Member Spotlight: Jim Pakala
by Ana Cackley/
April 13, 2021
Happy days! We’re back with a new Member Spotlight interview! This month features Jim Pakala, the retired former Library Director of J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. Library at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. I loved chatting with Jim and hearing all about his time on the Atla Board, fond memories of past Atla Annuals, and his love of trains. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Jim!
AC: What led you to librarianship? Did you always see yourself working in this field?
JP: Like many in Atla over the years, I never envisioned being a librarian. In January 1973, I went to complete my Master of Sacred Theology (STM) at Biblical School of Theology. I began working part-time in the library, which already had about 30,000 volumes thanks to the acquisition of the core of another seminary’s collection. A professor who oversaw the library had to go to the Netherlands for a year to complete a doctorate and recommended me for that oversight because I had my Master of Divinity (MDIV), was pursuing my STM, and had some university grad courses in philosophy. Meanwhile, we had been pursuing Pennsylvania accreditation, and a full-time library director was required. I began a course at a time with my tuition paid for, later completing both my STM and a Drexel University library degree. With accreditation, we could use “Seminary” in our name, as Pennsylvania forbids that use otherwise.
Like many in Atla over the years, I never envisioned being a librarian.
So yes, I was at Biblical, which is now Missio Seminary. I went there in January ‘73, and I was there until ‘91. I got a call, actually, in August of ‘90, from the dean at the time, who later became the president of Covenant, saying, “Your name has been given to us as one who knows a lot of different librarians.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve been very active in the Theological Library Association. And I do.” Then I paused, and I said, “Well, you know, I may be interested in that position at Covenant.” And he said, “Well, actually, we’re after you. But we didn’t want to pose it that way in case you had no inclination whatsoever of leaving Biblical.”
I went for the interviews in October of 1990, accompanied by Denise and our son Kent. Nice surprises occurred, such as when I met with the president and we discovered that both he and someone who had worked with me at Biblical’s library knew one another from First Presbyterian in Duluth, Minnesota, and at my meeting with the whole faculty, an elderly member greeted me saying that he taught my sister Greek in the early 1950s in New York! Committed at Biblical until summer 1991, we moved in late July but Covenant brought us out earlier to find a house.
Now, the main mandate was to complete a retro-conversion. They had taken ten years to do half. I said, “I can’t take this position if Denise isn’t hired.” As it turned out, she completed it in eighteen months. By God’s preparation, her work at Westminster was mainly retro-conversion. That even included the huge OCLC systems migration (to Passport & Connexion) in progress before we moved, so she knew both old and new and needed both, as PALINET had migrated before MLNC, which I saw that Covenant joined. We left the awful mix of card and fiche catalogues once the retro-con and barcoding were done and computers introduced.
AC: You’ve been with Atla for a long time, and you served on the Board as well. Could you tell me about that?
JP: It was a wonderful experience. Dennis Norlin was the Executive Director at the time. In fact, I went up to Chicago for his memorial later, and people who were there could make remarks at this little reception they had. It was wonderful because I was able to tell from that board experience about the incredible job he had. When the association moved from one building over to the other building in Chicago, it was extremely difficult. A lot of people were kind of wide-eyed because they didn’t know what he’d been through. But being on the board, I was very aware of how difficult that time was and how well he navigated that whole situation.
AC: I know you’ve been to lots of conferences. I heard something about a competition, in fact, which you and Denise won for the oldest bags you had!
JP: I can’t recall all the details, but yes, we did win because we’d been in Atla so long and gone to so many conferences. We wouldn’t miss a conference if we could possibly help it.
AC: What was your first Atla Annual like?
JP: In June 1975, Denise and I rode a sleeping car from Philadelphia to Boston to begin our honeymoon. Atla was meeting at Gordon-Conwell, but somehow I couldn’t persuade her to attend, so our first conference was the next year at Calvin on their 100th anniversary and was fabulous.
Since 1976 we always had at least one or two librarians attend Atla in June. In fact, in Indianapolis, we had five of us! In a sense, there were six, because Becky Givens already was under then-confidential consideration to succeed Denise in 2019. Becky roomed with the outgoing president of Atla, Jennifer Bartholomew. I actually put something out on Atlantis, “Does anyone want to room with Becky?” Well, they ended up rooming together, and they really hit it off.
Becky, I think perhaps through Jennifer’s influence, has been on the Professional Development Committee of Atla almost from when we hired her. So, we’re very proud of her. Of seven applicants she was the only qualified cataloguer (compared with sixty-two applicants for a circulation & ready-reference position years back).
AC: I know you’ve been very involved with the Presbyterian denominational group. Can you tell me about that?
JP: Yes, we always went to that, of course. In fact, that’s how I got to know John Trotti so well; he was an Atla president. I think his last conference was in Portland in 2003. He was the life of the Presbyterian group and I’m glad Union provided a Trotti gargoyle on their new library. And he was one, along with Roger Loyd at Duke and others, who hosted me in the late 1990s as we were planning our library renovation and expansion. Anyway, over time our group reached the point where we no longer called ourselves the Presbyterian and Reformed Library Association. The denominational groups weren’t quite as pronounced as they had been. There are a lot of non-denominational and even non-seminary library members of Atla.
We had a conference at Union in Richmond in 1983. I think that was the last conference that a self-standing seminary hosted. They were able to house people. My son Kent, age four, loved riding his tricycle around the quad. And he was babysat some by the daughter of David and Donna McWhirter (Disciples of Christ Historical Society). Campus-based conferences I remember as having good food and interaction at every meal, such as with two Atla founders in 1982 in Toronto. They attended because oral history interviews were done in a plenary session. With the hotel conferences, I miss the serendipitous encounters at each meal, and I miss the use of chapels or adjacent churches for services, such as at St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia (2007) and the historic “Old Cathedral” in St. Louis (2009).
Read updates from the Presbyterian & Reformed Denominational Group in the 2020 Atla Annual Yearbook.Read
But anyway, I ended up running our denominational group for a number of years, including taking minutes while running the meetings. I retired from Covenant on June 30, 2020. We are grateful that Union’s Christopher Richardson assumed the leadership earlier that month. But Denise and I hope to continue attending Atla conferences and the denominational meeting. We love it.
Sharon Taylor and I joke that the Atla conference is the highlight of our year, and that 'we must not have very interesting lives.' But it was true! Our memories of Atla are wonderful.
Sharon Taylor and I joke that the Atla conference is the highlight of our year, and that “we must not have very interesting lives.” But it was true! Our memories of Atla are wonderful. As we drove our old Chevy from Pennsylvania to Richmond in 1983, Kent was in the backseat and he counted all of the J.B. Hunt trucks. And we had to say at the end of the trip that he was the best behaved of the three of us. (But at some later conference, I joked that I hoped the house didn’t burn down in our absence. For Eileen Saner, Cait Kokolus, and others who knew him, he’s now forty-two, married, and in West Palm Beach as an Audi master mechanic. Some of you spoke with him and his wife at the 2009 conference in St. Louis.)
AC: I love that Atla conferences are a family thing for you.
JP: They are. They really are.
Registration for Atla Annual 2021 Online is now open!Read
AC: Did you go to Atla Annual 2020 Online?
JP: Oh yes, and to the denominational meeting. We obviously couldn’t go to everything; we had to choose our sessions. I did attend the one that Andrew Stout, our full-time Access Services Librarian, ran. And it was excellent if I might say. And we still plan to attend the sessions. We’ll be more choosy, I suppose, and maybe see more of the city or whatnot. But no, we plan to go to the conferences.
AC: What are you proud of accomplishing in your library career?
Read Pat Graham's Member Spotlight!Read
JP: Like Patrick Graham, I have three things to mention, and two are the same: staffing and a building program. I’ve always considered the staff to be the most important part of a library. As to a building program, we tripled the size in 1999-2000. I’ve already mentioned visiting John Trotti and Roger Loyd for the help they graciously provided (Roger in part by taking me through their new law library facility he wanted me to see). Lorena Boylan of St. Charles Seminary recommended Hood and Western Maryland Colleges’ libraries, the latter a major expansion featured in a Library Journal cover article. But the third thing I must mention is engagement with library associations. My six years on the Atla board were a highlight, as were service on state and local association boards (MOBIUS, MLNC, and SLRLN).
I’ve always considered the staff to be the most important part of a library.
AC: What do you wish other people knew about theological librarianship?
JP: That it can be multiple things at the same time, such as a ministry vocation, scholarship, and professional leadership.
AC: What might someone be surprised to know about you?
JP: Passenger trains are and always have been something I love.
AC: What do you think will change about librarianship over the next five years?
JP: Change will vary according to the nature of each library, its purpose, and location. These, in turn, will affect librarianship as such. So many prognostications over the decades have proved wrong or at least only partly correct. My approach always has been “both/and…and”; so, both print and non-print, both quiet study and space for conversation, both big window views and niches to sequester oneself, and eclecticism when it comes to types of chairs and other furnishings and features. Now we include in-person, online, and hybrid education. But I joke with tour groups that the rare books will outlast everything else. Librarianship will continue to face unsettling technological changes and obsolescence. I echo Patrick Graham in saying higher education itself faces big challenges. But, people of faith have some unique resources and opportunities as theological education confronts whatever lies ahead.
Librarianship will continue to face unsettling technological changes and obsolescence.
AC: What do you like to do outside of theological librarianship?
JP: Research, write, walk with Denise, plant flowers, sing in choir, chaplaincy, and definitely ride trains.
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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