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A Study of Church Libraries in Australia


Ellen Bosman, M.L.S.

Introduction and Historical Background

The connection between the church, clergy, and libraries has been present throughout history, as Thomas Kelly (1966:13) notes in Early Public Libraries. Therefore, we look to the Church for the first libraries. Church libraries are among the earliest types of public libraries, having roots in medieval monastic libraries, where books were chained in churches for ecclesiastical use.

Clergyman Thomas Bray is considered the father of the modern church library movement. The movement began in England and was successfully exported to Britain's Australian and North American colonies, no doubt due to a shared language and religious heritage.

The purpose of Australian Sunday school libraries was the same as those in Great Britain and the U.S. Despite being founded somewhat later, Australian Sunday schools were committed to basic education for the common man and, as a result of utilizing the Bible as the primary textbook, religious instruction was also imparted.

The first Sunday school was founded near Sydney by William Pascoe Crook in 1813. While it is unclear if a library was founded at this time, within two years the interdenominational New South Wales Sunday School Institute was formed and opened the Parramatta Sunday School complete with a library. The success was short-lived. Like her counterparts in America, Australian libraries declined during the early twentieth century. Unlike in the U.S. no Australian denomination stepped forward to organize libraries, nor did any ecumenical group, until the last decade of the twentieth century. Margaret Stiller, a church librarian in South Australia, conceived of the Australian Church Library Association (ACLA) and convened a group of interested persons. Today the ACLA has members in every state and overseas, issues a quarterly newsletter, maintains a web site, and sponsors a biennial conference. What are some of the characteristics of an Australian library? This study utilized a survey to gather quantitative information on the current state of these libraries, including collections, staffing, and services.

Definitions and Scope

Defining the term 'church library' is necessary. Since these institutions had their roots in Sunday schools, the term 'Sunday school library' must also be considered. A Sunday school library was any collection of books, regardless of their organization or lack thereof, located in a house of worship and intended for use by those associated with the school. As time progressed, collections grew, materials intended for adults appeared, and the Sunday school library began to require formal oversight and organization. The appearance of adult materials and the need for formal organization and oversight marked the point at which a Sunday school library ceased and a church library began.

Some features of a church library have already been noted, such as location, client base, oversight, and organization, yet a more formal definition is needed. This study utilizes a modified form of John Harvey's (1980:vii) definition as posited in Church and Synagogue Libraries:

A church or synagogue library provides reading material and library service to members of a specific church or synagogue, usually in connection with their religious activities. A library is defined here as one or more rooms containing a collection of print and/or non-print material organized for use…. In addition, the phrase "congregational library" refers to a church or synagogue library.

Harvey (1999:681) also details the characteristics of such a library:

To become a library, the collection should (1) be organized in a logical order, e.g., by author or subject, (2) have an appointed supervisor, librarian, or committee, (3) actively provide circulation, processing and reference service, (4) contain at least 100 volumes of library material, (5) be established in a dedicated room, space or other quarters with stack shelving, (6) have a recognized and clearly defined user group or clientele, (7) have a functional organization plan and set of objectives, and preferably (8) be supported with an annual income from the sponsoring institution.

While many parishes may own a collection of books and other materials, these may not meet the aforementioned standards. For example, the libraries in the sample often shared space and rarely had a formal organization plan. Therefore, for the purposes of this study, a church library included any library residing within a building used for worship and meeting at least the first four of Harvey's criteria.

Distributing the survey at the ACLA conference guaranteed a relevant result. This method identified forty-six libraries, or 40% of the total ACLA membership. Responses from Protestant denominations comprised 88.5% of the total while Catholic churches accounted for the remaining 11.5%. Overall, the Catholic churches were considerably larger in terms of congregation size and library features and, as a result, skewed figures. Therefore, this study focuses on Protestant denominations.


A. Demographics

Beginning with where the libraries are located, there should be a correlation between geographic density and library density-the larger the population the more churches ergo more libraries. This suggests New South Wales should have the greatest concentration of libraries. Survey results, however, demonstrated that Victoria accounted for 30% of responses, slightly more than NSW's 27.5%. Victorian supremacy is probably attributable to location based canvassing. Unfortunately, the finding was not supported by ACLA membership figures, which indicated South Australia was home to 44% of ACLA members. Perhaps this finding is attributable to ACLA's founder being from S.A.

Denominational representation is closely related to location. Larger denominations would be expected to have more worship locations and therefore more libraries. Regardless of geography, the Uniting Church comprised 35.5% of responses, although the Church accounts for only 7.5% (Hughes, 1997:66) of the general population. UC library dominance was further supported by ACLA membership numbers.

The survey suggested that denominational size does not influence the presence of libraries. Was there any correlation between congregational size and library occurrence? Ninety-seven percent of the sample had congregations larger than the average Australian congregation, indicating a possible correlation between congregation size and library existence-the larger the congregation, the more likely a library was present.

B. Administration and Finance

Australian libraries are benefiting from librarians with professional experience, either in terms of former employment or educational coursework. Some form of library experience is possessed by 66.6% of respondents, 44.4% had educational exposure and 42.2% reported both experience and education.

The typical library had a $520 budget, with 28% lacking any formal budget. The most fortunate library had $7,000. On average the libraries spent $1.89 per member purchasing materials. This finding was encouraging, however the average retail book price was $22, (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000-2001:1371.0) nearly double that of the U.S. price (Book Industry Study Group, 2001:20,23.) Although Australian congregations spend more per member, their buying power is compromised by higher book prices.

C. Collections and Organization

The financial picture impacted the collection's size. The typical library had 1,415 books, or 2.9 books per congregation member. The smallest library owned 200 volumes, while the maximum was 8,000 volumes. Audio materials were owned by 89%, the average was 161 titles. Video holdings were reported among all respondents. The maximum holdings numbered 1,000, while the minimum held only two videos. Libraries were also asked if they collected materials related to their congregations' histories and to indicate other types of materials owned. Fifty percent retained items of congregational history, while 27% collected such unique materials as puzzles, posters, flannel boards, and games. Despite the collection sizes, the libraries were being used; on average 33 items circulated per week.

How were these collections organized? Australian librarians demonstrated a fondness for the Dewey Decimal system, with 66% making use of the system. There was little evidence of church libraries using professional subject tools, such as Sears or Library of Congress (LC), however 22% used such tools---17% used LC and 5% Sears. Locally created headings were utilized by 38% while an uncomfortably large proportion of respondents, 44%, indicated no subject headings use or did not answer the question.

D. Library Access and Use

Collection organization is central to effective operation but is irrelevant if collections are not physically available. Hours of operation and methods for identifying items in collections impact library accessibility and utilization. Due to their location, libraries often have unique operational hours and patterns. Sixty-one percent were open any time the building was open and 33% opened only on days of worship; the remainder either did not answer the question or indicated other times of operation. Staffing patterns can be inferred from these answers. In the absence of a large committee, it is unlikely the library was staffed whenever the building was opened, thus it's probably that the libraries were staffed part-time and were self-service at other times.

When a library was open, what tools were available to locate items? Libraries preferred card catalogs (61%), book catalogs (17%), no catalog (9%.) In an encouraging development, one-third had some form of electronic catalog, primarily home-grown, although two libraries had commercial purchased systems.

Computers were rarely used to aid library operations or maintain web pages. While 48% of the churches had a web page, only 6% of the libraries reported an Internet presence.


Support at the national denominational level might influence congregations to begin library service. Such support could take several forms, including a formal resolution applicable to all churches and financial support. The ACLA should consider a national lobbying effort to encourage denominational involvement and support.

At the congregational level, more funding would increase collections and, with effective promotion, usage might increase. Local ministers and church leaders need to set an example by using the library and promoting its use as a tool to enhance personal and spiritual growth. Volunteers are needed to staff the library and process new materials.

A nationwide, centralized effort to identify church libraries should be undertaken, perhaps as part of the National Church Life Survey. Once identified, the data should be shared with the ACLA and libraries surveyed to determine collections, organization, usage, etc. A directory would greatly enhance communication and resource sharing. The ultimate goal of such a project would be to create a database of libraries' holdings, thus identifying unique materials valuable to researchers.

Heightening the awareness of church libraries through a book award program might be something ACLA could undertake. This would also provide ACLA with wider national exposure. The Association may also wish to suggest library standards and standardized training for church librarians, the latter ala LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Standards might give libraries and librarians goals and create uniformity across congregations, as well as "legitimizing" or "professionalizing" the movement in the eyes of church leaders. Finally, stronger ties between religious publishers and ACLA could be pursued.

The present study shows that church libraries continue to serve a unique purpose and audience. The real value of church library studies lies in our increased understanding of these unique institutions, their contributions to librarianship, and to religious life.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2000-2001. Book Retailers, Internet Site:!OpenDocument (24/03/2003)

Book Industry Study Group. 2001. Book Industry Trends. Book Industry Study Group, New York.

Harvey, John F., ed. 1980. Church and Synagogue Libraries. Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ.

-----1999. Popular religious libraries in North American: a statistical examination. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Hughes, Philip. 1997. Religion in Australia: Facts and Figures. Christian Research Association, Kew, Victoria.

Kelly, Thomas. 1966. Early Public Libraries: a history of public libraries in Great Britain before 1850. The Library Association, London.

A longer version of this article appears in Australian Religion Studies Review v.17, no.1 (Autumn 2004)

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Natalie Schwarz and the members of ACLA; Philip Hughes (Christian Research Association); Stephen Leahy (University of South Australia) and Alexander Sussman (University of Sydney), as well as the generous financial support of the Bogle-Pratt International Travel Fund, the Herbert and Virginia White Professional Development Award, and the Indiana University Librarians Association.

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