A Librarian’s Perspective on Building a Faith Library
By Eddy Hopkins
Former Resource Center Director
Northern Colorado Faith Library
Faith literature humbly written: The basics of a faith library collection in three parts (defining faith literature, how to build your library, and how to weed it)
Part 1: What is faith literature? The first part might seem like the most impractical part of these study topics, and therefore out of place, but we find it nearly impossible to talk about some of the more mundane aspects of building and managing a faith library without first asking what faith literature is. That question is not a doctrinal question; we are not asking what beliefs faith literature ought to contain. Rather, we are saying that faith literature is a particular kind of literature, with distinct qualities, and these qualities help us navigate the vast and varied ocean of potential materials that might populate our collections.
I will be referring to books quite a lot, but most of what I am saying refers easily to other materials (DVDs, CDs, visual art, etc.).
One way of orienting our topic is to say that we are narrowing the pool of choices; we are shrinking the ocean to the size of a pond, or a pool, depending on what you are capable of housing.
We begin with what faith literature is. The first thing we can say is that faith literature is a distinct kind of literature, which should be of some comfort to faith librarians sorting through donations. The majority of donations we receive are not faith-oriented, even though they might be very good books, and that allows us to set them aside for our annual fund raising book sale. Have some non-faith-oriented books sneaked into our collection? Of course. But it is very helpful to be able to say, “We are not the public library. We only have limited space. Therefore, we really only focus on faith literature.”
But what is faith literature? The answer that comes into most minds is either theology, general spirituality, or what many call “Christian fiction” although I am not very satisfied with that phrase. What these books have in common is that they are about faith, in one way or another, and this makes your decision making process quite simple as a librarian. Is the book about faith topics? Then, of course, there are subsequent questions that we will address below (I.e., is it in line with our own community’s convictions?). But before we ask those questions, let us consider further the idea of faith literature.
American farmer and writer Wendell Berry, in Life is a Miracle, a book addressed to American scientist E.O. Wilson, suggests that faith is actually a way of knowing things that cannot otherwise be known. Science cannot disprove faith because science only deals with things we can see and handle, whereas faith deals with things that we can’t, but nevertheless we somehow know exist. Why do we yet know? Because events happen, like births, or catastrophes, that science fails to provide satisfying answers for, not because science is false, but because like all human work and human knowing, it is limited.
The realms of new life, death, despair, human life — not the fringes of human life, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, but the very core of it — is where faith is at home. Not that faith always provides satisfying answers to questions about evil or one’s calling, but it addresses them well enough to allow human beings to keep going, to continue being home. This sense of addressing is then at the heart of faith. Faith allows us to sit with pain and the ineffable. Faith keeps us from crudely reducing new life and grace.
I am suggesting that faith literature can be something other than talking about faith. I am saying that faith literature uses faith to communicate. Perhaps another way to say it is that the writing is humble, or that it has fidelity.
There is a great photo of two European-looking men standing in the ruins of a bombed out library, probably destroyed during one of the world wars. One wall of books remains intact, despite the light of the sun streaming in from outside. The two men are browsing the books on that wall. I think this scene is somehow right; that in a time of crisis, a library, and especially a faith library, is exactly the place to go to for direction. But direction is not always sought or found in answers. After hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans found guidance not in meteorology or engineering textbooks — though they may have found some answers there — but in music. Music was a durable way of addressing the catastrophe.
We are moving toward a definition of faith literature that suggests that not only a book’s content (what it is about), but also its form (how it communicates) must be shot through with fidelity or humility. We do not mean a kind of humility that lacks conviction or clarity, but rather one that pays attention to both the complex realities of the world and the limitations of human minds and human language. We can never say everything about everything; if we could we would be gods. Yet we can say something about most things if we have the faith to do so.
If what we have said is true, how does this help us build a collection of faith resources, and weed it? One implication is that a book that contains faith themes may not, ultimately, qualify as faith literature. We see this sometimes in the Christian fiction genre. There are Christian characters who do religious things (attend services, perhaps pray), but actually we find the characters rehearsing a very common plot structure found in, for instance, the romance novel genre. This doesn’t make the novel poor, but it does suggest that our categories are confused, and that we cannot always trust labels.
On the other hand, a novel that looks, by all accounts, to be “secular” may be pregnant with faith. Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing novel, The Road (2007), is perhaps one example. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where everything seems to have lost meaning. But the story is about the love a boy and his father have for one another. This love becomes their only meaning, and by its light the fragile family keeps going.
If we choose resources based exclusively on what they seem to say about faith, we are liable to miss books like The Road. The story does not seem to weigh in on any belief systems, nor is profound evil absent from its pages.
It is not coincidental that my two examples deal with novels. Fiction is the clearest way to show what I am suggesting because it has a way of putting beliefs “to the test.” Fiction shows us how belief (and unbelief) look in human practice. Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent book, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (2009), describes how Dostoevsky put his own beliefs to the test in his novels. For instance, from the novelist’s notebooks we know that he thought of Jesus as a kind of timeless figure, without a past, sliding in and out of history. Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot begins with just such a man, a man without a place or a people, who seems to appear out of nowhere. He is a Christ-figure. But the book does not end the way Jesus’ life ended. The novel’s protagonist, Myshkin, ends up not as a redemptive figure, but a violent one. Williams suggests that it was Myshkin’s placelessness, his detachment from history, that led to the violence. The novel forced Dostoevsky to reform his belief in Jesus Christ, not as an ethereal mystic, but as historically situated.
Whether or not we accept Dostoevsky’s conclusion, the crucial point here is that good fiction does not allow bad faith to stand unchecked. That’s because good fiction tests beliefs against the places where faith is at home (birth, death, joy, sorrow, silence) and sees whether those beliefs are found wanting.
One could argue that all fiction, and perhaps poetry, are faith oriented if we use my definition above. It is not my intention to argue that. I am simply suggesting that our categories of faith resources should not be determined by our catalog system, that possibilities for resources are far more exciting and varied than we may think, and that our responsibility to our community is more crucial than we may think.
Part 2: Acquiring the right books for your community The task remains to narrow the field, to shrink the ocean of faith resources. If anything, we have only widened it by defining faith literature the way we have. But at least now we are hopefully dealing with a better field.
How then do we begin to narrow the field? There are several places to start, and much depends on your own situation. Most librarians or resource center directors begin either from scratch, with a collection largely made up of donations, or primarily from a budget.
No matter what place you are starting from, you have three important questions to answer right away: (1) for whom are we providing resources; (2) how do we deal with donations; and (3) what are my community’s goals?
First question: who are the patrons; what is the community like? Your answer should not be simple. You might say Pentecostal, or Muslim, but that does not say enough. If you are talking about a Muslim community, you need to clarify which kind: Sufi? Shi’ite? Is it a refugee community? From where? Extending the example, Islam of course looks very different depending on whether it is Indonesian, Tunisian, Bosnian, Jordanian, or Iranian. We cannot be clear enough about the complexities of our community’s makeup.
It seems that nearly all faith libraries deal with donations regularly. Your second question is the role of donations in your collection. Donations fall into roughly two categories: (1) if the patrons are buying, reading and donating books within a relatively short period of time, then donations tend to reflect contemporary interests of the community; or (2) if patrons are using the library as a place to stash dusty books from decades past, then donations tend to reflect what the community used to care about, and in the worst case, now cares about least. Most donations have both these traits, and it is up to the library to prune the right way — to discern solid trajectories in the collection and cut away less helpful ones.
Not every library has a budget, but every library does need to have a sense of not only the community’s present interests, but also its goals. The wise librarian prunes donations toward these goals, and the fortunate librarian who has a budget has the opportunity to help direct, or guide, the community along their trajectory toward a well-defined end. Suddenly the library’s role becomes quite a bit more active than is typically defined. Not only does the library need to know its patrons and community, but it also needs to be clear on the mission of the community. What is our purpose? What do we want our children to grow up learning? What do we hope to accomplish together, and how can the library guide us?
The above questions need to be carefully answered and written down. The process should involve your community’s spiritual leaders as well as its members. At Fort Collins First United Methodist, we began with a simple survey, asking how a library can serve the church community, and we used the responses to help us define our first projects.
Part 3: Weeding your collection If I have been, perhaps frustratingly, impractical so far, it has been with the aim of making the practical simpler. A clear sense of the character and goals of your community, and a keen eye for quality faith literature goes a long way toward responsible acquisition and weeding. Still, below are some practical notes on good weeding.
If you are at all horticulturally inclined, it is useful to think of discarding books as weeding. The idea in weeding is to create space for things to flourish. In creating space in a library, we not only make room, but we also highlight our collections. Recently our library board’s chair said to me that she had been shelving books on newly weeded shelves and saw a number of titles that she wanted to read. She had perused those shelves before, but the weeding had clarified more interesting resources.
Public libraries often generate what they call a “dust report, ” a list of books that haven’t been checked out recently. Such a report may be helpful for faith libraries. However, we, perhaps of all librarians, must be careful with weeding what is not very popular. The seed of faith can be quite small. Like the ancient Judean date seed that sprouted after 2,000 years, faith literature may lie dormant for a long time before surprising us with its relevance. It was common in the Middle Ages to chain books to the shelves in order not only to keep patrons from stealing them, but also to remind subsequent generations of weeders of the literally eternal significance of the volumes.
That said, contemporary faith literature has gone the way of most general literature in that it is published for purchase, which often translates into a short life on the shelves. Faith resources that respond to current events are of course essential, but unfortunately they quickly lose appeal after the event. Periodicals are an excellent way to offer timely resources without having to spend a large chunk of money on books.
The physical quality of books is lower now, too. Frequently circulated materials show wear quickly, often necessitating replacement. This is where book repair comes in handy, but keep in mind that a new copy of a popular book may be worth the investment if it means the book will continue to circulate.
A common concern among faith librarians is the patron who asks why a book is here, or why we don’t get rid of one they don’t like. These conversations are not occasions for dread; they are opportunities to discuss the purpose of the library. If the patron has a point about the book, then we can thank him or her and take the book to the committee. If more than one patron has concerns about the book, the library may have simply misjudged the book’s place in light of the community’s goals. On the other hand, if the person is simply wrong about the book, then this is a good opportunity to explain, based on the community’s particular goals, why the book is or is not in the collection.