Impressions of Atla: A Year (Nearly) as Your Executive Director/
November 01, 2023
Atla’s Board of Directors met in October. It was my third Board meeting, and each has reinforced an impression that originally drew me to Atla.
Let me start with how I arrived at the impression that affected me so. At the first interview with the search committee, I had the opportunity to ask questions, too. I had a list—most of them operational, financial, and related to the challenges theological librarians are facing in our ecosystem, which includes both the study of religion in humanities/social sciences at universities and colleges and the state of theological education in seminaries and divinity schools. We all know there are a legion of social, demographic, and economic challenges. I’ll write soon about my belief that the opportunities Atla has to respond to these challenges could open up an exciting and expansive future.
But back to those challenges. In times of stress, often the not-so-better-angels in us come out. We turn inward and myopic. We see others as “the other.” Even groups that are generally and rather closely aligned can exaggerate their differences. Sigmund Freud called this the “narcissism of small differences” (der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen). Pardon the reference to Wikipedia, but it has a good definition:
[It] is the idea that the more a relationship or community shares commonalities, the more likely the people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to minor differences perceived in each other.
I have seen how that plays out. During one week in a previous role, I experienced a challenge that was not the most serious among others. It was during a large academic conference, when social and political issues were riffling through the association’s members and overshadowing the meeting itself. During the meeting I slept poorly and had a memorably weird dream. In it, the director of the conference and I were standing on the roof of the convention center overlooking the roof of an adjacent parking garage. She said to me, “Everyone attending this meeting wants their own personal tree planted on top of that parking garage.” I said, “OK, we might be able to fit 4,500 saplings. Could we do that?” She responded, “They want full-grown trees at least fifteen-feet tall. Some want taller trees.” Please remember it was a dream, because I responded like a dolt, “We can’t do that—what with the size and the dirt.”
When I was interviewed last year, I heard something quite lovely and precious. When I was given the chance to ask a question, instead of asking one from my list about operations, finances, or challenges, I skipped to my last and most important question. I told the search committee that I had read their bios and CVs. While I saw that they all had other affiliations and were members of other organizations, such as ALA, ACRL, SBL, and AAR, they overwhelmingly devoted the lion’s share of their volunteer association service to Atla. I asked: Why did they do that? What made Atla so important and special to them?
The chair of the search committee, Kris Veldheer, spoke first but said others may have different answers. She said that when she goes to other academic or library conferences, people divide up into their tribes, based on their politics and ideologies, or their school’s size and institutional context. You don’t sit at a table with so-called liberals if you’re so-called conservative—politically, socially, or religiously—and vice versa. If you did, you wouldn’t be welcome or recognized. But at Atla, some of my favorite people are those that do not see the world as I see it, or practice a faith as I practice mine, or vote as I vote. But I ask them for advice, and they ask me. I really like them, and they like me. We are friends. We all sit together, regardless of anything else. That is what matters. That is why Atla is important to me.
When I asked the other members of the committee how they would answer, they had nothing to add, which in fact is a lot to add.
This is why I wanted to study religion, and I think it is why you are librarians who specialize in religion and theology. In a library, a shelf contains different views, views in religion that are deeply held differences—arguably like no other differences people hold. Dewey or LOC do not divide books by point of view. They catalogue books by subject. Books on a shelf symbolically talk to each other.
We have a lot to do at Atla in this world of differences. We do that for a student who studies religion to get a degree then works at Amazon or the Department of State, a minister who studies theology to lead a diverse or a homogeneous congregation, a scholar who needs resources to make their research matter in a world of differences.
At the October Board meeting, twelve people from a variety of institutional contexts and social locations debated ideas and broke bread together. They responded to the present and imagined the future. No one wanted their own fifteen-foot tree. They wanted a forest. Atla is in good hands.
I’ve been asked a lot about my impressions after my first year (actually, ten months). That’s my impression.
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