We’re back with a new Member Spotlight interview for you! For the third installment in our series, we spoke with longtime Atla member Pat Graham about mentorship, the challenges that theological librarianship faces, and living in a Crusader castle.
Pat was the Margaret A. Pitts Professor of Theological Bibliography and Director of the Pitts Theology Library at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He retired in August of 2017. We hope you enjoy our discussion with Pat!
AC: What brought you to librarianship?
PG: Well, I was teaching college courses in biblical studies and was the faculty liaison with the school’s librarian. Since a university library school was just across the alley from my office, I decided to begin taking courses there. I’d always loved libraries but never worked in one. It dawned on me that this would be a pretty good profession. This would have been back in the mid-1980s when the job market was still pretty tough for theology and biblical studies professors. There were not many theological librarians that I knew of who had PhDs in the discipline and also had a library degree.
I inquired about an opening back at Emory where I’d done my PhD, and the librarian encouraged me to apply. He said they had an opening in cataloging — and that was the one area of library work that I had had no interest in. But as it turned out, I absolutely loved it. I cataloged mostly non-English language materials for a couple of years, and then moved to Reference for four years. When the director retired, I applied for the post, was hired, and so continued for twenty-three years.
AC: I love that you ended up enjoying cataloging even though you weren’t interested in it at first.
PG: Oh yeah. At the end of the day, you knew exactly what you had accomplished.
AC: I know you’ve done a lot of mentorship over the course of your career. Could you tell me about that?
PG: The library had a staff of around fourteen and I was very interested in seeing what our library could do. Every person, whether a half-time general staff person or a full-time professional librarian, was important for the library to achieve its mission.
I was always looking for new staff. For a good part of my career, we would lose maybe one staff member per year, sometimes more than that. At Atla meetings, I would be particularly interested in welcoming new librarians, finding out about their interests and training, and getting some sense of whether they might be able to make a contribution at Pitts. If we already knew we had an opening, or one came up, and the person seemed terribly promising, well, I would try to get in touch with them to see if they were interested in applying.
At Atla meetings, I would be particularly interested in welcoming new librarians, finding out about their interests and training, and getting some sense of whether they might be able to make a contribution at Pitts.
For many of the librarians we hired, their job at Pitts was their very first full-time professional librarian job. They were typically enthusiastic and really interested in the profession and in showing what they could do. This was important, since in a small staff, everyone has to do more than one thing and work together with colleagues. It was such an encouragement to see how new staff could develop skills and make contributions that had not even been expected at the time of hire.
Several of our new hires became department heads after three or four years. Some left to become directors of other theological libraries or to begin families. One did an MBA at Emory before being hired away by a library. Others found a special niche at Pitts and became experts in their roles. As for those who left Pitts for another post, I was always proud of their accomplishments and that another institution had recognized their excellence.
AC: When you first came to Emory, at what point did you find out about Atla, do you remember?
PG: I knew about Atla before I went to Emory. I did research on that sort of thing and believe that I even joined Atla before I started my job at Pitts. Anyway, I’ve always thought that Atla was just a wonderful organization and made it possible for new members to begin immediately making contributions. I encouraged all of our professional librarians not only to be members of Atla, but also attend conferences and do presentations. I think probably most of our staff members would end up doing at least one presentation at the conferences they attended. Often those of us from the library that were going to the conference would gather to discuss the upcoming program and who was going to what unit, so that we didn’t all end up going to the same ones. Then when we came back, we would be able to share with one another what we had learned.
Atla’s always been a very supportive organization, and I encouraged my colleagues to take advantage of this as an opportunity to network and build relations with librarians elsewhere. Because often, if we had a project that we were working on, it may be that another library would be a good partner for the efforts. On one occasion, the directors of Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory collaborated on a digital project subvened by an Atla grant. It worked out nicely because each of us had materials that we could contribute. Atla is a splendid organization to promote such collaboration.
Atla’s always been a very supportive organization, and I encouraged my colleagues to take advantage of this as an opportunity to network and build relations with librarians elsewhere.
AC: Were you able to go to the virtual conference this year?
PG: I did a little, but not terribly much. Part of this is being retired, so you don’t really have the same amount to contribute as you did when you were working. It also came at a time when I had other demands on my time, such as grandchildren with us some of the days of the conference, and so I was doing that. I much prefer the in-person conference.
AC: What do you find most challenging about working in theological librarianship?
PG: That’s a hard one to answer. I would say one of the things is that often the economics work against us. It’s often difficult to recruit and keep good staff at theological libraries, because salaries are often better elsewhere. In addition, I suspect that these budgetary pressures are likely to continue and perhaps even become more severe. I would say the 1990s were some of the very best times for library budgets.
There are also some important differences between working at a university divinity school library and at a stand-alone seminary library. In the former, the university library system may provide a wealth of auxiliary services (such as preservation, scanning, or IT services), but often it doesn’t understand the divinity school and its particular needs. In addition, sometimes the university library’s inclination will be toward simply absorbing the divinity library or treating it as a departmental library. While the seminary library can certainly miss the rich resources of a university library, it typically offers a clearer sense of identity, a cleaner administrative structure, and the advantages of a church connection. Admittedly, there are tradeoffs either way.
AC: You mentioned that you think this is a difficult period in theological librarianship. How do you think it’s going to change in the next five years or so?
PG: Well, that’s another hard question. My thinking is, there will continue to be very difficult economic times. I would say for most colleges and universities, they’re going to have very difficult times as well because of their increasing inclination to make their appeals to the public on the basis of economics: that is, you send your kids to our university and they’ll make more money. They’re often no longer making the appeal primarily on educating the whole person, producing graduates who are critical thinkers, able to be good citizens, etc. So, once the economic calculus has been launched and tuition costs have been increased significantly, students and their parents begin focusing on the economics and making decisions on that basis. It is not always so clear that taking on a lot of debt to go to college or seminary is a wise financial decision.
Some schools of theology benefit from the fact that they have substantial endowments, but most don’t. At one time, theological libraries would say, “Okay, all of us who are interested, let’s say, in the history of global Christianity, we’re going to work together and you buy materials from Sub-Saharan Africa and I’ll buy some from eastern Europe.” And so together, we will build these great collections, and we’ll be able to make them available to one another via interlibrary loan, etc. But if your library is under great financial pressure so that you can no longer buy even the core materials that your faculty and students need, then doing these extra things is very difficult.
Now, one of the good things is that with Google, the HathiTrust, and other online resources, now more and more materials are available to everyone at no charge or via consortial arrangements. Sometimes you can get these aggregator packages, and you can get access to a wealth of materials without ever having to buy them for your own library, catalog them, shelve them, and do all the rest. Libraries that do well are going to have directors and staff that can analyze these matters carefully and make wise decisions about their expenditures. But the economics will continue to be very difficult going forward, I think.
If you have schools that are from the same religious tradition, there might be ways that you can work together and share materials, and so relieve each partner of having to buy so much for themselves. But when a seminary president or dean needs to cut costs, libraries are easy targets. You can reduce budgets quickly, but the impact is a cumulative one, and so it may not really start to pinch or hurt for another three to five years. But it’s tough, I think.
AC: What’s something you’re really proud of accomplishing? Do you have a project that you are working on or have worked on in the past that you’re really proud of?
PG: I would say probably three things. One we’ve already talked about, and that is our staffing. I’m just very proud and feel honored to have worked with so many really superb theological librarians. It’s so gratifying to work with people and watch them develop and go on to significant professional achievements. I’m very proud of that.
I’m just very proud and feel honored to have worked with so many really superb theological librarians.
The second thing would be our building at the Pitts Theology Library. We worked for… I think it was sixteen years on building a new library. There were several recessions that we had to work through. In addition, there were always other people elsewhere in the university who would rather have seen our funds go to other university priorities. I felt very fortunate to have always had really strong deans who understood the importance of an independent theological library for the div school. The new Pitts building is really a great facility with great exhibit space, lots of shelf space and reading space, technology and special collections areas, and all the rest. I spent maybe seventy-five percent of my career as a library director working on the building. Fortunately, it was finished three years before I ended up retiring, and so I was able to enjoy it before handing it on to my successor. The current library director at Pitts, Bo Adams, is doing just a wonderful job and I couldn’t be more pleased with handing things over to such a capable person. I’m very proud of that.
And then a third thing I would say is that I was very interested in building collections for the library and especially special collections. My predecessor at the library, Channing Jeschke, did an excellent job of defining areas of focus for the theology library; about five or six major areas of focus. I continued to develop those and then maybe developed one or two areas in addition to that. But I got great pleasure from working with donors and our cataloging staff, Armin Siedlecki who was in charge of most of our rare book cataloging, and our archival staff as well, so that was really a lot of fun. I think we ended up with a large special collections and archives, and it’ll be a rich resource for scholars going forward. So those are the three things: staff, building, and collections.
AC: What is something that would surprise people about you?
PG: Well, I don’t know. Let’s see if I jotted anything down here. Oh! One of the things was that when I was finishing my PhD at Emory, I lived for about five weeks in the lower chambers of a Crusader castle in Jordan.
PG: I was working with one of my professors, Max Miller, and others on the team. But he had been working on this project of an archaeological survey in central and southern Moab, so just to the east of the Dead Sea. We would go out in Jeeps each day and having read travelers’ reports — I’m thinking in particular about a German traveler who made his way through the area in the 19th century. We would read his reports and what he saw, and how far it was from this place and that. We were using those reports to go out again and try to identify the sites and place names, and then pick up pottery at those sites. Then you could determine the periods when those sites were inhabited by ancient peoples. Much of our crew lived at the bottom of this castle. We had our meals out in the courtyard, and we showered in an area that was kind of screened off but was up in the ramparts. It was a memorable experience. I don’t know that I’ve talked about that with a lot of people, but that was a great educational experience.
AC: That sounds amazing, my goodness. How many people have the opportunity to experience something like that?
PG: Right! Great fun, great fun.
AC: What are some things that you like to do outside of theological librarianship? I know you mentioned spending time with your grandchildren. Anything else?
PG: Well, that’s certainly one of the big things. We have seven grandchildren and six live in the Atlanta area with two of our daughters and their husbands, so that’s great fun. Vegetable gardening is a hobby of mine, so we’re right in the midst of that right now. I have two large vegetable gardens in the backyard, and then we have flower gardens in the backyard and the front. I enjoy yard work and garden work of various sorts.
I hike up Stone Mountain, which is about a mile and a quarter each way and that’s about ten minutes away from here. I do that every day, so that’s my exercise. Photography is a hobby of mine, and so that continues to be a great activity. I often take my camera with me as I go up the mountain and get photos of beautiful sunrises and deer and other wildlife along the way. I teach Bible classes at the church we attend. I like to continue to work in Biblical Studies, particularly Old Testament studies, and published an article in a book last year.
Art museums are also a favorite of mine. Anytime I’m in a new city, I like to see if they have a good art museum and drop by there. If we had had the meeting in Detroit, the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of my favorite American museums. I’ve been there just once before, but it’s truly one of America’s treasures. I like to do European travel. The coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench in that so far. But my first year after retirement, my wife and I went to Germany and spent two weeks. We visited art museums and historic churches and that sort of thing. Then the next year, we went to the Netherlands and Belgium and did the same thing. Later that year, an old friend of mine, a biblical studies professor, he and I went to Germany for two weeks and traveled around and did the same thing. I have another library friend who’s also retired, and he and I had a trip to Germany planned for September but had to cancel, so we’ve rescheduled it for May. We’ll see how that goes. But I think those are the main things.
AC: Well, that’s definitely a lot. You are certainly someone with many interests. I really hope that the trip in May manages to come off without a hitch.
PG: Well, thank you very much.
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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