The aporias of the meethinghouse library

One of the rare privileges of being Sunday School President in a Mormon congregation – second only to holding the keys for sounding the bells to end class on the hour – is the occasional opportunity to fill in for the meetinghouse librarian. If you’ve never stood behind the counter in a ward library, you might not be aware that

  • Your average ward library is filled with all kinds of curious and apparently useless odds and ends; and
  • Sometimes people stop by to check out things you would have never expected.

Poking around our library not long ago, I found a new pair of size 12 men’s work boots, audiovisual equipment of unknown function, and pictures from prior generations of the Gospel Art kits where the young couple meant to illustrate eternal marriage is surely putting that doctrine to the test by now. Clearly, ward libraries are in need of some vigorous collection management so that they acquire the things people need and remove things that are taking up space.

What’s not often appreciated, however, are the doctrinal implications of ward library collection management. What do you do with things that are too old or worn out to keep using, but still burdened with sacrality? What do you do with an incomplete, dog-eared, broken-spined copy of holy scripture? Are you going to be the one to drop it in a trash can? Maybe it’s easier to just let the other ward’s librarian take that risk.

And what about that librarian from the other ward, anyway? Most meetinghouse libraries serve two or three different congregations. How do you know what the primary teachers in the other wards are actually using? If you toss that junky set of hand bells, will you scuttle the other ward’s primary Christmas program?

The obvious solution is for all the librarians to get together periodically and cull items from the collection. But with any one librarian holding veto power, and all of them being somewhat reluctant to throw things away, the chances of something useless actually being thrown away drop exponentially towards nil.

Not only that, but librarians meeting together is a tricky issue. There are few organizational structures in place for inter-ward cooperation not under stake direction (and if you involve every librarian in the stake, nothing would ever be thrown away at all). If a librarian is unwilling to cooperate informally, the decision about throwing away or keeping the 1948-edition hymnbooks would have to be kicked upstairs to the bishops, who all have better things to do. Until that happens, the library remains a site of doctrinal uncertainty and inter-hierarchical struggle, where church-related VHS cassettes and duplicate back issues of the Ensign will be unseen and unused but entirely safe from disposal for years or decades to come.

Until the Sunday School President fills in for a week or two, and decides to start poking through the cupboards…

17 comments for “The aporias of the meethinghouse library

  1. whizzbang
    June 28, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    In my ward that I grew up in the Librarian then and now is a hoarder, not the worst kind but still. The library had everything and a bag of chips in it. The stake Librarian some years ago went in and purged nearly everything. Sparks flew and the ward librarian went to the dumpster and retrieved a lot! Not sure what is left today.

  2. Ben
    June 28, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I found a copy of Mormonism and Masonery in my ward library. I also have the slides from my favourite primary age picture reel – Freddy Finds Bravery which was being dumped.

  3. June 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I was a student in library school when I was called to be the ward librarian. I decided they wanted me to weed, and weed I did. There was so much weird stuff in there–film strips from the 70s that I remember seeing as a small child, all kinds of junk.

  4. June 28, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Yeah, I will totally be the one to drop the mangy scriptures into the bin. :)

  5. Chris
    June 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    The best ward library I encountered was in the Hyde Park Ward near the University of Chicago. In addition to the standard material, there was lots of stuff you’d never see in any other library, including a book by D. Michael Quinn, the original edition of Mormon Doctrine, historical documents relating to the acquisition of the building property, a brief history of Mormons in Chicago, and an RLDS bible. Rumor had it that a former grad student took the Librian calling very seriously, and used it as an opportunity to build an interesting and relevant collection.

  6. MC
    June 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    “and pictures from prior generations of the Gospel Art kits where the young couple meant to illustrate eternal marriage is surely putting that doctrine to the test by now.”

    Well played.

  7. amy flowers
    June 29, 2013 at 1:10 am

    I have served as a meetinghouse librarian for years. There is indeed a regularly scheduled meeting for all librarians serving a meetinghouse to discuss policy, needs, and removals. It is called the library committee and is outlined in the handbook of instructions. The biggest roadblock to removing things from the library for us is the FM group. They have repeatedly asked us to store outdated and damaged items until “salt lake tells us to turn them in” Why would some unknown person in Salt Lake wants to collect thousands of old damaged books, pictures, film strips, and AV equipment? Now that the majority of lesson materials and aids are found on-line the nature of the ward library has changes to that of a supply, copy, and AV center. The ward librarian needs to be allowed to re-organize the library center to reflect its current purpose.

  8. namakemono
    June 29, 2013 at 3:37 am

    a couple of years ago, our Bishop(ric?) threw out everything in the library except for a set of scriptures in braille and the dvds. It has been replaced with a few computers for family history and that is all. I was really upset about it because it was done without any notification, and there were books in there that I would have liked to keep if I`d`ve known they were being dumped. The Bishop was very apologetic about it, but the books are gone…

  9. wonderdog
    June 29, 2013 at 5:41 am

    My mom was ward librarian. I would sit on the floor and read old copies of the Improvement Era. That is how I was first introduced to Dr. Nibley. It totally freaked out my seminary teachers when I would reference his writings.

  10. Kevin Barney
    June 29, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Every now and then a box will appear in the foyer filled with discarded detritus from the library that is now free for the taking. Mormons love free stuff so it seems as though someone eventually walks away with the materials.

    For those worn out scriptures, maybe what we need is a Mormon version of a genizah…

  11. Left Field
    June 29, 2013 at 7:31 am

    After Hurricane Katrina, church members donated scriptures (mostly the Book of Mormon) to replace what church members here had lost in the storm. New paperback scriptures can be had not much, so it wouldn’t have been a large expense to just donate a case of new Books of Mormon (or for that matter, we could just buy one ourselves if we needed it; this isn’t the Brass Plates of Laban, they still print the things). Instead, many people figured we were so desperate for the Word of God, that we could use the severely damaged scriptures they couldn’t bear to throw out. About a year after the storm, I was in the bishops’ storehouse and was asked to go through a box of several dozen books. I picked out about 5 or 6 that were worth keeping. The rest had broken bindings, missing covers, or multiple missing pages. They all went in the dumpster.

  12. Ben S.
    June 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    “Rumor had it that a former grad student took the Librian calling very seriously, and used it as an opportunity to build an interesting and relevant collection.”

    Although I didn’t bring in anything you listed, one of my first callings in that ward was librarian. The Bishop gave me the leftover budget for the year (several hundred dollars) and said “get us a good library.” So I made a broad list of good books (scripture, history, biography, temples, etc.) and bought them all used. I think we acquired a good number.

    When I was on my mission in Europe, church libraries were real finds; old books, English magazines back to the 1930s, lots of treasures.

  13. Former Counselor
    June 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    The Handbook of Instructions addresses managing a library in a multiple unit building:

    12.6.2 Leadership for a Meetinghouse Library in a Multiward Building

    In a multiward building, the wards usually share the same library. If this is the case, the agent bishop is responsible for the coordination of the library. He may appoint a committee to coordinate the use of the library and manage the budget funds allocated to it. The committee should include a member of the Sunday School presidency from each ward and the librarian from each ward.

    The website has policies for ordering new material, discarding old stuff, and otherwise running a useful library.

  14. Adam G.
    July 1, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Inter-ward cooperation, eh?

    Most of the wards in our stakes have small youth numbers, so periodically we get an attempt to combine packs or troops to make them more workeable. Even though its obviously a good idea, the reluctance to go along is palpable, the effort even when it succeeds is met with continued suspicion for being out or the ordinary, and at the first inconvenience or dispute the effort is dropped.

    Good luck wrangling your librarians.

  15. July 2, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    I have had similar thoughts…in fact I wrote about a solution I have to the materials center here:

    It should be the “materials closet”. We de-junked our materials center 6 months ago and put many disgraced scriptures in the trash. If that bites me in the end, so be it.

    It’s time to rethink the materials center!

  16. July 2, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    by the way…did you know there is an “LDS Meetinghouse Librarians” group on Facebook? They are very nice people (mostly ladies) and they are very serious about their calling.

    Look it up and join!

  17. July 3, 2013 at 10:41 am

    I would LOVE it if the Sunday School President in the local unit and in the Stake read the Handbook regarding their callings, and then DID THEM. The people called to the MC are sometimes left as orphans. No training, no one to ask questions to and get answers from. With the youth curriculum change that happened on January 1st 2013, librarians REALLY needed support in learning and then deciding how their MC will met the needs of the teachers with this new technology. Everything I learned has been from the church handbook and from Our wonderful FM stepped in to help make the decisions regarding technology, and he is there when I struggle to work the silly stuff.
    It would be wonderful if the librarians in the entire STAKE could have an yearly meeting, lead by the Stake SS President, for training, Q and A and followup. These meetings are needed as much as the Primary, RS, and YW, in order to introduce librarians to the handbook guidelines (if needed), and learn how to supply and run a MC, enabling it too meet the needs of it’s local members. It is the SS President’s responsibility to ensure the MC is ready to met the needs of the members, teachers, leaders and families.
    Lines of authority – as the Bishops follow the handbook (I have introduced every leader I know to the MC section of the handbook), work with the SS on the guidelines of the MC, the SS President can help educate, encourage and sustain the MC librarian in their calling, MC would function in a way to bless the members they are to serve.
    Bishops, PLEASE help us. Teach your SS President his responsibilities towards the MC. please don’t leave your librarians as orphans. remember the new technology that has become a part of our new way of learning and teaching. (technology: not all members have or can afford a laptop. The MC is to have the technology for teaching in the classroom)
    with your help, we CAN make a difference :)

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