VALib v56n4 -Special Libraries in the Baptist Church

The Virginia Library Association (VLA) and the Virginia Baptist Library Association (VBLA) have much in common. In addition to their interest in libraries and the people who work in them, both associations seek to support services (otherwise known as ministry in the church) and advance knowledge (literacy and learning in the public library; theology and Christianity in the church library) through the progressive assimilation of information and its disbursement to those who will use it. VLA and VBLA provide workshops and links to resources to help the person in charge of running the library make educated decisions. Finally, both associations know the value of networking among their members to assist with both patron and purchase problems. Thus, it is in the materials housed on the shelves in the individual libraries that we find the greatest differences between the two organizations.

One such example is the library at Hunting Creek Baptist Church in Big Island, Virginia. Walk into the well-lighted room and scan the shelves. It is immediately apparent that the nonfiction section is nowhere close to being synonymous with a typical public library and is visibly unbalanced. Carolyn B. Morehead, the church librarian, uses Dewey Decimal Classification: 200 Religion Class (Albany: Forest Press, 1997; ISBN-10 0910608601) on a regular basis to clear up any questions she might have when entering a new item in this genre. The abbreviated book is an excerpt from the twenty-first edition of the full Dewey Decimal Classification by Melvil Dewey and is a well-used tool in the religious sector because it is in the 200s that the majority of nonfiction literature for churches will be clustered.

Page through the 200
Religion Class
and find
terms like theodicy,
pseudepigrapha, and

Page through the 200 Religion Class and find terms like theodicy, knowability, pseudepigrapha, and ecclesiology. Before the introduction of affordable and user-friendly cataloging systems like ResourceMate®, the one Morehead purchased a couple of years ago, collection development in the religious library could be a study in sacrosanct terminology as well as a testament to the faithfulness of volunteers with a burning desire to see their congregation provided materials that help elucidate church language. Thankfully, the reduction in prices of new technology has made it possible for many such libraries to be able to click their way to cataloging by searching other sources from which to import much of the MARC record provided through computerization. Of course, the Library of Congress online catalog is always a standby resource for libraries not able to invest in automation, but only if the DDC 200 resource is at hand. Warnings about accepting at face value the records from catalogs not tied to the religious community proliferate in training sessions, and are by and large prefaced by a modification of the old adage, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.”

A picture new shevling units and of picture of a book shelf filled with books.

Left, new shelving units purchased at Target are in place for the juvenile and children’s books.
Right, Flat Creek Library reveals very little open space in the adult fiction and nonfiction sections, despite a recent weeding.

Most Baptist church libraries house a large number of biographies about missionaries. The common rule of thumb is to make sure they are Southern Baptist missionaries, but in recent years, a softening of the stance on denomination versus Christianity has produced a more expansive selection. Books published by the International Mission Board, the organization in charge of assigning and supporting missionaries, provide cataloging information that is trustworthy, eliminating a couple of recheck steps in the process. Naturally, Lifeway Publishing (an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention) and the Baptist mission organizations are more attractive because of this feature, but churches are self-governing in all areas, including the library. Regardless of the predilection for favored suppliers, the materials found in the biography section of public libraries are generally cataloged differently in the church, some by choice and some by design.

Taking into consideration the importance of missionaries in the Baptist church, the 200 Religion Class reprint gives very specific instructions about classification in Dewey 266. For instance, the cataloger is advised to use 266.023 for “foreign missions originating in specific continents, countries, localities,” but at that level, instructed to go to 266.009 for “foreign missions characterized only by place served.”1 (Is it any wonder librarians try to buy books about missions and missionaries published by a press they can trust to have the correct cataloging information on the title page?) Lifeway Publishing provides a series of training manuals, one of which is How to Classify and Catalog Media: Technical Processes Guide 2 by Jacqulyn Anderson, which furnishes more explicit instructions about biographies. Missionary stories, those designed to teach mission facts and written in mission settings, are to be classified 266.09. With biographies, however, the cataloger gets four choices: individual biographies, including family, and excepting Bible persons, missionaries, and Shakespeare; collective biographies (two or more people) in the 920s; Bible biographies, which are shelved in the 220s and subdivided by Old Testament, New Testament, or special persons (i.e., Jesus Christ, Mary, and Joseph); and missionary biographies in the missions section (266.092).2

The Dewey 220s (Bible) and 248s (Christian living) in the church library generally comprise the largest sections. The 220s contain various translations of the whole and studies of individual books of the Bible (and pseudo-Bibles); the 248s, materials about worship, witness-bearing, giving, and guides for various groups of people on how to live according to the principles established in the Bible. Apart from the Dewey number, the one thing librarians are most particular about is making sure the item being processed does not promote behavior discouraged by the church, or direct the reader away from the truth of what is being taught by the pastor and other leaders. Although libraries may contain books about various religions to educate members about beliefs and practices, it is generally an error of judgment to have conversion manuals to another faith on the shelf. Even the fiction section provides reason for concern: for instance, Amish books are very popular in the church libraries mentioned in this article, and yet some would argue that this religion does not fully support Baptist beliefs. Along the same lines, inspirational fiction and religious fiction are not synonymous, and it behooves the librarian to make sure the collection represents the views of the church.

A picture of two bookshelves filled with books.

Left, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, as well as picture books and nonfiction children’s books, have outgrown this shelving unit recovered from a renovation project.
Right, Hunting Creek Baptist Church Library has full shelves on all four walls with over 4,000 items available for checkout.

Materials for children are a little less restrictive. The librarian looks for items that encourage character development, good citizenship, and polite behavior, while at the same time reinforcing faith development according to the constitution of the church. When the church librarian also works in the public library, there is more opportunity to examine materials being considered, as well as to query readers about their selections. Library committee members often will help with the reading and are good resources to determine the appropriateness of the media in question. When all else fails, the pastor may be the best resource to determine if a book goes against what the church espouses.

As mentioned earlier, church libraries in Virginia — Baptist ones in particular — are autonomous; just like public libraries, each serves a different community. Some of the media centers are so small they could have easily been converted from a janitor’s closet, while others are larger than many of their counterparts in the public arena. Chester Baptist Church Library in Chester, Virginia, which uses the Concourse automation system, was planned and expanded during a building and renovation project, and services a preschool held in the church. The library workers prepare Sunday school packages with maps, supplementary books, and other resources for teachers of children’s classes. They actually have a workroom — with microwave and small refrigerator included — for processing media. On the other hand, the Flat Creek Library in Lynchburg is as old as the church (1952), has shelves designed to hold trade-paperback-sized outdated Study Course materials, and currently houses just over 2,000 items. Space is a big issue here as well as in the Hunting Creek Library (collection of 4,000+), even though it is double the physical size of Flat Creek; to add new materials in both of these locations, items have to be weeded on a regular basis. This job is often left up to the director, especially when the top position is the only one filled.

Staffing for the church library is generally on a volunteer basis. Seldom is a librarian paid; and even when there are other members to help out with processing, purchasing, and shelving, these assistants often follow the same volunteer conventions as in the public library — being answerable to their own schedules and preferences in work type and time. Hunting Creek Baptist Church’s librarian, Carolyn B. Morehead, services a congregation with an average attendance of 120–140 people. Her circulation in August was 139. She is constantly looking for ways to encourage the congregation to read and has, for many years, held a child-magnet summer reading program. This is one area where her staff shines; they come up with a theme, order supplies, decorate the library, and kick the event off with a Sunday morning open house complete with finger foods. The same women are willing supporters at the grand finale. Yet, despite a team of six, the majority of purchasing and cataloging at the Hunting Creek Library falls to Morehead. Her own time constraints make it difficult to stay ahead of the game. In particular, one group of older women reads so quickly that Morehead is hard-pressed to keep new fiction on the shelves, especially when she must weed to make room for the books. In a church library, that’s a good problem to have.

Flat Creek, on the other hand, has only one or two dedicated adult readers in a congregation with fewer than eighty members. The lack of interest in the library causes the librarian great angst, but she has hope — circulation can’t drop much farther, and it can always go up! The children are more interested than the adults, so a summer reading program is on the docket for 2011. Promotion sells the small library, and the goal at Flat Creek is to eventually put a link to a searchable catalog on the church website to make the collection accessible to other congregations. Of course, that would create an entirely different set of problems: what hours would the library be open to the public (so to speak), and who would volunteer to be there to serve potential users? There is indeed some flexibility in the church library — as long as a church member is available to unlock the door, writing the patron’s name and barcodes of materials checked out on a note for the librarian is perfectly acceptable. Currently, the library is open before and after church on Sunday morning, sometimes on Sunday night, and occasionally on Wednesday night. Unlike at the public library, budget cuts can’t be blamed for reduced hours; instead, conflicting priorities of volunteer staff members determine the schedule.

In many cases, however, the budget (or the lack thereof) does become an issue in the church library. Once this ministry is designated as a line item, planning an annual budget takes on greater significance; unless the librarian is able to pack business meetings with readers, it’s often hard to convince the participants that supplying the library with new materials is desirable and necessary. Lifeway Christian Stores offer a how-to resource, Church Library Ministry Information Service, which includes a section on administration to help the director prepare the budget; information on promotion gives suggestions to increase awareness of the library and draw users who will support requests for funds.

Some libraries are so small that they rely totally on donations, do minimal cataloging, and allow people to take out materials on the honor system. For the most part, donations are encouraged, but a collection development policy is necessary so that the librarian has the right of refusal (without alienating the giver). The Flat Creek selection policy begins with this statement: “In order for the Media Library Center to support the total program and mission of the church fellowship, all materials must be of the best quality and benefit for members and leaders. The church membership and the library staff have affirmed the following selection guidelines: 1. All materials are subject to approval by the library staff and church leadership as necessary.” The policy ends with the words, “All gifts, other than money, must meet the same standards and no provisional gifts will be accepted.” The conscientious librarian will have to know how to accept, and reject politely, gifts to the media center. Tight budgets may make the job look less critical, but bad books are still bad books even when the shelves don’t display many new titles. In some instances, people will purchase the next book in a series already owned by the library, read it, and then present it to the librarian for processing. This works well as long as the givers are not also the only readers in the church.

… the people who complain
seldom find anything on the
table appealing enough to
take home.

A simple library, be it public or private, may invite added input from its users solely because staff is more familiar and accessible. It’s a full-time job guarding the feelings of well-meaning advice-givers while providing good customer service, but even more difficult to make musty, dusty donations disappear without causing complete panic. The excellent idea of putting weeded books on a table labeled “Free! Take what you want” seems wise until a church member catches you in the hall and gives you an earful about getting rid of books donated by her grandmother or raises the age-worn argument of the “historical value” of the tomes being withdrawn. Interestingly enough, the people who complain seldom find anything on the table appealing enough to take home.

In many small churches, the library media center may be the storehouse for audio-visual equipment, and the librarian the most advanced technology guru in the church. Old documents, minutes to business meetings, church directories, pictures, and even quilts from anniversary celebrations are often stored alongside the books; historian, archivist, and preservationist simply become addenda to the title of library director. The benefits of church library work, however, far outweigh the seeming cacophony of responsibilities: there’s a satisfying joy in being able to put a book in the hands of a teacher or other church worker when class is beginning and a key piece of information is missing. And again, serving in the position of librarian is especially gratifying when someone who has never been a reader suddenly discovers an author who makes the written word come to life, especially when the new reader continues to check out books even when the series ends.

Finally, providing access to books for parents who may not have time to go to a public library, or whose job schedules don’t coincide with open hours, makes the process of selecting, purchasing, cataloging, shelving, and weeding a worthy way to work in the church. Certainly Jesus, a middle-class citizen at most, did not own a personal copy of the Old Testament, but used a library of sorts when attending synagogue, where he learned passages of scripture. Likewise, Christ’s followers should have the opportunity to do the same under the mission of an organization devoted to collecting, organizing, and disbursing information as presented in the official statement of the media center: “Our mission is to provide resources and services which advance learning about God, stimulate Christian growth, enrich worship experiences, and enable the ministry of the members and leaders of our church.”


1. Melvil Dewey, Dewey Decimal Classification: 200 Religion Class, reprinted from Dewey Decimal Classification, 21st ed., ed. Joan S. Mitchell, et al. (Albany: Forest Press, 1997), 72.

2. Stephen Gateley, Using the Dewey Decimal Classification System (Nashville: The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1994), 10. VL

B. Dawn Fisher, a recent MLIS graduate from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, functions in the role of manager for the Montvale Branch Library of the Bedford Public Library System in Virginia. She worked as assistant manager at the Forest Branch for one and a half years and as an associate at the Big Island Branch for more than eight years. Carolyn B. Morehead, manager of the Big Island Branch since it first opened as a station in 1982, assisted in providing information for the article. Fisher worked under Morehead’s mentorship at the Big Island Branch and was encouraged by her to become involved in the Flat Creek Church Library. Morehead has worked on the staff of the Hunting Creek Church Library since the mid-1970s and has been the director since 1993.