How to care for sacred texts in public libraries

Sacred text

The UK is a diverse, cosmopolitan country with people of many faiths – and none. Public libraries are secular spaces, and, whilst providing sacred texts, books about faith and religion, and books reflecting non-religious views of the world, care needs to be taken to ensure that people’s faith (or lack thereof) is treated with respect, and that one religious/faith group is not privileged over others.

Examples have occurred where local faith groups have tried to pressure libraries into presenting their sacred texts in a particular way; the guidelines below, originally developed by Siobhan Ball as part of her Information Management and Preservation Masters degree, aim to support libraries in making decisions about how to deal with such demands, and also outline good practice in dealing with sacred texts in general.

Preliminary stage

This should involve some simple research by the library into the religion or faith group in question to establish, for example, the number of denominations and whether the differences between those denominations are significant enough that they need to be treated as entirely separate bodies, as say Catholicism and Lutheran Christianity, or whether they should be treated as parts of a whole, as in Judaism. 

This stage should also include mapping, as far as is practicable, the take-up of different religions in the local community (eg does the area have people who are Shia or Sunni Muslims – or both?) and what impact that may have on the requests/demands they make.If producing guidelines for a national body then this mapping and consultation should reflect national demographics instead.

Having ascertained this, and in terms of deciding the best approaches for the library to take, religious experts from within each relevant denomination of the faith tradition should be found for consultation. (It is good practice to consult at least two representatives of each denomination as a means of ensuring that the priest, cleric or other religious expert has not given answers that are at variance with the standard practises of their tradition. If two authorities from the same tradition do give incompatible answers then they should be queried on this and asked for their opinion on each other’s views. Similarly, a third expert from the same tradition should then be consulted and asked their opinion both on the question itself and the varying opinions of their colleagues.) 

It is important that the views of the British rather than the international community of the faith in question be consulted, as the policies being created are for use in British libraries and must therefore primarily reflect the community they serve. If there are additional factors, such as ethnic or geographic divisions within the community, these should also be considered when choosing which religious experts to consult because secular factors can sometimes influence the interpretation of religious matters. 

Once all of this has been established, it may also be valuable to contact other libraries that are working in similar communities to see if they have already created policies that could be adapted. 

Determining what is sacred

If already in possession of a relevant collection, then presenting a list of the items in question to the chosen religious experts and asking them which items need special care on account of their sacred nature is an option. However, a more pro-active approach, as it will then cover any further sacred items of that tradition that might be received in future, is to ask them to clarify what physical objects are and are not sacred according to their faith regardless of whether the library already possesses them. 

It is also a good idea to ask if there are any non-sacred objects that should also be treated differently as a matter of respect and include those in the guidelines as this is a good way to prevent friction between the library and the relevant religious community (an example is that in most non-conformist church tradition no physical object is seen as imbued with the sacred yet due to its importance to their faith and culture they would still most likely prefer that The Bible be treated with greater respect than other printed texts).

Storage and access

This may present problems in that it is likely to provide a source of conflict between religious requirements and anti-discrimination laws. Some religions may require that certain texts or items only be accessed by persons of certain gender identities, sexual identities or other protected identities. They may also wish that only persons of the faith be permitted access. It is important to establish whether any of these issues apply in order to appropriately address them in the library’s policies.

Neither of these restrictions can be allowed because it would be in breach of equality legislation, both in terms of users and employees. It would also contravene the philosophy of use and access that most libraries run on. Therefore, these issues can only be addressed by making it clear to faith groups and donors that such restrictions will not be in place if the library stocks these items.

Withdrawal or disposal of items

Obviously a library cannot keep items when, through heavy use or for other reasons, they need to be withdrawn, even if such items are sacred, and those items need to be disposed of. 

This is the area most likely to cause offense to religious communities if it is handled improperly, as the inappropriate destruction of sacred items is an action with a history of being used to cause deliberate offense. 

Similarly, non-sacred items of symbolic importance to a faith group have also been treated this way in conflicts or by an occupying group to express their dominance and disdain of the conquered throughout history, and so enquiries must be made as to respectful disposal of this type of item as well.

It is important to have a policy in place for the respectful disposal of these items. It is important to ask about the destruction of each type of sacred or important item that was listed by the religious experts consulted as they may require different methods of disposal. 

If a method seems too complicated, or unsafe in some way, then it is important to ask about alternate methods, and, if none are provided, then the library will have to substitute what they judge to be the nearest suitable method.

Items should not be disposed of in book-bins, as with other stock – the best option would be to liaise with the respective place of worship (gurdwara, church, mosque, etc), and ask if they would handle the appropriate disposal of the items.

Preservation

Some methods of preservation or restoration may damage the spiritual integrity of the item and cause offense to the religious community if used. 

Some ingredients found in glues or pigments may be seen as contaminants or otherwise offensive if used to restore certain items, and thus it should be checked whether there are any organic or inorganic materials the items must not come into contact with or have permanently attached to them. 

That these are two separate issues must be made clear in the questions, as it is possible that it might be acceptable for an item to come into contact with a substance in the process or preservation or restoration but not for it to be permanently incorporated into it.

It must be checked if making any alterations to the items at all is allowable, and if so of what kind. 

If it is not permissible to alter them in any way then this impacts on storage considerations, as the items may have components that are damaging both to the item itself and anything it comes into contact with over a prolonged period of time. Similarly, the librarian will have to make a choice between allowing the items to potentially degrade and be lost, or offending against the religions sensibilities.

Digitisation

Digitisation of items can be a viable alternative to preservation techniques if carrying out the latter would cause great offense. Access to a digital copy may also be a means of overcoming certain issues around non-believers having access to a specific item because it is possible that in some religious traditions digitisation of an item would not involve any transfer of its sacred nature to the digital copy. 

This would allow the library to grant access to the item through its digital copy to non-believers without offending against the religion’s sensibilities. If the former issues have been raised in discussions with the religious experts then it might be worth asking if this is a viable solution.

It is also possible that digitisation of certain objects would be considered offensive or even blasphemous, and this too should be checked and, if found to be the case, digitisation of these objects should not be carried out and this should be written into the guidelines for their care.

About the guidelines

The guidelines were originally developed by Siobhan Ball as part of her Information Management and Preservation Masters degree, in the hopes of creating a consistently applied method for the respectful and culturally sensitive handling of sacred texts in British archives and libraries. 

The guide was field tested successfully on creating a set of rules for the care of Islamic texts in archives and libraries and has here been modified slightly specifically for libraries with an emphasis on local public institutions. Having graduated, Siobhan now operates her own information management consultancy, Ball Information Management, from Edinburgh.

She has worked with members of the CILIP Community, Diversity and Equality Group to produce this version.

What has been your experience of caring for sacred texts? What tips can you share? Let us know in the comments below

We hope that these Guidelines do reflect good practice, and prove useful in supporting the development of provision in public libraries.

We are keen to receive any feedback once you have started using them – please let us know in the comments below or by contacting john@nadder.org.uk

References

Image source: "Sacred Text" by Patrick Slaven, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Original resized

 

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