Religion and Libraries: Why Do It?

Religion is commonly grouped with politics as a topic libraries avoid programming with, bypass in reference interviews, and circumlocute in collection development.  Treating religion this way is a disservice to our teens as well as other library patrons.  Religion is intrinsic to our patrons’ lives; every individual — even those who do not opt in to religious observance — has a religious life.  Religion informs our news, culture, education, and community life.  No library is exempt from this; every library has religious patrons.  A Facebook graph search is a simple way to test this assertion.

This graph search shows patrons who have friended my library, and who publically list Christian as their religion.

This graph search shows patrons who have friended my rural Midwestern library, and who publicly list Christian as their religion.

This graph search shows patrons who liked the New York Public Library, who list their location as New York City (not one of the boroughs, but rather the city as a whole), and who publically list their religion.  For every religion selectable on Facebook graph search, the New York Public Library has patrons.

This graph search shows patrons who liked the New York Public Library, who list their location as New York City (not one of the boroughs, but rather the city as a whole), and who publicly list their religion. For every religion selectable on Facebook graph search, the New York Public Library has patrons.

With religion and other ideologies so intrinsic to everyone’s lives, libraries should treat their patrons as holistic people and seek to see the subject of religion as normalized, rather than a feared taboo.

A knee-jerk reaction to incorporating religion in libraries is to strike a strictly legalistic, mathematical stance: there shall be a list of approved terminology; only salaried MLIS holders shall take religious reference questions; collection development dollars will be spent exactly equally between all religions.   This legalistic, mathematical approach is a reaction to, and supposed defense against people making religious objections to library services.

Preparing for these reactions is responsible librarianship; catering to them with legalistic, mathematical library policies is a shame.  Go legalistic, and your patron interactions will quickly become one-dimensional, robotic.  Your patrons could have just gone to ChaCha or Bing for that.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not advising you to jump into every potential religious conversation, or to stray against the advice of your library’s legal counsel.  Not at all!  What I’m saying is that libraries are bound by the call of superior patron service to strike a balanced, mindful approach where religion and library services meet.

This idea was described well in a recent editorial from the Bedford (Indiana) Times-Mail:

“I acknowledged that she’s [the caller is] right. We rarely write anything negative — or positive — about Obama. In this era, lots and lots of people cover the White House. People can turn to a lot of sources — many biased, many not — for information about Benghazi, or the fiscal cliff, or the latest news of the hour from Washington, D.C.
 
In short, lots of other people are already doing that job. Our job is to focus on Lawrence County government, Bedford and Mitchell city activities, the local schools. In short, we try to focus on the news that happens here, news that has a direct impact on people here and news that you might not get from other media sources
 
“So,” she asked, “you’re not conservative or liberal?”
 
“No,” I said. “We’re local.”
 
…[E]verything in the newspaper is subject to “review and maybe removal.” As I wrote above, we have limited time to report and write, and we have a limited amount of space in the print newspaper.
For the record, we don’t plan to do away with “anything with a religious bent.” That material is (mostly) local, and, according to our readership surveys, much of it is read and appreciated.”

–From “Commentary: Conservative or liberal?” by Mike Lewis. Jan 9, 2013 Bedford Times-Mail. [paywall]

Religion matters to your teen patrons, passionately so for many.  Libraries should treat their patrons as whole, complete persons when they incorporate religion and library services.  Get the conversation started today, and tomorrow return for part two of this religion and libraries series, where I post some best practices for library programming and religion.

2 thoughts on “Religion and Libraries: Why Do It?

  1. As a librarian for at a special religious library, I really wish I could partner with public libraries more often (I love them!). A suggestion for those concerned about creating a balanced religious studies section: There may be religious libraries in your area who can help serve this purpose. If a patron is looking for religious information it would be helpful to have a list of those libraries available. Even at our diocesan library, we have books on the gamut of religions (although the vast majority are Catholic). It could be helpful to be able to point to institutional and congregational libraries that are open to the public nearby. Patrons may be grateful for the additional resources and we can always use the publicity!

  2. ^^^ This.
    This is the kind of opportunity I talk about public libraries investigating and adopting in part 2 of the Religion and Libraries super-mini series. @April, I hope you can reach out to your local public library and find collaborative opportunities! We know teens are asking big questions and getting philosophical during adolescence. Openness to the topic of religion is, I believe, important to serving teen development.

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