Preserving the Past While Preparing for the Future – Thoughts from Atla’s New ED/
January 09, 2023
I am thrilled to be joining the Atla team to help serve its members and the scholars and students who use its resources.
What makes me so excited about Atla’s future is Atla’s history—the continual responsiveness to change for its members and product users, building community and collaborations across institutional and international boundaries. In its 77-year history, Atla has evolved and expanded the role of libraries and librarians in academic and theological institutions around the world, adapting to changing demographics and educational needs. It is often said that a key outcome of a humanities education is preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist. Atla members model this.
Atla was established in 1946 at the initiation of the American Association of Theological Schools (now the Association of Theological Schools) to set the accrediting standards for library and information resources because librarianship is critical to theological education and the study of religion. Since then, Atla has never stopped evolving in this role. Flexibility and adaptability have been its trademarks. I look back to my own use of the Religion Index One and Two in the 1980s. The transformation to the EBSCO-hosted Atla Religion Database® (Atla RDB®), AtlaSerials® (Atlas®), AtlaSerials PLUS® (Atlas PLUS®), along with the Historical Digital Archives and the Books@Atla Open Press, does not happen naturally; it happens intentionally and creatively in order to support members and researchers. When I also look from the International Christian Literature Documentation Project (1993) to the current list of journals in the full-text tools, I see an organization with a broad, inclusive, and diverse view of religion and theology.
Celebrating Atla’s 75 years of scholarship, Gregg Taylor noted that when Atlas was launched, it “started with fifty titles that were selected by a group of outside scholars in various sub-disciplines of religion and theology. Since then, we’ve had radical growth in the product, going from fifty titles to now close to six hundred titles. There’s been an attempt to get global scholarship, written by global scholars–not by scholars in the US writing about the globe, but global scholars.”
It is extraordinary and rare for an organization to remain adaptable, nimble, and flexible. The Association of Theological Schools highlighted this adaptability in a 2004 issue of Theological Education (40.1). This ability was tested by COVID-19. It required an even-closer librarian-faculty collaboration. Students and faculty would have been lost without the skills of librarians. Theological librarians are now even more what Paul Schrodt described as the “parallel education arena.” The digital transition that theological librarianship championed, sometimes at the resistance of faculty, literally saved the classroom during the pandemic. Reysa C. Alenzuela and Ma. Cynthia Peleña describe the result:
With the transformation to online learning, the role of theological librarians as curators and educators is very much a necessity. Librarians are now at the forefront of research and instructions with their skills to retrieve and organize tools and resources. In a world where emerging technology is a primary commodity, a librarian’s role goes beyond handling directional queries—which is giving exactly the resources sought for or pointing out where the resources can be found. The information environment becomes highly scalable and librarians need to teach the concept of searching and evaluating resources so that, with changes brought by new technology or an upgrade in the platform, the library users have the base knowledge to work independently.
Atla is preserving the past and preparing for the future. It is ready, willing, and able to respond to a combination of challenges: enrollment decline in the humanities, the changing nature of theological education such as new forms of credentials for ministry, the transition across all institutions (big and small) to online and hybrid instruction, austerity library budgets, and the needs of scholars and students without access to resources. Several years ago, my former board described my job as not CEO but CAO, Chief Anxiety Officer. The unprecedented and collective change in all these areas will motivate me every day.
All these challenges play to Atla’s strengths. Libraries are the indispensable source for access to knowledge, and that will be even more so as humanities and theological education change. Alta has a unique opportunity to make a wide impact: a diverse, inclusive, international, trans-disciplinary, multi-religious, and non-Eurocentric community.
I am convinced of three things. First, Atla’s members are more critical than ever in the changing environment for religious studies and theological education. Second, Atla’s products are more critical than ever in an age of un-curated information. Third, the study of religion is critical to peace and mutual understanding. Religion is the litmus test for civil discourse, community, and empathy. In theological librarianship, information literacy and religious literacy together foster understanding and respect. Atla serves professions and professionals that need to be religiously and theologically informed in a global interfaith world.
The creation and distribution of knowledge is no longer the claim or the property of the West—or the academy. What alternative model will Atla help create? How will Atla reflect the flows and exchanges of people and knowledge that comprise religion and theology in the world today? How will it support theological librarianship around the world and in new ways? Contrary to the centuries-long preoccupation in Europe and America with sovereignty, collaboration is based on the keywords: share, connect, aggregate, and bridge.
The following playful and thoughtful poem was read by the Chair of the SBL Council during my last annual business meeting as executive director. When it was read, I thought of Atla, its members, its history, and its future. These excerpts from “A Little Yarn,” written by Pam Liew, are used with permission and thanks:
I thought I knew what the knitter knew.
The knitter knows knots, is what I thought.
“Not knots,” she chuckled, needles flitting,
“There’s nothing knotty at all about knitting,”
And then she added, needles clinking,
“A knitter’s not knotting, A knitter’s linking.”
“Not knots,” I mused, “a knitter’s linking…”
That difference really got me thinking.
“Why links?” I asked, “aren’t knots much stronger?”
“Won’t knots hold tighter? Won’t knots last longer?”
“You may have a point. But, look, I’ve got two!
My links can do something that knots cannot do.”
And as she was saying these words that she said
She slipped what she’d knitted right over my head.
“Knots may be sturdy and knots may be strong,
But links allow something to be short AND long,
Without being broken or shattered or torn
Adjusting its shape when it needs to be worn.”
Smothered in softness from shoulder to chin,
This new pearl of wisdom began to sink in—
By flexing and stretching the links could adapt
To changing positions where knots might’ve snapped.
Collaboration, partnerships, and responsiveness to change require flexibility—knitting with links, not knots. This is Atla’s DNA, and I am so fortunate to be part of its future.
 Ana Cackley, “Celebrating Our Products – 75 Years of Scholarship,” Atla blog post, June 14, 2021. Online: https://www.atla.com/blog/celebrating-our-products-75-years-of-scholarship/.
 Paul Schrodt, “Theological Librarianship and Theological Education,” in The American Theological Library Association: Essays in Celebration of the First Fifty Years, eds. Patrick Graham, Valerie R. Hotchkiss, and Kenneth E. Rowe (Evanston: The American Theological Library Association, 1996), 138.
 See Jeremy Wallace, “Creating a Useful, Accessible, & Connected Theological Library,” in Collection Development in Theological Libraries: Abiding Principles and Emerging Practices, ed. Carisse Mickey Berryhill (The Theological Librarian’s Handbook, vol. 3: Chicago: Atla Open Press, 2022), 7.
 Reysa C. Alenzuela and Ma. Cynthia Peleña, “Theological Library in the New Normal Environment: New Dynamics of Institutional Relationship,” in Administration in Theological Libraries, ed. Andrew Keck (The Theological Librarian’s Handbook, vol. 2; Chicago: Atla Open Press, 2021), 57.
Enjoying the Atla Blog?
Subscribe to receive email alerts of new blog posts of a specific type. Members, subscribers, publishers, or anyone interested in the study of religion & theology are welcome to sign up to one or all alerts to keep up to date with the Atla community. If you or your institution are a member, the Atla Newsletter delivers a monthly curated email of top posts to your email inbox.