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KC Libraries Offer a Variety of Books on Spirituality

'We have everything from Scientology to the Bible'

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Above image credit: These books on religion, which fall in the 200s of the Dewey Decimal System, are on the shelves of the Kansas City Public Library’s central branch downtown. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

At the Country Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, not far from an area full of books for children, you’ll find a double display case labeled “Human Spirit.” 

It’s far from the only gathering of books on religion and spirituality at the Kansas City Public Library or other area public libraries, but it’s evidence of how and why such libraries offer patrons books and other material about the eternal questions that religions raise and try to answer.

The human spirit display is sponsored and paid for by an area interfaith organization called Cultural Crossroads, the president of which, Mary McCoy, says this: “The idea for the human spirit collection actually came from my husband, Greg McCoy, when we were discussing how Cultural Crossroads could support the library. We already had a longstanding partnership with several local library systems through our programs. After contacting libraries, the KC Public Library expressed interest and I worked closely with Joel Jones of the library (he oversees the department that buys books) and others to decide on the location and presentation of the collection.”

This double display case at the Country Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library holds books provided to the library by an interfaith group called Cultural Crossroads.
This double display case at the Country Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library holds books provided to the library by an interfaith group called Cultural Crossroads. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

“We were open to the idea,” says Jones, so the collection opened in 2014 and it continues to get regular use.

But in addition to books purchased by Cultural Crossroads, area public libraries spend tax dollars on copies of the Bible, the Quran and other sacred texts, along with books and other material that explore religious ideas. The educational value of those materials makes their cost both perfectly defensible and welcome.

In light of ongoing controversies about book banning and church-state separation, library officials say their decisions about books to acquire that fit in the religion and spirituality categories are made the same way they choose books in other categories.

Terri Clark, who oversees the Collection Management Services Department for the Mid-Continent Public Library, puts it this way: “Any and every title that comes across our desk, we would have to ask about the author’s credentials. Is the publisher reputable? How old is the information? These are questions that collectors ask themselves every day. The other question we would ask is whether there’s an audience for this book in our community.”

And when it comes to matters of faith, libraries generally avoid books that seem overly academic, such as volumes often found on the shelves of seminary libraries.

However, if a library patron really wants to borrow such a book, it often can be acquired through an interlibrary loan system.

For instance, Bailey Grim, collections services manager for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library, notes that “we have a great relationship with the Donnelly College Library, a Catholic college.”

Bailey Grim, collections services manager for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library.
Bailey Grim, collections services manager for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library, says that only about 6% of nonfiction books in the KCK system fall into the religion/spirituality category. (Contributed)

And similar in some ways to the human spirit collection at the Plaza Library, the main branch of the KCK Library has a special collection called the Kansas Room that Grim says includes photos and other material “about local religious institutions.”

Representatives of several area public library systems consistently say they do their best to avoid their personal interests and opinions when they pick resources for patrons.

“When thinking about purchasing materials that fall into the religion and spirituality section,” says Grim, “we approach it the same way as we would approach a lot of our material in the nonfiction section. Our top priority as a public library is we want high quality, we want our money’s worth and we want materials with a long life. We also want titles that are of high interest to our patrons and we want materials that are accurate.”

Clark adds this: “We do not make content decisions. We don’t assign value. We try to keep everything as objective as possible about any book we select. It is important for us to leave any personal values outside. We leave that up to our community of readers and users.”

These materials don’t make up anywhere close to a majority of what area public libraries acquire. Grim, for instance, says only about 6% of nonfiction books in the KCK system fall into the religion/spirituality category. Deborah Stoppello, who helps oversee acquisitions for the Kansas City Public Library, says costs for such books are just “a small segment of the budget.”

Although there’s certainly a demand for such materials, Clark notes that “this area is not as in demand as our cookbooks are.”

But as library employees seek to give patrons access to the foundational sacred texts of various religious traditions, they’ve noticed something odd.

“Books like the Bible, the Quran and other spiritual books or alternative ones like on palmistry, those tend to go missing quite a lot,” says Stoppello. So library systems must have extra copies to replace stolen or lost items.

“It’s essentially the cost of doing business,” she says.

Clark at the Mid-Continent Library also says that “we do replace our Bibles and Qurans fairly regularly,” but much of that is because the texts get too worn and because it’s “important to have books on our shelves that are clean and fresh.”

When public libraries buy books and other religious materials, they must think locally. As Stoppello explains: “I can’t buy everything. So I have to look at my community. If we were a predominantly Jewish community, we would probably see more books about Judaism. Same if we were mostly a Hindu or a Muslim community. Be we’re not. We’re predominantly a Christian community. So we ask, ‘What are people asking for and expecting to find on our shelves?’”

But she adds this: “We have everything from Scientology to the Bible.”

That range is a welcome indication of a good public library.

Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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