I have a t-shirt that always produces smiles when people passing read it. It is a picture of a hammer with the caption, “this is not a drill!”
People get the layers of meaning and irony and probably think of more as they keep walking.
The first thing that likely comes to mind is the adage, “the right tool for the right job.” Every tool does something unique and makes it easier to get a job done. A perfectly good tool used the wrong way is frustrating and ineffective, and it can be dangerous. That is user error and not the tool’s fault. You can make a hole with a hammer, but it is not what a hammer is for, and the hole will not be precise. For that you want a drill, but you would not want to use a drill to hammer a nail.
Scholars and students of religious texts and traditions, history of religion, comparative religion, sociology of religion, theology, preaching, and pastoral care all deal fundamentally in genre competence and discernment. How is a gospel different than a tafsir? Is a religious text that sounds like history actually historical or is it a story, and does that matter? What is primary source, and how do you read it? What is the difference between a peer-reviewed journal article and an article in an encyclopedia? Is an article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion different than the same topic in Wikipedia? How can blogs be used in research and teaching? Will a Google search for “liberation theology” have the same quality of results as a search on the Atla Religion Database®?
Over the course of my career, and in a very focused fashion during the last two months visiting with Atla members, I have heard how critical it is for information literacy to be taught and internalized in the study of religion and theology — both in theological education and higher education. If or when it is not taught and internalized, the results have consequences. In a seminary and divinity school, every incoming class produces outgoing pastors, community organizers, and chaplains. In a college or university, the incoming student becomes an outgoing healthcare professional, politician, social worker, journalist, or law enforcer. In every case, they are a citizen. I have heard a librarian ask the question: if it doesn’t happen here, what will happen there?
The curation of information and the ability to discern how to use it is taught in parts of individual classes, but it is taught in every interaction between the student and the librarian. Atla librarians are the constant. Whether a course is taught by a full professor or an adjunct faculty member, an institution’s impact and a student’s outcome depend upon the librarian’s constancy and presence. Librarians help create lifelong learners and discerners. This is not something that a ChatGPT can do. The answer is less important than what is learned in the process. Will students be equipped to follow that process again, on their own, when they complete a short-lived degree?
Last month my colleague Jim Butler, Director of Information Systems, wrote about ChatGPT.[i] Just like people, machine learning depends on what the machine is learning, too. Garbage in — garbage out. Do we want AI writing our homework from its black box?[ii]
Do we know what is in the black box? Atla does, and its librarians do. All library associations provide professional development, but Atla is unique. The direct curation of information and content for students to learn and teachers to teach is also Atla’s mission and work. In addition to being an association that advances librarians in their profession, Atla provides research tools that continually add diverse and discerning content and material that decolonizes the library with both existing and emerging scholarship. Atla literally makes the right tool for the right job with and for its members.
As I have listened to and visited with Atla members these last two months, I was reminded of another layer of the t-shirt’s meaning: urgency. How can Atla advocate for the central role that librarians play in theological education, religious literacy, and interfaith understanding? How can Atla influence the study of religion in universities so that law and public policy, medicine and healthcare, and business ethics integrate the critical role religion plays in these professions? What new collaborations and partnerships will highlight Atla’s members and resources? How can Atla’s inclusive and diverse tools become a standard for research?
How will Atla make a difference? Let us know. This is not a drill.
[i] Jim Butler, “The AI Wrote My Homework.” Atla Blog. February 10, 2023. https://www.atla.com/blog/the-ai-wrote-my-homework/.
[ii] Safiya U. Noble and Sarah T. Roberts, “Out of the Black Box.” Education Review. March 13, 2017. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/3/out-of-the-black-box.
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