Public libraries are great money savers for readers, but what can you do if your reading interests are more specialized than those of the general public? Many community organizations, historical societies, and places of worship offer small libraries of special-interest materials for their members. If yours does not, consider starting one of your own. You already share interests with your fellow SCUBA divers or philatelists; why not share your books? Bed and breakfast owners might also consider offering their guests a small selection of reading material to enjoy during their stays.
Starting a library is not as expensive or time consuming as it sounds. Specialized library supplies can be replaced with common office supplies, and a small collection doesn’t require an elaborate cataloging system.
Begin by asking members of your organization to donate books and other media on your subject of interest. You may wind up with some items that are outdated or in poor condition, but you will most likely get some generous donations, as well. You can also ask for monetary donations to buy new materials; if you do, ask the group for recommendations on the best books and videos on the subject.
Once you have enough materials to start a library, decide how you want to organize them, how you want to let people know what’s available, and how to manage the circulation. You can also consider promoting the library by writing reviews of items available for checkout in the organization’s newsletter.
Organization can be as simple as placing the books in alphabetical order by author or as complex as using the Library of Congress cataloging system. When I put together the library for our church, I alphabetized the fiction books and used the Dewey Decimal system for the non-fiction so that people could find books on similar subjects next to each other. (I searched the public library’s catalog for the same or similar books to get the appropriate Dewey Decimal number.) Materials can also be grouped by subject on the shelves and alphabetized within the subject.
A library of more than a hundred items or so (more than can be easily browsed by sight) should have a catalog to let people know what the library owns. Sophisticated cataloging software is available, or if you have a volunteer with computer skills, an ordinary database can be customized for the library’s catalog. There’s always the low-tech route, too – for our church library, we use index cards for a card catalog and place the cards in a box.
Each database entry or catalog card should include at bare minimum the item’s title, author, and location on the shelf. I would also include publication date, publisher name, series, and subjects. The Library of Congress has a list of formal subject headings used by public and academic libraries, but you may choose to devise a set of subject headings that better suit your organization’s membership. (For example, the formal subject heading for books on theology of the end times uses the word “Eschatology,” but few members of our congregation have formal theological training, so our catalog cards say, “End times.”) I recommend keeping a list of subject headings you’ve used so that the terminology is consistent throughout the catalog.
People may search for a book by its title, author, subject, or series, so be sure any computerized database is searchable in these areas. If you are using index cards for the catalog, make a separate card for each and alphabetize them all together.
To manage the circulation (keep track of what’s checked out), you may either choose to set hours of operation and have volunteers staff the library, or you may design a self-checkout system that allows people to access the library at any time. If you choose the latter, it’s unlikely that you will be able to collect any fines, but you should still decide on and post guidelines for how long an item may be checked out so that no one has to wait too long for a popular book or DVD. If you choose a self-checkout system, you might also consider holding orientation sessions (especially when the library is new) to let people know what’s available and how to check it out.
Preparing materials to be added to the library can be done at a relatively low cost with items from an office supply store. To start our church library, I used address labels, envelopes, index cards, rubber cement, and contact paper. I printed out labels with the church’s name on it to place on the title page and labels with the book’s shelf location (Dewey Decimal number or first three letters of the author’s name) to place on the spine. On hardcover books, CDs, videos, and DVDs, I covered the spine label with contact paper; on paperbacks, I covered the entire spine and the vertical cover edges with contact paper (to reduce the wear that comes with multiple readings). I then took a small envelope, cut off the top half of the flap side of the envelope, and sealed the bottom half to create a card envelope, which I glued in the back of the book using rubber cement. I wrote the title of the book on an index card with columns for people to write their names, phone numbers, and due date beneath the title and placed the card in the envelope pocket. (Caution: If your library is open to the public, learn about any applicable privacy laws before using cards with personal information on them.) Library users could then take out this card and place it in a second (after the catalog) box to indicate that the book was checked out.
If you expect your library to grow beyond the original collection, you should also consider how you will handle donations and/or budget to buy new books, as well as how you will hold library users responsible if they do not return an item. (Will you expect them to pay to replace it with an identical item, ask them to donate a similar item, or just tell them to keep it and enjoy it?) Think, too, about what you will do if the library grows too big: will you weed out old books or find more storage space?
Each lending library has different needs, and each librarian or library committee (which may be just you) will have different ways of meeting those needs. Whatever decisions you make about how to operate your organization’s library, you will find that a little work and a small budget can create a valuable resource for everyone in your organization. As an added bonus, you (the librarian) will often get to be the first person to read any interesting books donated to the cause!