06 July 2013

'Catholic and Bookish': Lumen Fidei, Libraries, and the New Evangelization

I'm still working my way through Pope Francis' new encyclical, Lumen Fidei. It's nice to pause between sections to really drink up the whole thing. I love when new encyclicals are released-nothing like some new fresh breath to revitalize us. And thanks to the wonders of the internet, we all flock to the virtual watering-holes to excitedly share what we're reading. As one friend of mine pointed out, it's like a virtual Harry Potter release party...only with encyclicals. We all wait giddy with anticipation, and then rush to read the whole thing immediately. Technology enables us to share the faith with greater speed and facility than ever before. It's a shame that Brandon Vogt's eagerness to share the new encyclical in e-reader formats was suspended so quickly...but I guess even the Good News is subject to quibbles over distribution rights these days. 

Then, today, I was delighted to see that some friends of mine have banded together to encourage people to request that a print copy of Lumen Fidei  be added to the collection at their local public library. I hope that many more people decide to do the same. I'm especially excited to see this happen because it strikes many chords with things I've previously written about evangelization and libraries. I think we all spend so much time tinkering around on the internet and caught up in discussion of 'the new evangelization' that we forget that books have a tremendously important role to play in spreading the faith-after all, "tolle lege" got St. Augustine's conversion going, and as St. Josemaria once said, "Reading has made many saints."

I think it's relevant here to revisit the words of Mr. Thomas Loome (of Loome Theological Booksellers fame) as he highlighted the great destruction of many Catholic library collections in the wake of Vatican Council II:
"The only other lesson that occurs to me is this: as believing Catholics we have a responsibility to preserve the patrimony of the Church, certainly in so far as it has been entrusted to us as librarians and as professionally interested parties. Much has been destroyed forever. Those who wreak the damage have mostly passed from the scene (although one would like to think that in the end they acknowledged their wrongdoings and perhaps clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes). And so only we, presiding over the wreckage, are left to tell the tale. 
"What is the lesson for us? To start afresh. Slowly to recreate, in some small measure, what is gone forever. We shall do this, however, only if we are both Catholic and bookish: commmited to the Church, passionately devoted to books, and, as a consequence, deeply rooted in the Church's literary and theological tradition. This is the indispensable condition for an even tolerable future for Catholic libraries. Absent this profound commitment to Catholicism and books, I frankly see virtually no hope at all for Catholic libraries."
(Read his whole essay here.)

Note his emphasis on our responsibility in this task. While there is an incredibly lucky bishop in charge of the Vatican's own library, there is no supreme Catholic librarian ensuring that Catholic books are distributed everywhere. The presence of Catholic books in libraries depends mostly on us. Many parishes and parochial schools (and in some cases, Catholic universities) do their best to ensure that they seed at least a small book collection. But it is the availability of Catholic books in our homes and public libraries that will really make the most difference.

In the spirit of getting more Catholic books into libraries, here are my suggestions, as a librarian myself:

  • Request that a book be ordered at your local public library. Doing this is easy, fast, and is a virtual guarantee that you'll see it on the shelves soon. Many libraries have an online comment form, but you can always send an email or talk to the librarian at the reference desk as well. 
  • Don't be afraid to make specific and numerous recommendations. Contrary to what many would like to believe, books don't magically appear on the shelves. Librarians have to buy the books. It's in their best interest to buy books that their patrons will use and like, because a used library is generally a loved library and ensures more public support for continued funding, etc. While librarians are very smart people, we don't know everything, and rely to various degrees on book review publications, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the NYT Best Seller list, etc. in order to gauge interest in certain titles and subject areas. But patron feedback is always primary! Religion/Spirtuality tend to have the most uneven coverage because many librarians don't have broad enough knowledge of publishing/current events in this area, and the tools used to identify good or popular titles for other mainstream books don't work as well (even a rudimentary knowledge of small religious publishing houses would be a great improvement in most places). Because there are many demands on a librarian's time, they will probably be glad to have one less book to deliberate over when compiling their orders. Gather specific pricing/ISBN info from Amazon.com or the publisher to give to the library. 
  • Check the catalog before ordering to see if the library already has the book, and to get a sense of the current collection coverage. The librarians will do this anyway before they order, but it will save them from having to change their order lists and find replacement titles. 
  • Donate used titles from your personal library. Make sure to check your library's donation policy first. Some branches don't accept donations or have very specific criteria. Usually the book has to be in usable condition, without significant damage. Checking the catalog beforehand will help you to determine if the library has a need for the book.
  • Let the library know that the books they ordered are used and appreciated. Check out the books you recommend, and encourage others to do the same. Share your appreciative comments with the librarians. Future ordering and weeding decisions are often based on how much certain books are checked out.
  • Build your home library. This is especially important for families with children. We all need to study and deepen our faith at home, but having a robust home library with good Catholic books makes it easier to share them with friends and family. It's also important for us to patronize Catholic bookstores and publishers, so they can keep printing!
  • Make a donation to a collection fund.  This applies mostly to academic or parish libraries, but if your public library is receptive too, go for it! If you find yourself with some significant extra change, make a donation to a collection or library endowment in your name-usually development staff are happy to work with you to ensure the money goes toward your area of interest. Before I graduated from college, I suggested that our class gift be a new library endowment, and that simple suggestion initially brought in over $50,000.

Now go forth, and fill your libraries!


  1. I just discovered your blog - what a thrill! As a devoted Catholic convert and an insatiable reader, what could be better than a blog by a Catholic librarian!
    Excellent post. I totally agree that, despite the wonderfulness of being able to access Catholic writings online, nothing tops BOOKS. And we all need to do everything we can to preserve, distribute, and encourage the reading of good Catholic books.
    I expect you're already acquainted with them, but I thought I'd mention the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), which has thousands of classic Christian writings available for free online. They aren't exclusively Catholic, but they do carry writings from authors dating back to the 2nd century. They have books by everyone from Saint Athanasius to G.K. Chesterton.

  2. Hi Jeri-Lynn-Glad you're here! I find converts are often the most insatiable readers of Catholic books :) As a book-lover, you'd probably enjoy Julie Davis' blog, Happy Catholic, if you have not stumbled across it already. She is all about books, and does a podcast too.

  3. I linked to this post in an article that Aleteia published yesterday. Here's the link in case you want to read it!