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Bringing Catholic Literature to Public Libraries

Have you checked out Scott Hahn´s Hail Holy Queen from your local library lately? Don´t think you´ll find it there? If you lived in Altoona, Wis., you would. That´s because a group there is working to change what they see as an exclusion - intentional or
by Staff Writer | Source:
Have you checked out Scott Hahn´s Hail Holy Queen from your local library lately? Don´t think you´ll find it there?

If you lived in Altoona, Wis., you would. That´s because a group there is working to change what they see as an exclusion - intentional or not - of good Catholic literature from libraries.

The American Library Association says there is no concerted effort to exclude Catholic books.

"Most decisions come down to money, space, and demand," said Paige Wasson, public relations assistant with the American Library Association. "While libraries would love to have every book possible, they tend to go with titles that are popular, well-known, or most requested by readers, such as books from the Oprah Book Club."

Wasson also said that collections vary regionally. "For example, in Chicago, where there is a larger Polish population, libraries will have Polish newspapers and books. One wouldn´t expect to find the same at a library in Springfield, Ill.," added Wasson.

Be that as it may, a group from St. Mary´s Catholic Church in Altoona thought that Catholics were underserved, and so donated more than 100 Catholic titles to their local library on March 13. Approximately 30 people attended the dedication. Dubbed the "St. Mary´s Collection" each book bears a bookplate honoring 79-year-old Father Norbert Wilger, pastor at the parish since 1968.

As a result, the Altoona Public Library most likely has more Catholic book titles in circulation than any other public library in the country.

The Idea Arises

The idea first came to Dennis and Leigh Jerz after Father Wilger asked the couple to start an adult religious education program at the parish. "We were buying a lot of books," explained Leigh, "and I wished that we could borrow them from the local library." Leigh is a stay at home mother; Dennis is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.

But, as is the case in most public libraries, Catholic books were not to be found. "The library has many Protestant books, even an encyclopedia that is anti-Catholic," noted Father Wilger.

Leigh scouted the library to see what she could find. "There were only two Catholic titles in circulation among 32,000," she recalled. "A book on the lives of the saints and one on Mother Teresa that we couldn´t locate. The library had two biographies of Billy Graham, but none of the Holy Father. They had Hitler´s Pope, but nothing that presented an accurate history of World War II. They had the Left Behind series, but no Catholic fiction."
The Jerz´s decided to change that.

"We felt that by purchasing a collection and placing it at the public library, we could serve the needs of our own parishioners as well as others that may have never read about the Catholic Church," said Jerz. With the help of another family, their local Knights of Columbus chapter, and Father Wilger, they gathered a list of books.

"The $300 donation from the Knights really got things rolling," said Brad Payson, another organizer of the project. Through the connection of Catholic convert Audrey Zech - a book buyer at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. - the group was able to make their money go further by purchasing most of the titles at a 25% discount.

In the end, they had purchased 26 children and teen titles and 88 adult titles valued at $1,500. The collection consists of a variety of both contemporary and classic titles, including Michael O´Brien and Bud Macfarlane Jr.´s novels, works by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and books by Pope John Paul II himself. The collection also boasts a series of saint books for youth published by Ignatius Press.

"Paul Thigpen´s Rapture Trap was checked out the first night it was made available," commented Jerz.

"Many parishes have their own lending libraries," explained Father Wilger, "but the nice thing about this collection is that the Church doesn´t need to provide a librarian to check out the books. The staff at the library do that."

Librarians Love It

Library director Mary Vernau was very pleased by the donation. "We were thrilled with the donation because we didn´t have a great deal of Catholic literature at all. We have a large donation of Buddhist volumes and the Mormons are very generous," she said. "We were looking to offer a more balanced selection since a large percentage of the community is Catholic."

An added benefit of the donation is that now that they are in the library system they are available through almost any library on interlibrary loan. "The library belongs to a consortium of 23 libraries," explained Vernau. "Very few of these titles were duplicates within that system. This means that the books can be used by those in the community, but also by people throughout Wisconsin and beyond. The collection fills a real need."

"The Pope´s biography and the saint biographies for juveniles are especially nice," she said.
An open house was held to celebrate the addition. Becky Thurner read aloud from the children´s book The Princess and the Kiss by Jennie Bishop, Leigh Jerz read from Gregory and Lisa Popcak´s Parenting with Grace, Dennis Jerz read from Patrick Madrid´s Pope Fiction, and Bert Jordan read from George Weigel´s Witness to Hope.

The books currently sit on a special book cart in the library. After about a month they will be filed among similar titles.

The purpose of the donation was threefold. "We wanted to help area Catholics to learn and grow in their faith, we wanted to make available more materials that accurately represented Catholic viewpoints, and we wanted to nurture those who might be searching spiritually," said Jerz. "I would love it if someone came to the parish years from now and said that they came to the parish because of a book they found in the library when they were questioning or searching."

"As Mary Vernau was barcoding the books she would say, ´The nearest copy of this book is at the Library of Congress or Emory University in Georgia,´" added Jerz. "She felt she had something very special."

Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register. All rights reserved.

Tim Drake is executive editor of and writes from St. Cloud, Minn.

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Date: 2011-12-06 04:22:43
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