Religion and Libraries: Programming

There are three basic ways to incorporate religion into teen programming: collaborate with religious organizations, outreach programming at a religious event or location, and programming with a religious theme.’ ‘  By the end of this post, you should feel empowered to take these best practices into your own programming, and to your coworkers.

Just like the civic groups libraries frequently collaborate with (Kiwanis, United Way, schools, etc.), religious organizations have what libraries desire most in our programming: people.’  When you collaborate with a religious organization, you’ve automatically got an audience, who you can now market to more effectively, and, if you’ve planned your program well, participation in the collaborative effort will be natural.’  By opening the library to collaborations with religious institutions, you also gain access to additional funding—either monetary in nature or in volunteer hours.’  Collaborations with religious organizations help the library expand services to a greater number of its patrons than it could have done on its own.

Some concerns are immediately apparent here: What if the funding has strings attached?’  What if the religious organization requires restricting program admission?’  The answer is to hold religious organizations to the same fair standards as civic groups.’  A grant from Duke Energy or a program cosponsored by Kiwanis can come with advertising and spending restrictions.’  With open communication, we establish the terms for our collaboration.’  Similarly, in terms of restricting admission, we’re already doing that at the most popular library programs!’  For example, some libraries hold adult book clubs in bars.’  But wait!’  That restricts attendance to those over 21, who aren’t Muslim, alcoholic, or teetotalers.’  Every library collaboration sets terms; do so with open communication.

Outreach programming at religious locations and events is a second programming option between libraries and religious organizations.’  By outreach programming at religious locations I don’t mean that you need to embed yourself in a religious community, running storytime at Sunday school, or leading a book club at Sukkot.’  But it does mean that you look for opportunities where a religious organization’s mission and the library’s mission overlap, so that you can deliver library services in the community.’  Why not lead a knitting program at a religious ladies’ group?’  Or you could lead your TAB in teaching a youth group peer mediation skills.’  Why not set up a table with Summer Reading Program activities at the church softball league?

Just as before, there are cautions to observe with outreach programming at religious locations and events.’  And, just as before, the proof is in the pudding: if you would take this outreach program to a civic group, it is generally appropriate for you to take it to a religious location.’  I say “generally” because the library loses a measure of control when taking programming to an outreach program.’  Open communication between all parties is key to prevention, but what do you do if the youth group wants to tie your collaboration to a Proposition 8 rally?’  What if the ladies group wishes to pray during the program?’  Talk to representatives from the location or event beforehand so that there are no surprises.’  Prepare yourself and your volunteers for the cultural sensitivities and habits of the location you will be visiting.’  You must actively choose what concessions you are willing to make as an individual and as a representative of the library.’  For example, if you visit a mosque, wearing your shoes inside would be inappropriate.’  You may find this a reasonable concession.’  However, if your program at the mosque will be in mixed-gender company, and therefore any female library staff should wear clothing that covers the body but for face and hands, a librarian could decide that this goes beyond her comfort zone in terms of safety, personal freedom, or library mission.’  At this point you can choose my final piece of advice for library programming and religion: be prepared to shelve the program.’  No outreach program is worth compromising safety, sacrificing an employee’s religious freedom, or contradicting the library’s openness.’  If the desires or needs of the religious location or event can’t be accommodated within the library’s desires or wants, then it’s time to shelve the program for another date, location, or leadership.

Another programming option that incorporates religious life and libraries is programming with a religious theme.’  I think we all know that this is an area in which to tread lightly.’  Incorporating religion with regular library programming can be difficult to do.’  Our libraries share a dedication to openness to all people, and we must take care to make everybody feel welcome, included.’  Penn Jillette, a noted atheist, speaks well to this aim of openness here:


As a guideline, incorporating historical information about religion is entirely appropriate—so go ahead, talk about religious freedom in a Thanksgiving program, or read a story about Our Lady of Guadalupe at El Dia de Los Ninos, or invite an imam to speak at a program commemorating 9/11—but before including a religious element, consider how important the element truly is to the program, and consider the element from the perspective of both someone inside that religious tradition, and somebody outside of it.’  This ensures that the library remains respectful of the religious element while still remaining open to others outside of that particular religious tradition.

While it’s all fine and good for us to work within the guidelines outlined here, what about something more official than a blog post you can actually take to your supervisor or board, or use to train other library staff members?’  I suggest looking to OCLC Webjunction for guidance on evaluating a potential programming partner, and for how to get the conversation started with those potential partners.’  Check out their “Community Partnership and Collaboration Guide” and the tl;dr version: Attributes of Successful Partnerships.

For my final piece of advice on incorporating religion and library programming, I want to relate to you an example of many libraries’ worst case scenario: an influential patron fiercely and publicly objects.’  I experienced this first hand whenever I posted to a listserv asking libraries for their experience collaborating with religious organizations.’  A library director in Nebraska objected so virulently to my question, that she violated the listserv’s privacy policy and posted my question and full contact information to an online atheist forum:

More of your civil rights being eroded. A librarian in Indiana is seeking information about collaborating with churches to help with the library.

You want a church determining what you read and what is carried by your public library? How about public officials (librarians) actively seeking this information.

Culled from the Rural Librarian Association:

I am collecting stories of partnerships between libraries and religious organizations. ‘ If your library has collaborated with a religious organization—whether successful or not—please message me off list with details. ‘ I am interested in inspiring library staff to think creatively about outreach and collaborative opportunities.”

Please notice that my question was organization-neutral (referencing no specific religion) and specific (referring to programming only, not collection development, staffing, or library policies).’  It is the poster who wrongly interpreted my question as having a Christian, civil-rights-limiting intent.’  The poster imposed his fears and his religious interpretation on my neutral question.’  No matter how carefully your library acts, the potential for gross misinterpretation and malignment exists, for while the poster’s interpretation is incorrect, his worries are real to him.

Now the good news: for all the attention the post garnered, only one person responded.’  Reading that response, you’ll see that even there the poster talks himself around to agreeing that there is potentially a right way for libraries to include religious organizations.’  Furthermore, no response was ever sent to me, the library, or the professional organization on whose listserv I posted the question.

If you pursue the incorporation of religion and library programming, your library should be prepared to address the concerns of teen patrons who are atheist and agnostic.’  Their concerns are valid and emotionally charged.’  If you have carefully considered your collaboration with the religious organization, then you will be able to answer the patrons’ concerns with calm reason: you have treated the religious organization the same as you would have any other civic group, including never compromising control of the library’s mission, collection, information, or policies.

Religion is a passionate topic, central to American life, and worthwhile to carefully incorporate into library services.’  With our country’s backbone of religious tolerance and most libraries’ sensible, caring policies and actions, patrons’ religious lives can and should be a part of library services.

About Jacqui Taylor

Jacqui Taylor is the head of Youth Services at a small Ohio library. She participated in the 2011 YALSA Mentoring Program, and served on YALSA's Baker and Taylor Award Jury and Indiana's Children and Youth Professional Development Division.
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