May 08, 2023
My overarching belief in people and organizations is captured by the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” We multiply each other, not add up to each other. Three and three is nine not six. Four and four is sixteen not eight. More isn’t merrier, it’s magical. Creativity is fostered through collaboration in community.
Atla is not typical of an association in the academic and library space. Atla is unique in that it is a theological library association and a producer of the premier databases for the study of religion and theology for research and teaching. It is made up of two organizations that could stand alone. I was going to say, “could easily stand alone,” but that isn’t true. The two parts are a whole, and they mutually serve one another.
In May, the Atla staff came together for my first all-staff, in-person retreat. I looked forward to being together, and the retreat was important to me for that reason. But it is also a necessity for staff that is distributed. It is easy to become remote. We don’t officially use the word “remote” to describe the distributed staff, because of its connotation with being emotionally distant and disengaged. In fact, that is a real danger for a (remote) work environment. Silos form in every complex organization, but they always become more acute when distributed. So, an organization has to be intentional in order to not let that happen, because it can lose the richness of diverse perspectives and ideas.
The goal of the retreat was not to plan or produce but to prepare the ground for the future. We focused on team building to open communication; to foster cross-organizational relationships and reduce silos; to help us understand and appreciate each other’s role in Atla; to feel supported and valued; to understand how we are one organization; and to leave motivated and inspired about Atla’s future. The theme of the retreat was One Atla.
Atla is unique in several ways. To be sure, one is the fact that the products support the association. But that is the very least interesting and compelling reason.
More compelling is that the association members, as librarians, have a role in what tools are developed for libraries, students, and scholars. Atla doesn’t just provide a database for the faculty and students, it empowers religion and theological librarians with tools to impact the future of theological education. We do that by decolonizing collections, broadening their religious scope, incorporating emerging scholarship, methodologies, and marginalized voices, and integrating interfaith sense and sensibility. No other library association in humanities or social sciences puts such a tool in the librarians’ hands and under their control.
Another compelling reason for celebrating One Atla as two sides of the same coin is that there are challenges ahead posed by technology. The just good enough resources that students and even scholars gravitate toward leaves the librarian on the sideline — a simple use of Google Scholar or a reliance on a general search engine instead of librarians and their expertise. We know what weeds are out there choking the wheat. Information literacy — the heart of library science — is needed more than ever in our over-information age, where it is hard to know the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly. The curated collection in the library will save us from information ignorance, misuse, and abuse, which in religion and theology has serious consequences in society.
It is easy to see us as different organizations rather than halves of a whole, whose work depends upon each other and whose ideas are generated across the organization, across the association’s membership, and always for the membership.
At the 2023 Alta Annual, Dr. Walter Fluker will speak on the themes of his writing and teaching, which began with the influence of Howard Thurman on Martin Luther King Jr’s. vision of the ideal community. Dr. Fluker will remind us how that ideal — the search for common ground — is still unfinished. For Thurman, community was not conformity or uniformity, because “for all men to be alike is the death of life in man.” And yet, somehow, we are able to “perceive harmony that transcends all diversities and in which diversity finds its richness and significance.”
This is also the ideal of our association and of those that work for the association. Diversity is strength. The multiplicity of our contributions to each other is our wealth. The two sides of the organization, like its members and staff, make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
 The Search for Common Ground: An Inquiry into the Basis of Man’s Experience of Community (Friends United Press, 1971), p. 6.
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