will all be in the homes of well-meaning people who certainly intended to bring them back, but who just forgot. A simple three-part (white, yellow, pink) pressure sensitive form can be printed at your local office supply store to serve as a loan card. Everyone who borrows a book is helped to fill out the form with his name, day and evening phone numbers, the title and author of the item, the volume number, copy number, and acquisition cost (data which can be conveniently noted on the title page of each book), what month it is being borrow and the next following month (which is the month of return). The idea is to give busy people a full month or more to get the book read.

The three-part forms are used this way: the top (white) copy and the yellow (second) copies are filed (stuck together) in a loan card box behind a tab for the month the book is due, e.g. "September" (a book loaned out anytime in August is due back anytime in September). The pink (third) copy is placed inside the book at the time of borrowing to remind the borrower what month it is due back to the library. The pink copy is left in the book by the borrower when it is returned to the "Book Return Box" in the library. A big "X" may be drawn through the white copy which is placed behind a "returned books" tab in the "Loan Card File Box" as a permanent record of circulation for that calendar year. Only then is the book re-shelved.

But what if the book doesn't come back by the end of September? The yellow copy is pulled off the white copy, given to and used by the library's "repo man" helper to get the book back by calling to remind the borrower to return the book once every week until the book is returned. Lost or destroyed books must be replaced or paid for by the borrower. Persistence is crucial to library survival.

Spiritual. Not just any "spirituality" will do since we are limited ourselves to Orthodox parish lending libraries. Anything "outside" of the Holy Orthodox Faith has to be kept "outside" the lending library. Keeping heretical materials out is surprisingly difficult over time. That is why every single book given to the library or suggested for library purchase must be pre-approved by the priest. The delay that this will entail is well worth the benefit of keeping the library Orthodox and not "something else."

Also, non-spiritual items unrelated to Holy Orthodoxy must be kept out of the Orthodox parish lending library lest the library turn into a sad attempt with totally insufficient resources to duplicate the local public library collection. A parish lending library can really do only one thing well: provide good, solid, spiritual Orthodox materials to Orthodox people who seek deification with God's help. If the parish library can do that one thing it will have done well.

One of the best initial sources of materials for starting parish libraries is simply to let every household in the parish know that a library is being started and ask for the contribution of Orthodox books (with the usual condition of the automatic review by the priest). The truth is that a well-run library allows us to share our books with each other so they don't gather dust on our shelves at home after one reading. If we ever want to read "our: book again, the library will loan it to us. Good stewardship includes having 24 people read one book instead of just the purchaser. Sharing books just makes good sense.

Besides request for gifts of "used books" from parishioners, the other way to acquire books and materials is by purchase. Thankfully, there are several Orthodox publishers in English now. Initially you just need to know that Saint Vladimir's Seminary bookstore has two excellent services: (1) SVS will sell your parish an "instant library" (called "packages") of 50 to 150 Orthodox paperback books in English at a reasonable price; and (2) SVS has the Press Club, a subscription to which will result in your library receiving a few newly-published Orthodox books every couple of months. Also, Conciliar Press has a display rack and starter set especially for visitors and inquirers of topical booklets and brochures. The library is the perfect parish support center for low-key, personal Orthodox evangelism to visitors and inquirers.

The third and last proposition is: If the parish priest and his parish council are in conscious agreement with the above and if one or two parishioners are initially willing to act in accord with that willingness then a lending library can start within three months.

The parish lending library must be perceived as being "owned" by the whole parish and a normal part of the parish discipleship program. The priest and the council need to agree that a lending library is desirable for the parish. Assuming agreement on a need for a library, the parish council should authorize a special account ("the Library Fund") to receive and expand both annually budgeting and specially offered money under the supervision of the parish treasurer.

About half of the annual cost should be funded in the budget and the other half by individual designated offerings. This will automatically place the library and its finances under whatever audit programs exist and enhance the credibility of the library. The bottom line cost of starting is currently $10 or $12 a paperback on average or about $500 for the "footlocker library" and from $1000 to $2000 for the "rolling cabinet(s) library."

If there is a parish bookstore, the library may elect to buy books at cost from t and thereby enjoy the 20% trade discount from publishers. Again, for any cooperation to occur, the priest and the council must encourage it by seeing both bookstore and library as being compatible ways of encouraging discipleship throughout the parish.

The first continuing priestly role in supporting the library is in his prior approval of library materials. The other continuing priestly role is in helping to identify those with talents from God to work on the library team. Two Library Coordinators may head up the overall effort. One coordinator may work on development of the collection (finance, acquisition, culling, physical plant) and the other on circulation (including library marketing, repossessing of overdue items, shelving and recruiting helpers).

To avoid burnout, helpers who open up the Library after worship should serve in rotation only once every two months (e.g. "Bill serves second Sundays of Even Months"). Helpers on duty should be identifiable by a pinned-on blue ribbon with "LIBRARY" printed on it (available from the office supply store). Remind helpers of duty dates, train them and say "thanks" regularly.

Why not start your parish lending library this calendar quarter? Questions? Please write St Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church, ATTN: Lending Library, 2045 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta, Georgia 30307.

John W. Truslow, Jr. is Coordinator of the Library Ministry Team at St Elias.

This article was reprinted with permission from Word Magazine dated December 2001.