Church Libraries: Mini-labs for Adaptive Change

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As culture continues to shift, many organizations and institutions are faced with huge adaptive changes. Take the public library, for instance. I have always loved going to my local library. I love being surrounded by books, having multiple magazines at my fingertips. And I used to enjoy the quiet respect given to readers and students alike. But here’s the thing—libraries have changed.

In today’s libraries, people talk out loud. And, to my horror, they often bring food and drink into my area close to the stacks, so I must endure chewing noises while I try to enjoy my reading. These days, if I want a quiet space I need to book a study room. And I don’t expect to find a tight lipped librarian maintaining order, because I have learned from my librarian friends this is not the attitude they want to project to their patrons.

To be honest, it is rare that I sit in the library anymore. I pre-order the books that I would like to borrow and wait for an e-mail message telling me that they are ready for check out. I am in and out in less than five minutes.

Like so many institutions, libraries have had to adapt to a changing world where people read less or purchase and download their own books because they don’t like the hassle of borrowing materials. Libraries, in their attempt to adapt to a new clientele, have now become gathering places for groups of people who want to collaborate and discuss what they are reading or studying—and to do so over a nice tray of sushi (which is now allowed in the library).

Church libraries are finding themselves in similar predicaments. Not only do these smaller libraries face the same challenges as their public counterparts, it has become more challenging to find volunteers to staff the church library. As books become increasingly expensive and church budgets tighter, it is more difficult to stock the shelves with new books that will have wide appeal. And in growing churches it can be difficult to justify dedicating precious square footage to a library.

I wonder if rethinking the church library might be a way to tackle a manageable adaptive change for congregations being faced with even larger adaptive challenges? I wonder if navigating a new reality in this space might be a good training opportunity to help your congregation test some of the leadership skills necessary for navigating more potentially polarizing changes facing the church?  

Here are four suggestions that might ensure your congregation has easy access to Christian resources while stretching your adaptive leadership skills.

Construct little libraries throughout the building.

Similar to the “little free libraries” popping up in residential neighborhoods, consider putting smaller libraries in spaces that are closer to the readers you are trying to attract. Place children’s books in the Sunday school wing. Locate books for seniors in a corner of your fellowship hall. Perhaps books on parenting could be near the nursery area. (Leadership Skill: Finding new supports and delivery systems for long-held communal values.)

  • Decide on a lending system. If few people use the present library, perhaps a more fluid system might do. Have a sheet of paper where borrowers can mark what they have taken in case someone else might interested in reading it in the future. Suggest a time limit, but don’t worry too much if some items stay out longer.
  • Better yet, go with the flow, especially if most of the books belong in the next category.

Cull books and videos that can be checked out from public or local school libraries.

Let’s be honest—this may be the bulk of most church libraries. But duplicating for the sake of Sunday morning convenience diminishes your library’s ministry potential. Be stewardly and strategic in your purchase and placement choices. (Leadership Skill: Creating holistic ministry systems that support each other and serve as pathways to each other.)

Curate your collection with ministry in mind.

Ask yourself how your library supports your congregation’s current ministry initiatives. For instance, if faith formation at home is a priority, use the collective wisdom of ministry leaders and parents to find out what resources would bless this effort. Multiple copies make sense if they are available for multiple teams to explore. Highlight their availability in a variety of venues. (Leadership Skill: Gathering new and relevant ministry resources to support new initiatives and new leadership in their work.)

Create a space for others to congregate.

The days of single-use space are quickly fading. Imagine a resource room where groups could gather and interact with a variety of resources on a given theme while sipping coffee and enjoying a snack. Having fewer books may create more space for people to learn together. (Leadership Skill: Finding a way to steward existing resources to enhance their impact in diverse ways.)

What are the adaptive changes facing your current ministry? If I can help connect you to resources that will support your congregation as it navigates those changes, please contact me at [email protected].

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Rather than using ministry budgets for library books, couldn't we accept donations from people who buy books to read, but not to store in their home libraries?  Someone from the church could decide whether or not they are appropriate to church theology and goals, but as people have varying interests relating to faith and community, there might be lots to choose from.

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I like the mini-lab idea, although our church library gets loads of traffic.  The benefit I could see in our situation is that our library space is not all that big and it can get congested in there.  Having stations around the building might be a way to reduce that a bit, as well as a way to introduce new people to the library.

Also....we are so blessed....we almost have more volunteers for working in the library than we can use!!!

I also like the mini-library idea.  I put a book cart in the narthex on Sunday mornings. On it I try to have new books or books dealing with the sermon topic.  I tried putting books on Christian parenting by the nursery, but all the young parents said they were too busy to read.  I would like to have my children's collection by the nursery/Sunday School area.  Seems like kids would see books there and want to take them home.