We’re back with another Member Spotlight interview! This month, we spoke with Atla newcomer Christopher Lopez, Public Services Assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles, in L.A., California. I had such a wonderful time talking with Chris as we discussed instructional design, library as space, and what comics have to do with theology. We hope you enjoy our conversation!
AC: How did you get into librarianship?
CL: Initially, it started out with just finding a job that would pay for rent while I was in seminary. I went to Fuller Theological Seminary for my master’s in divinity, and the student worker job that happened to open up was a Circulation Assistant position at the David Allan Hubbard Library. I took that immediately. I have a very strong passion for stories and storytelling and I had an interest in doing a PhD in Media Studies. A lot of my work at Fuller involved reflection on popular culture, the religious experience, and mythology through comics. Who gets to tell their story, the dynamics of gatekeeping, of suppressing certain types of narratives to keep other meta-narratives in place. All of those things were always of interest to me.
Then, in my time at the Fuller Library, I began to see the connections librarianship had to those things. Dealing with issues of whose stories are made available, whose stories are normalized, access to various types of voices. That interest in story started to connect to my passion about spaces: understanding and knowing the history of a space in which you inhabit and how that could change you. The various indigenous epistemologies that had a very strong connection to space and place and knew each other and understood themselves through space – all of that was very interesting to me.
That interest in story started to connect to my passion about spaces: understanding and knowing the history of a space in which you inhabit and how that could change you.
I also began to see a lot of conversation about space and libraries, like makerspaces. Who gets to access them and how library spaces are one of the last universal spaces where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures can come together. Interestingly, the library was the most diverse of the spaces in my seminary.
So, all these things are catching my attention and I think the final push was my director pointing out that there is actually a degree for this stuff, which I had no idea existed before. I started my MLIS in 2019, and worked at Fuller as a Circulation Assistant, then moved on to Catalog Assistant, then public librarianship. I started at UCLA Library over a year and a half ago, back in March 2020.
AC: Can you tell me a bit about being the Public Services Assistant at UCLA?
CL: I’m involved in every digital public-facing service or resource that we have going on. Without getting into the weeds too much, I’m a part of a department within the library called User Engagement, which focuses on all public aspects of the work we do at the UCLA Library. For me, it’s mainly involved doing instructional resource design of online modules that address hidden learning challenges, both affective and cognitive, in writing and research. Our team is called WIRE: Writing, Instruction, and Research Education.
Specifically, we are student-led in that a lot of our student workers play a significant role in deciding what types of resources and learning challenges we focus on. They lead the effort in addressing what would be the most learner-centered way of designing the resource. And since they are peers with the learners we’re designing for, or in some cases are the learners themselves, they’ll create a resource for a class they recently took. That way, people coming into that class beforehand have an understanding of a specific issue.
That’s probably one of my favorite and most active roles. I’m also part of a recent development that the UCLA Library rolled out: the Anti-Racism Initiative Steering Team. It’s a larger piece that’s in concert with so many other libraries and institutions. In the last year, on a national and global scale, we’ve all experienced this racial awakening of sorts. UCLA wanted to start an initiative to address some of those realities that are at work within our library. The team is broken up into five or six different projects. One’s looking at safe spaces for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the library and without. Another team’s looking at recruitment and retention. There’s one looking at the library’s relationship to police or security on campus. There’s also a group that I’m a co-lead of, focusing on workplace climate and equitable opportunity for advancement.
No matter what, I'll always find a way to make comics a part of my work. Recently, I’ve been focusing on advocating for library support for comic studies.
That’s become something I’m very involved in. Our work right now is figuring out a way to measure and assess workplace climate and organizational health, and to identify where structural racism is at play. That might be inequitable opportunities, imbalance in terms of who’s getting what workload, and how that breaks down over the classification of librarian and staff. We’re also looking at various types of microaggressions, particularly environmental microaggressions.
On a more day-to-day level, I do a bit of website editing for the library and some social media for our humanities and social sciences department. I do some instruction and workshops for information literacy, which are co-taught with other librarians. And then there’s comics! No matter what, I’ll always find a way to make comics a part of my work. Recently, I’ve been focusing on advocating for library support for comic studies. It’s materialized into developing a Comics and Graphic Novels Research Guide. We now have a workshop that’s taking place next week on facilitating a conversation about discovering and researching comics.
AC: How did you hear about Atla?
CL: At Fuller, I knew of SCATLA and Atla because of our consortium borrowing programs. Unbeknownst to me, I was also involved with Atla as a student of religion, both in undergrad and master’s, because I used the Atla databases! I knew I was interested in pursuing theological librarianship what with having the MDiv background and working at Fuller for a while. It was always an important thing to me. When I got into UCLA, I wanted to find some way of keeping in contact with those communities and theological libraries in general. Becoming a member of Atla seemed like it would be helpful in that regard. Atla is my space for theological librarianship.
AC: Do you remember your first impression of Atla?
CL: I think my first major impression came from the Atla 2020 conference. I was really impressed because I’d never had a sense of what was going on in those conversations. It was encouraging to see and hear a lot of those conversations happening within theological libraries, particularly around digital research and scholarship and exploring other modes of literacy. But it’s also tough because my impressions are only digital. I haven’t really had a chance to connect in person with somebody from Atla. I’m looking forward to the interest group focusing on the queer community when that rolls out. I’m really excited about that.
It was encouraging to see and hear a lot of those conversations happening within theological libraries, particularly around digital research and scholarship and exploring other modes of literacy.
AC: You presented at Atla Annual 2021 Online, right?
CL: Yeah, I co-presented a pre-conference workshop, “De-Centering the Self in Instructional Design: Learning from and Building with Each Other,” with a UCLA colleague, Renee Romero. The workshop itself came out of a book I read last year by Willie Jennings, called “After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.” In the book, he has all these conversations around de-colonialism, whiteness, the theological origins of race, and how they intersect with the educational institution, particularly theological education. He creates such a wonderful framework that lets you see how the colonial imagination built the institution of higher education that we still live in.
We’re kind of trapped in a vision of education that is all about forming persons into the self-sufficient white man. And white is this sense of understanding and being in the world, rather than a cultural group or a population group, per se. Jennings encapsulates this way of seeing and being in the world in three words: possession, control, and mastery. It’s this way of seeing and being in the world which was created as the universal for human maturity in all aspects of life, that seeped into the creation of institutions that still exist to this day, such as higher education.
Jennings encapsulates this way of seeing and being in the world in three words: possession, control, and mastery.
Jennings describes this in such a helpful way, but I also noticed that his examples and stories were really instructor and administration-specific. I thought, “Surely theological libraries are not innocent in this capacity?” We can participate in re-building together and breaking down the idea of gathering the many around the one, but seeing the many as the one, in Jennings’s terms. I began to realize that there was some semblance of that rebuilding, of that gathering, of that listening to each other and depending on each other, in my instructional resource design team at WIRE. And so, I thought, “Why not have a conversation with folks around where whiteness or the colonial imagination is at play in our theological libraries?” We could build some framework and have a space to say, “How and where do you see this happening in your own libraries?” Then there was the more practical, interactive part of our workshop, where we introduced some of the practices we implement at WIRE to make sure it’s not about the one person and their vision for how instruction should go, but something that’s more collective and shared, something that really engenders a desire to learn from the other.
That’s what Jennings wants to advocate for in higher education as opposed to the white, self-sufficient man model that is all about “the one” who holds the answers and can do it and you’re evaluated based on that. And exchanging it for something that he sees modeled in the work of Jesus of Nazareth and the work of gathering different peoples and turning them towards each other to build community, to build something new for themselves and for the world.
AC: This year is Atla’s 75th anniversary. In looking forward to the next 25 years, we’ve been thinking about what the 100th anniversary will be like? What do you think the future of theological librarianship will be in the next 25 years?
Read Chris’s response in our 75th Anniversary: The Future of Theological Librarianship post!
AC: What do you like to do outside of theological librarianship?
CL: Definitely comics. My academic engagement with them surprises people sometimes; they wonder if there’s anything important to say about them. Of course, they have a specific genre in mind, right? Superheroes are not comics – they’re a genre of comics. But they’re the most prevalent in folks’ minds. I really think the level of thought and attention that I bring to them is something that’s interesting. At Fuller, my best and most successful work, in terms of trying new things, always came from exploring comics.
People ask, “What do comics have to do with theological conversations?” I feel like in many ways, comics – I’ll use superhero comics as an example – create a mythology that makes more sense for a multi-cultural twenty-first century, where we’re so interconnected and overlapping with each other. When geography and technology mostly kept people distinct and separate, you got just Greek or Egyptian or Norse mythology, these mono-cultural theologies. For me, I love how the superhero universe problematizes the mono-cultural myth. I’m trying to write about the struggle against the white aesthetic regime of colonialism in superhero comics, but also about this desire to be in a plurality of experiences and voices.
When geography and technology mostly kept people distinct and separate, you got just Greek or Egyptian or Norse mythology, these mono-cultural theologies. For me, I love how the superhero universe problematizes the mono-cultural myth.
Then there’s the bigger role of empathy. For me, there is just such a strong, empathetic point of view in comics, which I feel the gospels capture in terms of how Jesus saw others. Comics are such an important tool for empathy; they have such a way of inviting you to piece together somebody else’s story and making it your own while you’re reading it. Then when you leave that space, you go with new feelings and experiences that were never your own, but which are now in some way stitched into your imagination.
When I say these things, people look and me and go, “…you see that in Miss Marvel No. 3?” And I say, “Yeah!” That really surprises some people. Not everybody immediately gets it; they ask, “Are you sure you’re not just making an excuse to read comics?” And I say, “If I am, it’s working!”
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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