In the fall of 2000, Michael Arsenault donated $400 worth of brand new religious books and videos to the library from the small religious bookstore he operates. He, and his wife Colleen, make frequent use of the public library in Pictou, N.S.

“We have benefitted from the library, so we wanted to put something back into the system. We also knew that any books entering here, would be available to readers all across Canada through inter-library loans,” he said.

The 30 or so donated items were positive and inspirational, bringing messages of hope and encouragement. They included Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, on making marriage work, and The Word Dwelt Among Us, a small book on the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Others were personal stories of conversion and new life, such as A Light in the Darkness, and My Spirit Rejoices.

One video told the fascinating story of John Corapi, a kid from the Bronx who became a champion boxer, fought with distinction in the Green Berets, became a wealthy businessman, lost everything when he became hooked on cocaine, recovered, had a spiritual conversion, and eventually became a Catholic priest.

Although the local librarians seemed pleased, the books did not appear on the shelves. In January, Arsenault received a letter from deputy chief librarian Fred Popswich. The following are excerpts.

“I am returning the donated books that you requested be placed in the Pictou Library … While the library does appreciate receiving book donations from the public, not all donations are added to our collection.

“Religious books are selected according to the same criteria as other subjects; the collection is both general and popular. Gifts of religious books are judged by the standards outlined in the donations policy. The library does not cater to nor discriminate against any religious group.

“After careful consideration of the material you donated, we have decided that they are specialized materials and therefore not suited to our collection. This material would be more appropriate for a church library, spiritual centre or other specialized collection.”

Chief librarian Eric Stackhouse noted that some libraries – for example those in universities – provide specialized materials, but most public libraries stock only materials of wide general interest. Stackhouse and Popswich work out of a central office in New Glasgow where they manage the seven libraries in the Pictou-Antigonish regional library system.

In the Pictou-Antigonish regional system, Stackhouse explained, all materials, whether purchased or donated, are routinely scrutinized by a committee of three librarians. Each item must be general in nature and have a wide appeal.

“These books failed on both counts,” Stackhouse said. “They did not have wide appeal and were specialized in nature, instructional, almost like text books or catechisms.”

Arsenault finds it interesting that, when he picked up his rejected donation in January, the books were still shrink-wrapped in plastic.

“How could the committee come to a conclusion like that without even opening them?” he said. “Clearly they judged these books by their covers.”