Welcome to the second installment of our new series, Member Spotlight! If you enjoyed our first interview with Atla member Christa Strickler, you’re going to love my conversation with Alexis Weiss as much as I did.
Alexis is the Reference and Instruction Librarian for Theology at the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University. I got to talk to her last month and hear all about her history with Atla, the ways that her library is planning for reopening, and what her favorite horror movies are. We hope you enjoy our interview with Alexis!
AC: What led you to librarianship?
AW: Oh my gosh.
AC: I know, right?
AW: It was so long ago! I worked in the library in grad school. My undergrad was in philosophy, and my grad degree was in religion. When I left my first Masters degree, the only job I could get was as a cook. After that, it was either library school or law school, and I realized that if I became a lawyer, I would probably hate myself. And I loved working in the library; I’m quite book obsessed. I wanted, originally, to teach, but a PhD just didn’t happen at that point. So I went into being a librarian and I get to teach this way. And I still get to teach things that I really enjoy.
AC: Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to be a theological librarian, or did you think that you were going to do a different part of library science?
AW: You know, when I first started my library degree, which was about a year after my religion Masters, I didn’t even know theological librarianship was a thing. I was introduced to Atla at my first job by a colleague. I left that job six months later to work for Atla, and I’ve kind of been doing it ever since. So it wasn’t really something that I knew was a thing when I started. My first job in grad school in the library was at a really small school, so the idea that there were different librarians that did different things was just completely over my head. But as soon as I knew that that was a thing, that I could focus on the study of religion and being a librarian, it was perfect for me.
But as soon as I knew that that was a thing, that I could focus on the study of religion and being a librarian, it was perfect for me.
AC: Do you remember what your first impression of Atla was?
AW: It was actually very amusing! I went in to interview, and they told me later that they were worried about hiring me because I seemed too stuffy and conservative, which could not be further from the truth. They learned that very quickly once I got there. I just found that very, very amusing. It was my first professional job, it was my first time ever doing something like that, so I just showed up looking very professional and kind of stodgy. I learned very quickly that that wasn’t how things worked, and that was good. I actually loved working for Atla. But my spouse hated living in Chicago. And back then, they didn’t keep indexers on as staff if you were working from home, so I left and contracted for a couple more years. I think if I had left as staff, I might still be there, honestly. I loved working for Atla.
AC: It’s such a chill environment. Everybody’s so nice and friendly.
AW: Yes. And I think that one of the great things about moving on and staying as a theological librarian and staying really involved with Atla – with the exception of a three-year break away from everything – but one of the greatest things about staying involved is that I got to still see my friends who were employees.
AC: I miss everyone a whole lot now that we’re all working from home and I don’t see everyone every day.
AW: I’ve actually not met most of my colleagues in person, and the ones I have, it was just the once for an interview, which was in December.
AC: That’s right, because you just started a new job, and you said you haven’t even seen your office yet, right?
AW: Nope! I have not seen my office. I got interviewed in December, accepted the job in January, and came here over spring break to start. And spring break is when everything locked down. I have not been on campus the whole time I’ve lived here. I live on the west side of Los Angeles, within walking distance, which is apparently pretty unheard of for LA, to be able to walk to work every day. And I have not been there, because we’re not allowed on campus, and I have not enjoyed the beauty and exciting stuff of LA. The day after I got here, my spouse and I took a walk down Venice Beach, and that is the only bit of LA I’ve gotten to hang out and see over the three months that I’ve been here. I’ve been stuck in this little apartment. And my spouse is still back where we used to live, and because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to go back and forth and see each other. So I’ve just kind of been here alone with my dog for three months!
AC: That’s really difficult. I’m glad you have your dog, though.
AW: I am very thankful the dog came with me, that’s for sure.
AC: I know my cat has been extremely helpful during the pandemic. Oh, there’s the dog!
AW: Oh my gosh, yes, she wanders behind me and tries to get my attention if I’m talking too much.
AC: What’s her name?
AW: This is Macy. Right now, my spouse has two cats. That’s probably better, otherwise, they’d be bouncing across a lot in my meetings.
AC: Yeah, it’s a common theme, I’ve discovered over the last three months or so. I can’t imagine being able to walk to work so easily, and when you aren’t even able to!
AW: It’s definitely a big change. At my last job, I was only a couple of miles from work anyway, but I still drove every day. But before that, it was a forty-five-minute drive in Colorado, and I lived in Rogers Park when I was in Chicago, so it’s quite a long commute.
Every week, two people answer random questions about favorite food and books and things like that. I did mine last week and that was amusing.
AC: Oh wow, that’s definitely a hike down the Red Line! What has it been like working from home when you haven’t met any of your colleagues, apart from in the interview? Has it been weird adjusting to that?
AW: It’s been very weird adjusting to things and doing so much work completely online. It hasn’t been too bad – at my last job, two-thirds of the students were online, so I’ve done a lot of Zoom research meetings and things like that. I’m really comfortable with Zoom meetings. But having to try and get comfortable with new people and new processes is hard. I’m so used to tiny libraries with tiny budgets where I’m the person in charge of running everything. Book purchases are done with Amazon because we don’t even have something like GOBI. And now I’m one person out of an eight-person reference team, and there are all these new things to learn. So, it’s been difficult, but I think LMU (Loyola Marymount University), and the people in the library, in particular, have done a really good job of integrating and keeping everybody involved, and really making me feel welcomed. Our staff Outreach and Development team is doing little social meetings once a week with “get-to-know-you” things. Every week, two people answer random questions about favorite food and books and things like that. I did mine last week and that was amusing.
AC: Was there anything that really surprised them?
AW: Learning that for a theological librarian and a Buddhist, I was obsessed with death metal and horror films. And I used to sing in a death metal band. And I used to be a roller derby referee. All of those things sort of surprised everyone, because most of them have never even seen me in person. So that was fun. But my first week I had almost daily meetings with my boss, I’ve had one-on-one Zoom meetings with every departmental director in the library, so they’ve made me feel very very welcome. And I do get to interact with other people at least three or four times a week. But yeah, it’s still difficult and very isolating.
AC: It’s not the ideal way to do our jobs.
AW: I’m actually on the staff taskforce to start bringing staff back into the library. Right now, we have six staff members who are allowed in the library to do essential functions – mailing books back and forth, filling interlibrary loans. Then we’re working on another three tiers of processes to get everyone back that can come back. So yeah, it’s been an interesting process and conversation about how we actually get people back. But the idea is that we’re going to be open and have students on campus in August, so we’ll be at least moderately functioning. I think we’re still going to not have common hang out spaces, not have group study rooms, limit our research desk hours, things like that. But most of us are expected to come back.
AC: I’m also thinking a lot about how it’s going to change librarianship in the future. We’re already putting more of our materials online, but in a lot of ways, the library is a very physical profession.
AW: It really is. I know a couple of people who have worked as librarians for all online libraries; the entire library was just a computer lab with thirty computers. That just seemed terrible to me as a bibliophile. I was very lucky; LMU really jumped into action and when I got here, the librarians were ready. They learned what to do very quickly; they switched to an online environment easily. And they were already prepared with just incredibly detailed LibGuides and a lot of video tutorials. They’ve had an Instructional Design area for the last couple of years, and a big part of their job is just making tons of video tutorials for how to do everything. We set up a LibGuide for services during COVID within the first week.
Even now, as we’re talking about what our limited services are going to be as we reopen to the public, there are problems like, “Well, we don’t want to keep the reference desk open for a lot of interactions and having to stay there facing the public. How can we service that?” If there are multiples of us on chat and we have kiosks where you can walk in and ask somebody at the reference desk, but instead, you’re standing at the reference desk typing and the person is over in their office answering you. We’re looking into things like that.
Most, if not all, we’ve been told, will be completely online. We’re not bringing classes into the library, because the university has taken over all of our classes to help with social distancing. Not that any of us wanted to get stuck in that classroom for an hour with twenty students! We’re okay with that part. And we’re not going out into classes either; we’re doing everything from our office. It’s much safer for us, it minimizes risk, and it means that those of us who do have to continue working from home can still do that and function effectively as teachers, which is really cool.
Most, if not all, we've been told, will be completely online. We’re not bringing classes into the library, because the university has taken over all of our classes to help with social distancing.
AC: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t even know what theological librarianship was; that you didn’t even know it was an option. Do you find that when you talk to people in your life, family and friends, do they go, “You do what, now?”
AW: It took a while for some people to understand what it was that I did. But basically, I just tell them, “I’m an instruction and research librarian. Most of the people I instruct and help with research are looking at things in religion and philosophy.” That’s it. It’s really weird for me personally as a theological librarian. Theological Studies encompasses all world religions. It’s very strange for me as somebody who’s trained to be a theological librarian to see the limitations of what it means to be a theological librarian. The vast majority of theological librarian positions that come up, I am not allowed to take, because I am not Christian. I’m a Buddhist and my background specialty is in Eastern religions. My time at Atla was very fortunate because I had to read so much about other faiths.
Theological Studies encompasses all world religions. It’s very strange for me as somebody who’s trained to be a theological librarian to see the limitations of what it means to be a theological librarian.
But to have that sort of restriction of, “I’m a theological librarian and this is what I do, but I can only work at a big university that very openly states that they are open to different religions, different ‘lifestyles.’” Being queer is not okay at some theological libraries! It is a little restricting, so when people who know me, who know that I’m Buddhist and who know that I’m queer, when I tell them I’m a theology librarian, they always cock their heads a little and go “You’re what? I don’t see how these things mesh.” It’s less explaining what a theological librarian is and more explaining how I fit into the box of being a theological librarian.
AC: Well, I’m sorry that I won’t get to meet you in person this year at Atla Annual.
AW: No, but you’ll get to meet me next year.
AC: Next year, yes!
AW: I’ve been put back on the Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I was on there for two or three years, right before I disappeared for a few years. It’s nice to be able to go back to that committee in particular. Maybe I’ll get to come to Chicago for that once they start moving people around again.
LMU has been really proactive with stockpiling tests and setting up contact tracing methods for COVID. I’m still in contact with the people at the tiny little library where I used to work, and they have no idea what’s going on. But they’re also in a place that’s had maybe one fatality. They’re in Prescott. It’s a couple of hours north of Phoenix, just in the middle of nowhere; it’s a tiny little thirty-thousand population retirement community.
Going to a big Catholic school is not what I expected, but this turned out to just be perfect. And I will admit, I had a very unfair advantage in the interview process. They asked me to do my teaching session on Scripture searching in the RDB (Atla Religion Database). It was perfect!
They said, “This is a theology class you’re teaching. They want to teach on the controversies in the writings of Paul. Teach them how to do that.” And I thought, “Oh goodness, this is going to be so easy. How do I keep this down to a twenty-minute class?”
My specialty is actually in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. But a lot of the other work that I do is in faith and reason, and a lot of interfaith work.
AC: In terms of religion and theology, I know you mentioned that you study a lot of Eastern religions. Is there a subject of theological librarianship that you’re particularly drawn to?
AW: My specialty is actually in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. But a lot of the other work that I do is in faith and reason, and a lot of interfaith work. And at this point also, looking at LGBTQ diversity and acceptance, within all religious tradition, my own in particular as a Buddhist, but just in general.
AC: All right, I just have one last question for you, and it’s what is your favorite horror movie? Because I am also a big horror movie fan.
AW: Oh my gosh, that is an impossible question to answer! There are so many good ones. I have classics that I’m a really big fan of, things like Jacob’s Ladder, In the Mouth of Madness, Event Horizon, stuff like that. Newer ones? I just re-watched The Girl with All the Gifts – that one was really good. The Netflix Original The Perfection was pretty freaking twisted.
AC: Oh, I haven’t seen that one!
AW: That one is really good! It’s very mind-bendy. In the Tall Grass, which is a Stephen King story, that one was really good as well. And what is your favorite, if you can answer the question?
AC: I really, really love Guillermo del Toro’s El Orfanato (The Orphanage).
AW: Oh yes, that’s a really good one! I really love finding good foreign language horror films.
AC: Well, thank you so much! I think we’re just about out of time. But this has been so wonderful. It’s been great chatting with you, and I hope we get to meet in person at some point!
AW: I haven’t been to the conference in three years, so it’ll be really nice to start coming back and being involved. I have missed Atla a lot.
AC: Well, thank you so much. I hope you stay safe.
AW: Thanks, you too.
Member Spotlight is a new series featuring interviews with individual Atla members about their journey in theological librarianship. Interested in being interviewed? Send us an email with the subject line “Member Spotlight.”
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