Welcome back to your favorite semi-regular column, the Member Spotlight series! This month, we talked to Álvaro Pérez, former Library Director at the Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana in Sabanilla, Costa Rica. I loved chatting with Álvaro about his journey in theological librarianship, the challenges facing libraries in Latin America, and his love of writing books. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Álvaro!
AC: How did you get into theological librarianship?
AP: I’m Methodist; I attended a Methodist church. And there was a missionary lady at church. She became like a second mother to me. She was from Kansas, and she was a librarian. She taught me English and she wanted to teach me a few things about libraries because there was no library in the place where I grew up. And eventually, I ended up being a librarian like that lady. After I finished my education in the USA and returned to my country – I’m from Costa Rica – she was doing volunteer work at a seminary. She was about to leave and then she suggested that I apply for a job, and I did. It was a very exciting experience, and I decided to get into a school of library science and I fell in love with theological librarianship. Then there was a professor, he was from Texas, and he found out about Atla, and suggested that I join and I did. It was a very rewarding decision.
AC: When did you join Atla? Do you remember what year?
AP: In 1990. So it has been 32 years.
AC: Do you remember what Atla was like in 1990?
AP: It was a bit different than today’s Atla. If I wanted to have access to information, it would be better to go to an Atla conference and be there. I got the Summary of Proceedings for many years. It was a good source of information for learning. But it was a bit different from today.
AC: Have you been to many conferences?
AP: No, I have been to some, and I have been a speaker in some of those conferences, but not too many. It costs money. Sometimes I got a grant, so why not? When there was a grant available, I took advantage of it, went to the US.
AC: Is there a particular part of theological librarianship that’s really interesting to you? Do you have a specialty?
AP: Well, I worked for the Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana. And that’s a small institution. When you work in small libraries, you have to do everything. I remember I had to develop a webpage for the library. When I started, there was this card catalog and then you had to do it all by hand. Then later, you had to set up software for the library so we could do it all by computer. In my experience, I would say from a Latin American perspective, I think I have done it all. I remember that we had to move the library from one place to another one. That was a big challenge. That library is about 90 years old. And I shared my experiences with Atla people years ago. But that had been part of my professional life as a theological librarian.
AC: And when you say that you shared your experiences, did you share them in the Summary of Proceedings or at the conference?
AP: I traveled to the USA to speak, to talk about libraries in Latin America. My colleagues in the USA were curious; they wanted to see how we do things here. The reality that we Latin Americans have to deal with is that we don’t have as many resources as some others do. I’m not complaining. There are different realities in theological librarianship. I was proud of the library that I was working for and I was proud of the way I was doing things, trying to have a library with the resources I had at the time.
I retired in 2017, but I didn’t really retire. I retired working as a paid librarian at an institution, but I continued working in theological librarianship. There was an Atla task force that published a series of handbooks on theological librarianship.
I have this idea that once you fall in love with a profession, I guess you continue until the very end. Atla has been a very good organization for me, a place where I can share experiences, a place where I can learn and get an enlarged vision of theological librarianship. What I learned, I tried to share with librarians here in Latin America.
I tried to create an organization here in Latin America and it existed for a number of years. But being a librarian also means being a leader, and having a vision. If you don’t have a vision, well, it would be very difficult to go anywhere because that’s the most important thing. Of course, money is necessary. But with no vision, money might be useful, but that’s all. There’s nothing without a vision.
AC: When you were working with the International Theological Librarianship Education Task Force, did you write for one of the two volumes?
AP: Yes, I did.
AC: And a third one will be coming out soon, yes?
AP: Yes. I think it is a very good resource. But for us here in Latin America, if it isn’t in Spanish, it won’t be a useful resource. I hope they translate it. If not, I’m willing to translate.
AC: Do you have many resources in Spanish?
AP: There are a few that I had to develop myself. One was a subject heading list for theological libraries; there wasn’t one in Spanish. Then there was a handbook for libraries. Well, I’m a professional librarian and there are few professional librarians in Latin America. And you need to know how to train people so they can do a decent job, so I wrote a manual for a theological library, explaining how to do that.
AC: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ve been doing since you retired?
AP: I’m currently writing a book, Library and Society. I have been working on it for about eight years. I will finish it in a few months and it probably will be published by the Universidad de Costa Rica. Library and Society is about how libraries developed in different societies, whether Inca, India, Egypt, or Assyrian, many places, up to current times. I read a lot so it has been a lot of fun writing books.
AC: What has the Atla community been like for you? Have you made friends in Atla?
AP: I have this book by John Bollier. He used to work for Atla too, and this is “The Literature of Theology: A Guide for Students and Pastors.” Well, this guy was very meaningful. I met him personally, and he was a really, really meaningful guy for me. I would say he was a mentor. Yeah, I made very good friends at Atla. It has been a very wonderful organization.
AC: What do you think the future will be like, especially in Latin America, for librarianship and for theological librarianship?
AP: Well, that’s quite a challenge, because as I said before, there is no vision. It would be difficult to get to a good point. To think about a future for libraries in Latin America, would mean a vision, it would mean someone who’s fully involved, who says, “Well, these are the main issues of the theological libraries in the region, and this is the way we should approach them.” We don’t have that collective approach, that collective vision. It would be very difficult.
I came up with an organization called Red Latinoamericana de Informaccion Teologica. Latin American Theological Information Network. The idea was we as a whole could approach the different issues that we had to deal with here in Latin America. And I remained in it for a number of years and when I left, it folded. Any organization, it’s hard, because you can’t be there forever. You try to train other leaders that can take it at some point onwards, but that didn’t happen, so it perished. But I had that dream. I think if someone else came up with something and put it together, that might be a way to approach it.
I hope that there will be someone who will say, “Well, we will have to put something together.” But I gave my best when I had the chance.
AC: And now you are continuing to help the field with research.
AP: Yes, I am. I have not given up. But I think it would be a challenge for other leaders. My time has passed. And I’m tackling other challenges: reading, writing, and being involved with theological librarianship from a different position.
AC: What do you like to do outside of theological librarianship and research?
AP: I like photography. Not that I’m a great photographer. I got a fancy camera and I enjoy my pictures. I don’t think they are great, you know, but of course, I’m aware of good photography and good images. I would like to write a novel. I would like to do that. And I would like to write a biography. I have lots of ideas.
Whenever I have a chance, well, Costa Rica is a very tiny country and there are a number of national parks, so I go hiking and take my camera along. I go fishing, not that I’m a great fisherman either. But I am enjoying my life to the fullest.
Member Spotlight is a 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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