How to Start a Lending Library for Your Organization

lending library

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 You may wind up with some items that are outdated or in poor condition, but you will most likely get some generous donations, as well.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!

(Photo courtesy of Mace Ojala)

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23 Responses to How to Start a Lending Library for Your Organization

  1. Norma Walker says:

    Good suggestions. I am church librarian with a good library.
    Also many libraries are part of interlibraian loan and can borrow from all over US.

  2. Ben says:

    Great tips, thank you. I especially enjoyed the budget circulation system! It might be worth checking out the They make it really easy to create an online catalog (free up to 200 books, cheap beyond that) and it’s an easy way to get the Dewey Numbers as well.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been using for the non-profit where I volunteer. It works really well. It can be as elaborate or simple as you want. And they have good support when you have a question.

    Strong suggestion: decide on your subject headings and arrangement before you begin adding information to the online catalog – it saves lots of time going back and changing things later.

    Deciding on all those policy things in advance and making sure everyone knows them is important too: who will be allowed to borrow? how many books at one time? how long can the books be borrowed for? do you collect fines for overdues or lost books? honor system or volunteer supervisor? It really helps to have thought out all these things in advance.

  4. rose says:

    this is clear and concise. thank you so much. I have been asked to set up a library in the unit where I work and I now feel that it is within my capabilities.

  5. khanyi says:

    I’ve been asked to start a library in my office and had no clue on where to start until i saw this site. It sure gave me a few ideas that I want to try. Thanks a lot.

  6. Gina says:

    Am a preschool teacher and also a literacy advocate in the center where I work. Am interesting on having a lending book library for the children. I would like to find out where to get the supplies for starting the lending library. I have the books ready as well as the book shelves but the system in which to keep tag on the books have not been figured out yet. Am not sure if I should use pockets and stick them on the back of each books or what. I would love a step by step plan on setting up a successful library gear towards preschool families.

  7. Melissa says:

    We’re opening a library soon, but can’t decide on library cards. Should we just use laminated cardstock? Any suggestions?

  8. Brenda says:

    I work for a non profit agency and we would like to start a library. This would mainly consist of publications and materials that have been collected throught the years. We have many questions regarding what is to be “saved” and how this would be managed. We have also talked about putting things in some sort of electronic form to preserve our original publications and documents. Any ideas woudl be very helpful

  9. Pingback: How To Set Up A Community "Lending Library" | The Greenest Dollar

  10. Arlene says:

    My boss has a collection of HR-related books. Quite a few people in the office get interested in his books and have asked to borrow some of them. We decided we’d start a small office library, albeit with only a collection of HR reading material. Reading these tips will surely help me get started. Thank you!

  11. Christian says:

    Is there a good way to do this online? Say for an organization that has members in all areas of the US?

  12. Amal says:

    I am bit concerned about the investement part …. What do you think would be the initial investment?

  13. Manty says:

    Thank you – I got lot of useful tips 🙂

  14. Maya says:

    I need to make an office library for my company. But mainly we have publications, and pamphlets, and other odd (non-book) shaped materials. How should I organize these and keep these? Thanks for any ideas.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Have you thought about just using a file cabinet for the pamphlets and smaller publications? For regular publications, like journals or magazines, it might work to use magazine file boxes.

    I’d suggest having a card catalog – or an Excel document if your people are more technologically inclined – with the names of the files. It’s easier to add extra cards/entries for extra subjects. So for instance if a publication has several different articles, you could have a card/entry for each, all referring to where the publication is kept – the name of the file or the magazine. Or if that kind of thing is important to you, the author of the article.

    Is this the kind of suggestion you’re looking for?

  16. Maya says:

    Thanks Elizabeth, those are really good ideas. I really had no idea how to start. Thanks!

  17. Elizabeth says:

    You’re welcome, Maya. Are you going to try the file cabinet system with an Excel catalog?

    You might want to ask potential users of the library what kind of information they need to look things up by – for instance, subject, author, place. etc. – all this would vary according to what your company does or needs to keep track of. One reason libraries list so many things about a book is that users remember things differently – one person may remember that a book was by a certain author, and another person might remember that it was about travel in Costa Rica.

    If you have any questions, I’d be glad to try to help.

  18. Maya says:

    oh yes, that’s a really good idea. My boss handed me a box of publications and the like, and told me he always wanted a little library area – for everyone’s use in the office. The file cabinet seems to be the best way to organize things, and the excel sheet for sure. I just have to run these ideas by him. When I actually start putting it together, I’ll probably have more questions.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    okay – any time!

  20. Carmen Slijpen says:

    Does anyone know if there are any specific rules re a DVD library? When I have bought the DVDs can I then freely lend them to members of our club?

  21. Ann H says:

    Perfect first hit. Thanks!

  22. David brent says:

    Thank you for all the valuable information and tips.

    I wish to start a chain of lending libraries and like to base it on a simple and repeatable module.

    But in order to prepare a prototype I really would like to know what or where I can find a rough estimate of start-up costs, if the books were to be obtained from publishers and the library space had to be set up from scratch.

    thank you.

  23. Matthias Young says:

    These information will go a very long in helping our organization to start the frist community libaray in our community.

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