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Create a Freethought Library for Your Group

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by the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA)

When I started ISSA’s Freethought Library, I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was in for. I didn’t know how big the collection could get in a year, how hugely beneficial it could be to our group, and how many phenomenal people I’d have the opportunity to meet along the way. To be honest, I wasn’t even entirely clear on why our club needed a library – I just wanted to us to have one.

A little disclaimer for the uninitiated: I’ve always been what you might call a bookworm – I even worked for a library resource company for a while. So when I learned that a handful of students had formed lending libraries for their groups, I felt an irresistible urge to try it for myself.

And, quite frankly, no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm at the time. Still, the more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed: A library would give our club more legitimacy. It would serve to better inform and equip our membership. And, if we managed to lend books to new members early in the semester, we might just give them one more reason to keep coming back. But I was soon to learn that lending libraries do much, much more than that. They give your membership a project to rally behind. They provide student groups with valuable – possibly incomparable – networking opportunities. And, above all else, they embody the goals and the spirit of this movement.

That said, this post is intended to help other student groups find the motivation and resources they need to start their own lending libraries. But that’s a difficult task to be charged with; I don’t know the specifics of your group, and I can’t say with any authority what’s going to be right for you. But I can tell you what worked for ISSA – with the sincerest hope that you will be able to learn from our experiences and adapt our methods to suit your own needs. So, here goes:

ISSA’s Freethought Library had its modest beginning on July 11th of 2011 with a donation of four books from one of our officers. We introduced the project on our blog (soliciting monetary donations and new or used books) and Tweeted and reddited it like crazy. In those days, things moved slowly but surely. We’d books up here or there from friends or by parting with things in our personal collections, but our progress certainly wasn’t anything to brag about.

Things didn’t really take off until we started contacting national groups and politely requesting donations. The first of these came in August from our good friends at CFI On Campus, and it was a substantial and defining one. It transformed our “library” from an armful of books to a veritable collection – albeit a small one.

In September, we received a monetary donation from a well-known figure on r/atheism. We used half of the funds to buy a few books from our wishlist, and the other half to get supplies: Library cards and pockets to help with the physical inventory, and a stamp bearing our group name and contact info in the event that books were lost. Around the same time, we set up an online library database using Googledocs. One document allowed us to keep organized internally –including information on which books were checked out, when, by whom, and how to contact each patron. The other (public) document allowed our members to see that a book was in or out without compromising contact information, etc, and made it possible for patrons to reserve the book they wanted to check out. Finally, the framework was set.

The library launched on September 28th, about a month into the fall semester. We had twelve books checked out that first night. Better yet, our membership remained enthusiastic about the project all throughout the semester and, though I never once solicited member donations, we received many. Friends of ours from other areas (including our buddies at UNIFI) sent things as well. Encouraged, I started to reach out to other national groups.

American Atheists almost immediately sent us a superb and sizeable donation, including multiple copies of The X-Rated Bible – one of our most popular books to date. Once again, the collection seemed to be transformed overnight.

In March, we contacted Hemant Mehta, who was kind enough to promote the project on the Friendly Atheist. Donations from his readership allowed us to purchase additional supplies, including mylar for the hardcover books to ensure that dustjackets would not be lost or damaged. Even better, authors Thomas Lawson and Jennifer Hancock read about the project and generously sent copies of their works.

In April, I reached out to the author Sean Faircloth and, through him, Pitchstone Publishing. Soon after, I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Both came through for us in a matter of days. And a few weeks later, when ISSA went to the Reason Rally, I made a point of approaching other potential donors like the Richard Dawkins Foundation – again, to much success.

Months have passed since then, but things haven’t slowed just yet. Timothy Binga – badass librarian at the Center for Inquiry Transnational – set us up with even more goodies at this year’s student conference. Author Adam Lee generously donated a copy of his new book Daylight Atheism. And just today, Greta Christina and Pitchstone Publishing came through with a copy of Greta’s new book, plus Herb Silverman’s Candidate Without a Prayer.

I could go on, but I think I’ve demonstrated my point. ISSA managed to accrue more than 150 books (and the supplies to lend them responsibly) in the span of a year without spending a penny of club funds. And there’s absolutely no reason that other student groups – yours included – couldn’t do the same.

Here’s what the past year has taught me:

1) You shouldn’t allow money to be an issue. We’re all students here. Most of us are living on ramen noodles, and our group events are pretty much all funded by high school or University bureaucrats and intermittent bake sales. But you don’t need to have hundreds of dollars in your club account to get the resources you need. Which brings me to my next point…

2) There are tons and tons of people out there who not only have the resources you’re looking for, but actually WANT to help you. You just need to reach out to them. Just look at all of the organizations that have helped ISSA! Now, I’m not saying you need to contact those exact people, because I don’t want them to email me like, “Goddamnit, Becca, your advice to other groups has bankrupted us!” – but there are secularists of all stripes in every corner of the globe. Find them, explain your project/goals, and ask nicely for their support. Finally…

3) It pays to be as organized and professional as possible. Pride in your collection helps keep people interested and makes others more willing to donate. ISSA’s lending library has actually gotten to the point where people are eager to give us things. And I am almost certain that’s because we are so clearly on top of things.

A few more scattered but nonetheless important points:

1)    It is absolutely imperative that you thank people. ISSA sends paper “thank you” cards signed by our officership via snail mail whenever possible. Not just for the library, in fact, but for every applicable scenario. It’s personal touches like these that make people feel appreciated and more willing to help you again in the future.

2)    I WOULD LOVE YOU HELP YOU. I went through a solid 60 hours of job training related to preparing books for libraries, but most of this stuff isn’t actually that difficult. I’ve already put together a “how to” on mylar cover application, but I plan to do others. That same posts includes a list of the products we use so that you can get the proper supplies for a reasonable price. I can even give you more information on our Googledocs – or templates, if you like. Just tell me what you need!

If you would like ideas on what books to get for your library, check out the Amazon Storefront for the SSA Speakers Bureau.

Your group also qualifies for a free book every time you submit a Brag It Up! form. This can be agreat way to also build up your library.

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