Welcome to the first interview in our new series, Member Spotlight! Back in April, we put out a call for volunteers who were willing to share their experience in theological librarianship with us. I’m so thrilled to introduce you to our first guest, Christa Strickler! Christa is the Associate Professor of Library Science at the Buswell Library of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. She has also just been appointed section editor for Theology Cataloging Bulletin (TCB).
I met with Christa through the magic of Zoom and had a wonderful time chatting with her about cats, cataloging, COVID, and so much more! We hope you enjoy our interview with Christa.
AC: How has your library been dealing with the shutdown?
CS: We sent most of the employees home, but there are a few who are in the building. We set up a no-touch delivery service. Students and faculty can either request books to be put on a cart outside of the building that’s all packaged up in envelopes so that nobody is touching anybody else’s stuff, or it can mailed to their house if they are too far away. So they are still getting at least the books that were in the building. No ILL, though, nothing like that.
AC: How did you get into theological librarianship?
CS: I did not set out to be a theological librarian; I didn’t grow up saying, “I’m going to be a theological librarian when I grow up!” But I always loved libraries when I was a kid, and so when I went to college it seemed a natural thing when I had to get a job in college; “I’m going to go find a job in the library!” And it was at a Christian liberal arts college library, so they had a larger of collection in Biblical and Theological Studies, so I was exposed a lot to those materials. Then after I graduated, I was promoted into a staff cataloger position, so I started cataloging all of those religious and theological studies materials, and discovered I really enjoyed it. One of the projects I had, when I was a staff member, was typing in tables of contents into catalog records for books that didn’t have those online, so people could find things better. I typed in tons of tables of contents for theology books. I started getting a sense of who were the important people, what were the important topics because when you see those things over and over and over again, they start to stick. I started to find that interesting, and so started reading the books and then taking classes on it, and somehow it all ended up with me becoming a theology cataloger, essentially.
AC: Could you tell me a little bit more about theology cataloging? What’s a normal day when COVID isn’t happening?
CS: Well, even when it’s not happening, there is no normal day. And in my current job, I actually have a mix of roles. Cataloging is supposedly my main thing, but I also have reference, collection development, information literacy instruction, those sorts of things. We have Shelf Ready cataloging for a lot of our basic materials; we just order everything through a vendor. I’m in charge of making sure all the records get loaded into the catalog and everything’s in order, so that the books can go out to the patrons without us touching every single one of them. But then I also manage cataloging of our Special Collections materials as well, because those you can’t just buy that stuff from a vendor. That’s one of my favorite parts, is looking through all of the old cool stuff. Looking at the old books.
I think it was a first edition work by Philip Melanchthon, so it was from the 1500s, and I’m sitting here thinking, 'I’m holding this in my hand.'
AC: Has anything stood out to you in the Special Collections?
CS: I do remember – I think it was a year or two ago. I think it was a first edition work by Philip Melanchthon, so it was from the 1500s, and I’m sitting here thinking, “I’m holding this in my hand.” And I was actually taking a class on Reformation Theology at the time. So having that all happen at the same time and here I am holding a piece of theological history in my hands. Without gloves!
AC: Oh no!
CS: Well, we’re not required to wear gloves. As long as we wash our hands, it’s okay. But just being able to hold that in my hands was very cool. And to think I was making it discoverable for other scholars and students to find – that was very cool.
AC: Do you have a favorite part of your job or of theological librarianship? Or a particular subject that you really love?
CS: I don’t know if I have a favorite subject, but in terms of a favorite part, partly because I’m a cataloger, I think I love that part the most. I like all aspects of it, but I love finding ways to describe the materials in ways that I think that people interested in the topic would find them. In ways, they might not have found them otherwise. Especially with special collections materials, sometimes I’ll find that the data that’s out there on this particular rare item is not very good, so I know if somebody was looking for it, they won’t find it. So now I can think through the way somebody else would look for it, and then add subject headings, genre headings, anything I can think of to try and make it findable. Just because a lot of those materials aren’t described very well, so I like to do anything I can to try and make those findable. I don’t often get to hear about how my work is found; I just hope it does somewhere. But there have been a few times I’ve been at the reference desk, and somebody will say, “I’m looking for this thing,” and I’ll think, “We just cataloged it! I know where it is!” And I can help them find it, and I can connect them to this obscure pamphlet on Chinese-Christian publishing in the 1920s, and there they will have it. So yes, those are some of my favorite moments.
I don’t often get to hear about how my work is found; I just hope it does somewhere. But there have been a few times I’ve been at the reference desk, and somebody will say, 'I’m looking for this thing,' and I’ll think, 'We just cataloged it! I know where it is!'
AC: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of theological librarianship? Or of cataloging, for that matter?
CS: I’ve been pondering that one, and I think for me, it’s partly because my work in theological librarianship is very much tied to my faith tradition, which for me is Protestant Christianity. My faith informs my work, my work informs my faith. I have learned more about my faith because of the work that I do. But at the same time, I also know that theological librarianship is a broad field and it contains a diverse background: different religions, different geographic locations, all sorts of things. And my one area isn’t THE one encompassing area. It’s been a challenge for me to know how to express my views on theological librarianship while being sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of others. My research area of interest is the intersection of Christian theology with library metadata practices. It’s been a challenge trying to figure out where an appropriate place to publish on those topics might be when they arise from specific religious commitments not shared by everybody. It’s trying to figure out how to navigate that sort of situation, just because it’s so embedded for me – the way I am.
AC: That’s certainly something that’s extremely important as we all try to be more accepting and more diverse. I know that at Atla, we’ve done a lot of work and we’re continuing to do a lot of work on that as well. What is something you wish people knew about theological librarianship? Do your family and friends automatically know what that is, or do they go, “What? You’re a what?”
CS: A lot of people don’t even know what general librarianship is! I often get, “Oh, didn’t you know Google’s making you obsolete?” I get that a lot. Or, “Don’t you just sit at a desk and read books all day?” Ish, but no. And being a cataloger, it’s almost worse. At least if you say, “Oh I help people. I talk to people, they ask questions and say they have a problem, and then oh, I find this book for them.” People understand that. Cataloging is a little bit more challenging to describe. In terms of theological librarianship, I think one thing I wish people knew about it, is it’s a very broad field. I think even within the profession, a lot of people when they think “theological librarianship,” they think of typically public-facing fields. The reference librarians, the person who’s purchasing books for the collection, or teaching seminary students how to find and evaluate information for their particular needs. And they don’t know about all the back-end work that goes in behind it. Particularly for cataloging religious materials, it helps to have a background in it; it helps to have an understanding of the broad concepts, what’s going on, who are the important people. It’s not just general cataloging. It would just be nice if people had a better understanding of the broad variety of possibilities, and that the behind the scenes stuff is just as much for the public as what’s more obviously for the public.
It’s not just general cataloging. It would just be nice if people had a better understanding of the broad variety of possibilities, and that the behind the scenes stuff is just as much for the public as what’s more obviously for the public.
AC: Is there a project that you’re currently working on or that you’ve worked on in the past that you’re really proud of?
CS: Last year we finished a large reclassification project. We moved most of collections from the Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress classification system.
Learn more about this consortia.Read
CS: Yeah, it was a lot of work. I chaired the committee that convinced the Dean of the library that this was a good project to do. We did a lot of work tying in the reclassification with the college’s strategic priorities, and then also talking about the needs of some of our Biblical and Theological Studies graduate students, and how a change in classification system would serve their needs better than the current system. We were very pleased when the Library Director thought it was a great idea because five years before they’d tried it and it was denied. So that was really exciting. We finished it for the most part of last summer. Over 310,000 items were relabeled, shifted all over the library – we had to work with an outside vendor to get a lot of the work done. Actually, we worked with a vendor called Backstage Library Works, and we got a nice discount because we were Atla members, which was nice! I discovered that by accident. Just making sure that we were changing cataloging practices to suit the needs of our community was a very exciting thing for me.
AC: How long have you been an Atla member?
CS: I think it would be since about 2012, I believe was when I first joined. I was trying to remember because I was at a different institution when I started, so counting years backward…
AC: I know, it’s a little difficult, particularly now as we’re thinking, “What year is it anyway?”
CS: What DAY is it anyway??
Read the announcement on the blog, including a short bio on the new editors.Read
AC: I know that you are a new editor with TCB. Congratulations! That’s so amazing!
CS: Thank you! I’m excited.
AC: What made you want to be an editor with TCB?
CS: Various reasons. First, the outgoing editor in chief, Leslie Engelson, she was actually my first library supervisor. In my first library job, I worked for her, so I started learning more about Atla years ago when I was a student worker. Her role in that made me interested in that because of the personal connection. And then a few years ago, she invited me to start writing articles for it, and I started getting a sense of what sorts of articles and what things are of interest to the TCB community, and it was just a perfect outlet for my area of interest. When I saw the opening, I thought, “Oh yay, something that’s interesting, something I can do, something that fits perfectly within my area of interest.” Cataloging of theological materials, very niche area – hard to find things to do in there. I was very excited when that opened up.
AC: That’s amazing. Congrats again!
CS: Thank you!
AC: Can you tell me about the articles that you wrote for TCB?
CS: They were a couple of very short ones, basically talking about various projects or areas of interest. The first article I wrote I was especially excited about because it was about an area of specific interest to me, which is linked data. Technical metadata type of information structure. Basically, I wrote an introduction to linked data specifically for theological catalogers. I was trying to gear my examples to be as jargon-free as possible, but then also to use examples from theological and religious materials so that it would be understandable. Because it can be a very technical field, so it was fun to try and translate an area that was of interest to me and hopefully make it of interest to other people. I also wrote an article on how to use genealogy tools to research dead religious authors so that you could create name authority records for how they appear in Atla databases or library catalogs. Genealogy is a hobby of mine, so figuring out how a hobby of mine taught me how to do certain other research. I enjoyed writing about that as well.
AC: You’ve been an Atla member since 2012. Do you feel Atla has enriched your life or your professional life?
CS: Very much. I consider Atla to be my main professional organization that fits my needs better than any of the others I’ve found out there. Partly because I specialize in such a niche area, Atla’s interests very much align with that and it’s given me ways in which I can become involved in the library community. It’s much more accessible; I feel that the user community has similar interests. Even though we’re from a diverse variety of backgrounds, there are certain shared commitments that make it especially meaningful to be able to participate and learn from others in the organization.
Even though we’re from a diverse variety of backgrounds, there are certain shared commitments that make it especially meaningful to be able to participate and learn from others in the organization.
AC: We have Atla Annual 2020 Online coming up. Are you excited?
CS: I am! I’m very glad that it’s broadening the audience of who can come this year. We lost a lot of our funding for professional development, so we wouldn’t have been able to travel anywhere. I’m glad that by opening it up, I can give my employee a glimpse of what theological librarianship might look like and see some of the ideas that people are talking about, whether it’s in cataloging or reference or information literacy, just so he can see what’s out there.
AC: Is there anything that you’re particularly looking forward to? Any sessions or posters?
CS: I do remember seeing… oh, there were certain things. One was on a text and coding initiative. Very technical, XML, coding-oriented, but I thought that sounded fascinating and so I’m excited to see that. There was a session by Garrett Trott on theological librarianship epistemology that was intriguing to me. So yeah, I’m looking forward to that. There were a couple of sessions where I thought, “Oh drat! They’re at the same time. What will I do?”
AC: You mentioned genealogy as one of your hobbies. What else do you like to do outside of work and outside of theological librarianship?
CS: Lately, when I have a break, and when I’m not required to, I enjoy cooking. If I have to make dinner, forget it – I don’t want to do it. But if I have time, I enjoy trying new recipes and seeing what I can make with things we can actually get in the grocery store these days. I enjoy that. Of course, I enjoy reading. When I have fun time for reading, I enjoy historical novels. Back when I used to have time, I played the piano for fun. And I used to sing in a choir. Can’t do that now, because singing is forbidden, but yes, I enjoy choral singing as well. It’s definitely been a change working from home. But fortunately, I do live close enough to my institution I can go back and forth and get things. Right now, I have piles of rare pamphlets I’ve been cataloging… oh, that one’s kind of controversial. It’s called “My Friends the Cannibals.”
AC: Oh goodness!
CS: Yes. Another challenge is sometimes how to catalog controversial materials in a sensitive way. That can be interesting. Things from the 30s and 40s and 20s were not always sensitive to other cultures.
AC: I really miss my colleagues right now. Everyone at Atla is so nice and I miss being able to sit down and eat lunch with my coworkers or just pop across the hall and say hi to people. It’s rough being alone!
CS: Yes, it is. Some of my colleagues I keep in contact with just because we’re in the same working group, and so we chat back and forth via Microsoft Teams. But then others, I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, they’re my coworker. Where are they? What’s going on? I wonder how they are.” When it used to be, their office was right next door to mine and I’d just pop over and we’d talk about our day, and now that’s totally gone.
AC: We have a water cooler channel at Atla where we post pictures or funny memes; pictures of our various pets and children and plants.
CS: That sounds fun! We don’t have anything like that. If we had some kind of broad, library-wide channel, that could be fun.
AC: I highly recommend it. The pictures of the Atla staff’s dogs are extremely cute!
CS: I’ve been enjoying the ones that get posted on the blog and in the newsletters.
AC: My coworker Charlotte has four whole cats. I love cats.
CS: Me too. Do you have a cat?
AC: I do have a cat. She’s not around anywhere, unfortunately.
CS: Yeah, mine was banned too. Otherwise, you’d see this black fluffy tail wrapping itself around the screen. She’s very social. Has to be in the middle of everything.
AC: That’s so sweet. What’s her name?
CS: Chai. Like the chai tea. She’s five, but she will still go bouncing around sometimes like she forgets she’s not a kitten. This morning, she randomly attacked a roll of toilet paper. All of a sudden, just lunged at it, took a big bite out of it, dropped it on the floor and started kicking it. I don’t know. She’s a strange one.
AC: Thank you so much! It’s been really wonderful talking to you.
CS: It’s been nice talking to you as well, and I look forward to learning about other people in this series.
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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