Are Meeting Libraries Encumbrances?

By Saeidpourbabak via Wikimedia.

When I learned of the testimonies of Friends some 25 years ago, I was especially intrigued with the testimony on simplicity. Simplicity received six sentences in New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. The second sentence reads:

When we open ourselves to God, we want to unclutter our lives, to free ourselves from dependence on our possessions and self-indulgences, or from encumbering details and self-appointed tasks and activities that consume and distract us [from God].

This testimony speaks to those of us who are painfully aware of the demands that possessions make on us, including things that occupy homes and meetinghouses. Things that are not organized become clutter.

Now an elderly Friend, I live with clutter and days of cleaning up the clutter. I tolerate less casually these days possessions that are neither in use nor of sentimental value. These things have become encumbrances. This was my viewpoint when I began to look critically at the library in my meeting in Rochester, New York, some years ago.

In my earlier life, I was a professional librarian for a few years. Some principles of library organization stayed with me as I moved on to other ways to earn a living. I am a regular public library user and am often reading three different books at one time. Back when I was new to Friends, I found some of the books I borrowed from the meeting’s library helpful in learning about Friends and their practices.

Periodically, Friends in our meeting remove items from the meetinghouse because they are neither in use nor expected to be used. Unclaimed jackets and personal objects are given away. Dishes and tools in the kitchen are also given away, discarded, or recycled. Bulletin boards are cleared of outdated notices, invitations, and thank-you notes.

The meeting’s library committee began its work in the new setting, perhaps with dreams of bringing order to the collection of books, only to become discouraged at the costs…

Books are another matter. The books on the shelves in our old meetinghouse 20 years ago were moved to shelves made especially for them in the new meetinghouse. Joining those books on the newly built shelves were a few cartons of particularly old books that had been stored in local archives until the Friend who worked in those archives left town. Their boxes remain unpacked, as Friends expect them to be displayed at an historic Quaker site in this region at some future date.

When the meeting moved to our new meetinghouse, the usefulness of computers was still being discovered by many of us after recent installations in our workplaces. Computers were not yet taken for granted in all settings, nor were there tablets or smartphones in wide use. Computers were used daily by some Friends, while others continued to live without them. Some Friends talked of the usefulness of a computer in the meetinghouse, possibly for maintaining library records. The meeting’s library committee began its work in the new setting, perhaps with dreams of bringing order to the collection of books, only to become discouraged at the costs of programs written for library purposes. As images of a modern computerized library dimmed, the energy of those Friends then on the library committee shifted to other activities and meeting concerns, and that committee became inactive. Meanwhile, Friends who attended yearly meeting sessions brought home stacks of new books to add to the shelves each summer.

I first felt led to the project of updating the meeting library ten years ago. At that time, I was active in two other meeting committees and consciously delayed thinking about the library. As other committee work drew to a close, I requested a clearness committee with whom to discuss my leading to sort through the library collection, weed out the books that held no interest for current Friends, and finally add to the collection those donations of books that had accumulated over a five year period. My clearness committee of three included an avid reader of history, a new Friend who is an historian, and a retired teacher who is a long-term member. The committee found me clear to proceed with the project. I expected to withdraw many of the books crowding the shelves and thought that a process in which my choices agreed with those of others would best support the meeting and myself. The history reader and the historian joined me on the new library committee, and we worked together until the task of weeding was almost finished and we had agreed on which donated books to add to the collection.

In the past four years, I removed from the library shelves over 20 cartons of books. Excluded from the cartons were those books that were falling apart or consisting of mimeographed pages: ephemeral publications that had outlived their usefulness that went directly to recycling. The remaining books on the library shelves were either Quaker classics or books that had been borrowed within the previous five years. My choices together with any titles I had questions about keeping would be reviewed with the two committee members in our periodic meetings. It was work I enjoyed doing.

One Friend, a retiree like myself, voiced her concern when she learned of my paring the collection of library books. Her hearing from me the criteria to select the titles that would remain on the shelf—copies of classics by well-known Quakers as well as the books that Friends had borrowed in recent years—seemed to relieve her. We agreed to offer the discarded books to Friends before moving them from the meetinghouse. We found that Friends took advantage of the three different opportunities to select discarded books for their own use. In fact, this probably halved the number of boxes we removed to public libraries that offer withdrawn and unneeded books for sale to the public, where I had confirmed that any books not sold are recycled.

I no longer assume that a library has a viable place in the world of a monthly meeting.

This past year, I’ve been joined on the library committee by a Friend who had just moved to Rochester and shared her participation on library committees in other Friends meetings. As we compared our experiences in various Friends settings and considered ways to simplify the library of Friends in this meeting, I have been revising my assumptions about libraries in meetinghouses.

First, I no longer assume that a library has a viable place in the world of a monthly meeting. Now I would further reduce the collection to classics by Friends, recent Quaker histories, and recent titles about the organization of Friends. The meeting would no longer have a library; it would have instead a small collection of books―perhaps about 30 different titles. There are three reasons for making this change.

The term “library” carries with it notions of quiet space for reading, controlled environment to preserve the condition of books, oversight by dedicated staff, and so on. In contrast, all a collection of books really requires is a space, perhaps a shelf or two, where they can be looked at and returned.

If a title disappears—i.e. is not returned to the shelf after an absence of months—we replace it with another copy through whatever committee is focusing on outreach, or pastoral care, or the life of the meeting. After the meeting decides which committee is to be allocated some funds to purchase replacements, there is no longer a need for a library committee. That said, it seems unlikely that such a collection would be maintained for very long, given the turnover of Friends on said committees unless one Friend is willing to attend to the collection and replace missing copies as needed, much as the custodian looks after supplies for his cleaning and refurbishing tasks.

Second, our most widely read periodical, Friends Journal, is still available in hard copy as well as on the web. Copies are read several months after their publication, so they are saved for a few years, while Friends become accustomed to looking at old issues online. Other Quaker periodicals will also be located near the books and replaced as new issues arrive at the meetinghouse. There is rarely a need for a yearly meeting yearbook more than a few years old, and these too are available online, so allow for the discard of older hard copies.

Third, the old librarian in me wants to provide myself and others with a list of additional titles of Quaker books that are available in our county library system and where specific titles can be borrowed. I would offer these to Friends in the meeting who are library users and also through the meeting website. A quick search of the library’s public catalog assures me that over 100 nonfiction titles are available through various branches.

In the twenty-first century, our information is coming to us in different ways than it did the first 350 years of Quaker history. Perhaps now it’s time to rethink our priorities, seeking what is timely, necessary, and useful.


Carol Kitchen

Carol Kitchen is retired from a career in social work in varied settings. She has professional degrees in library science and social work and a doctorate in religion and society.

2 thoughts on “Are Meeting Libraries Encumbrances?

  1. Dear Carol,

    My experience is different from yours. My mother was a librarian and I grew up in libraries in California and Indiana.
    Libraries inspire me. Each book is a gateway to a new world. Collections are expressions of a rich world view.

    To me, a meeting library is the treasure house in the meeting. Each book a window into the writer’s world but also into the people who acquired it and held it. A collection, a great treasury of worlds and itself a statement of values and lives well lived.

    I am a tax attorney by profession and have worked with 100s of families (maybe 1,000s by now) on their estate plans. It is a quality of many people’s lives that as they become senior citizens to give away their possessions. Feeling more the burden than the value in them. It can be a release for them.

    However, it is a huge loss to the younger folk (especially the grandchildren). Things that were trivial to the senior person can carry profound meaning to them. I have had 100s of conversations with the younger generation incredulous that their seniors disposed of the objects in their lives. To the younger, this can be a loss of heritage and identity.

    Over the years, government funded public libraries, consolidated small town libraries into larger city libraries. Rare jewels in these small collections were and are being lost. The advent of computers has intensified this process with the winnowing out of public collections.

    Quakers have always kept our own records of births, deaths, marriages and our own collections of books. When my grandmother got the geneaology bug, she was delighted to find that the family records for her Quaker ancestors were clear and preserved.

    I think the same should hold for our libraries. I suggest a rule be “keep everything unless it is widely available in paper printed form.”

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    A question remains whether keeping book collections injuries the principle of simplicity.

    I am 13th generation Quaker. To me, simplicity is an inner quality. It can be affected by outward things but they are only important as they affect inner experience.

    I recognize that simplicity is a struggle for many. One person’s necessity is another person’s extravagence. People who have eschewed worldly successes often depend for their well being on others. The balance between engaging positively with the world creating wealth (sorely needed) and the attachment to that wealth is a constant challenge. The best advice I have found is to “wear it as long as you can.”

    Best wishes,

    James Oberholtzer

  2. When I became the acquisitions librarian at the newly established Friends World College in 1967, the College president, Morris Mitchell, told he wanted as much of the collection as possible shelved on the walls of the main seminar and community meeting room. In preparing students for the adventure of world education, he wanted us to be surrounded by the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the inspiring examples of those who have faithfully served the cause of human betterment. He said he wanted the library to create a sense of witness and guidance. I knew exactly what he meant. I had come from a career in academic bookstore management, including set up and design. A well set up bookstore, stocked with serious literature, provides that same “cloud of witnesses” experience.

    I am saddened to read Carol Kitchen’s recommendation in Friends Journal that Meetings would be well served by pinching back their Libraries to a small shelf of reference books. Two things will be lost: the silent witness of the larger world, both Quaker and non-Quaker, that a thoughtfully curated and well-organized collection of books brings to a Meeting House; and the opportunity of discovery that is afforded to browsers of such a library.

    In 1967 we were told that libraries would soon be a thing of the past, that books would disappear, and a paperless world was just around the digital corner. Well, it hasn’t happened that way. The November 18th issue if the New York Times carries an opinion piece by David Sax titled “Our Love Affair with Digital is Over.” If Quaker Meetings follow Friend Carol Kitchen’s advice, my guess is that in the not too distance future another generation of young Friends will be asking “Why doesn’t our Meeting have a Library?”

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