We’re back with another installment of your favorite semi-regular column, our Member Spotlight interviews! This month, we interviewed Dr. Carisse M. Berryhill, Special Assistant to the Dean for Strategic Initiatives at the Brown Library at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. As a long-time member of Atla, Carisse has been at the forefront of many of our initiatives, from the iSchool theological librarianship course to the ITLE Task Force. I loved discussing these with her, along with past conferences, hospitality, and how Atla has and hasn’t changed over the years. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Carisse!
AC: How did you get involved in theological librarianship?
CB: I was working as an English professor, and I reached a point in my career where it just didn’t look like there were any steps further. There wasn’t really any research support; I had made a commitment fairly early in my career to pursue research when given an opportunity to choose a fork. So, I began looking around for possibilities to do research in the field. And I learned that a library was going to have a position in two years that was connected with their religious collection, which was in my research field.
The same week I learned that I also learned that a library school in Texas was opening an extension program in my city. I thought, “Okay, it looks to me like God is at work here.” I entered the program, not knowing what would happen. After library school, I had an opportunity to apply for, and eventually was hired for, a cataloging job at a standalone seminary connected with my religious tradition. The history of the Stone-Campbell Movement is my research field.
That took me to Memphis to work in the library. I had never expected to work as a cataloger. I had thought because I’ve been a teacher, that I would probably work in a reference kind of position. But working as a cataloger was a great theological education. It was amazing because everything went through my hands. So I learned and watched. Through that library, I learned about Atla and about the Tennessee Theological Library Association, and that got me started on new opportunities for leadership and service.
I just loved Atla, especially the Tennessee group, which contributed so much to my opportunity to grow and learn.
I just loved Atla, especially the Tennessee group, which contributed so much to my opportunity to grow and learn. After I had been in Tennessee for twelve years, I moved to Texas, partially for family reasons. I made another kind of remarkable change by moving from cataloging to Archives and Special Collections.
I really didn’t know anything about Archives and Special Collections, except from the perspective of a scholar who used those materials. And the religious tradition that I’m part of — an upper south denomination called Churches of Christ — is a fairly conservative community. It has a radical polity in that there is no denominational structure above the local congregation. There’s no diocese, there’s no presbytery, no synod, no convention. There’s no supra-congregational organization, which gives individual congregations a great deal of freedom. But it also means that certain kinds of conserving institutions that you might expect, like a denominational archive, don’t exist. So, it falls to institutions affiliated with a denomination, like a college where I work now, to build this kind of institutional memory and resources.
It was then my job to deepen those collections, extend them, and recruit new collections. We now have above 600 collections of personal papers now. I think about 140,000 cataloged items, and those are primarily focused on our denomination’s history. We also have about 40,000 digitized items that have generated about two million total downloads worldwide.
I have also taught the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign iSchool course on theological librarianship now for seventeen years. I was recruited in 2004, at the Atla summer conference. It was a new course. Atla decided to use it as a means to achieve one of its aims at the time, which was that there would be a supply of qualified librarians. So, they worked out a deal with Illinois to offer this course as an online-only course. Illinois was doing a lot of hybrid work at that point. It was very early when we first started doing the course; we didn’t even have video streaming. We did it by dial-up and chat. We had voiceover from the instructor, and maybe a guest, but the students had no voice input; they just had the chat. It’s been interesting to watch it grow. I enjoy teaching; I’m really happy to come to Atla conferences and see former students — that’s just wonderful.
Read the first open access book in the series, Introduction to Theological Libraries.Read
AC: Could you tell me a little about your time with the International Theological Librarianship Education Task Force?
CB: Well, what’s interesting about the task force that it’s not all just intra-Atla. The members of the task force are members of other world library theological organizations. It’s a partnership among the representatives of these various theological library associations. I really enjoy getting to meet the members of the task force, even though we’re up at all kinds of weird hours, day and night. Time zones are so inconvenient!
I really enjoyed our first Institute in Vancouver. The two really lovely things about that were that the members of the task force itself got to meet in person, and we had three institute fellows that came. That was a great experience.
The pandemic has made us rethink kind of how we’re going to do that kind of work. But I think this decision to do the handbook series about theological librarianship is going to be very useful. I’m eager to see translations of volumes roll on out into the world languages. I know that it’s in the picture. Our main focus right now is to conceive of and produce the volumes, and rolling those out globally, I think, is something in Atla’s vision.
I’ve enjoyed getting to meet other members of the task force. I’ve invited one or two of them to come and speak to my students in the theological librarianship course. Last year, Yasmine Abou-El-Kheir came. That was especially helpful because I had, for the first time ever, two Muslim women in the course. So they loved getting to meet Yasmine and hear her talk about international librarianship.
AC: And you wrote the introduction for the first book in the handbook series.
CB: I did. That was a fascinating project to try to think about the shape of theological librarianship. The lens through which I thought about the libraries was, “What is their community? What is their sense of mission?” Another key concept that I’ve developed is a little motto: “Mission drives policy drives practice.”
AC: When was your first Atla conference?
CB: The first conference I attended was at Vanderbilt; I think that was in 1993. I’ve been to almost all of the conferences. There have been a couple when I was sick, but I’ve been able to go to most of them. I think because I taught the course and there was regular publicity for it at Atla events and conferences, people learned my name. Then I was invited to stand for election to the board, and I agreed to do that. I was elected. And then I was re-elected for a second three-year term. I served six years on the board, for which I’m very grateful. It really did give me a lot of insight.
When I first started coming to conferences in the 1990s, I was thinking of myself as a member of the Technical Services Interest Group, because that was my day job at the time — cataloging. But I think the first presentation I gave was about thinking of our readers as writers and how to teach theological students to do book reviews. I taught it from a very writing teacher point of view, which is, “How do you explain this? How do you do the prewriting? How do you do the exploratory work? How do you do the heuristic work of finding out what there is to say about this book?” I think that was kind of innovative at the time. Because it seemed to me then that librarians were very focused on the resources, but they weren’t as tuned to the research process as they are now. Particularly, they weren’t seeing that as a writing process.
I do think it’s kind of a useful way to think purposefully about how we encounter the people who come into the library. I am always going to think about the rhetorical process, the communication process, that whole scholarly communication process.
AC: Are there ways that you’ve seen the community or Atla itself change over the years?
CB: For me, Atla was a much broader and more ecumenical experience than I had had in my religious life up to that point. And that has proved to be true. Now, it seems to me that in the last decade, or near-decade, partly because Atla’s products need a wider, more global market, Atla is consciously expanding beyond its white male Protestant Christian roots from the 1940s. So, my personal experience in Atla as a person who is an adherent to a particular religious tradition is that it has served me as a kind of window into other people’s religious experience. I learned a lot. It helped me as a librarian to understand other literature, other liturgies, other experiences, other communities, and other scholars.
It helped me as a librarian to understand other literature, other liturgies, other experiences, other communities, and other scholars.
I think that the crucial thing that has really changed is the decline in population in North American mainline Protestantism and therefore either the combination or closing of a number of seminaries. These are big demographic shifts that affect the discipline. But in response to that, many seminaries have pivoted to a broader audience through online education. I didn’t mean to be an early adopter, but I was kind of hauled into online instruction very early in my career through the iSchool course. Now, I see many schools that are significantly building enrollment in online settings. That presents new collection challenges and new access challenges, new diversity challenges. But it still has to be based on the same rubric of: “What’s our mission? How does that drive our policy about this, that, or the other? And then so what are we going to do to make that realized?”
I do see institutions that are pivoting to new audiences. Now, that’s not so uncommon. I don’t think that online has changed that, it’s just made it even wider. It’s not just local now.
You know, my students at Illinois are in library school, where, as a social science, librarianship is sort of skeptical of people doing religious studies research if they are also adherents of a particular tradition. The idea is, if you’re a social scientist, you study people, but you’re not a participant. And then the code that librarians in a public library setting have is, “don’t discriminate at all.” They don’t show bias.
So my students are asking, “What does it mean to serve in an institution where there is clearly a faith-based commitment at work as a core sense of mission?” And for some of them, they’ve come from colleges that were built that way and that feels natural to them, and for some of them, it’s sort of like, [surprised Pikachu face] “Oh!” It’s just a very fascinating series of conversations.
So I don’t know that I would say theological librarianship is “changing a lot.” I mean, the materials, of course, have migrated to the online setting and now we have a lot of open access sources, and there are a lot of people that are much better qualified to talk about that than I am.
But I think the fundamental principles of supporting the curriculum and supporting the research maturity of students are the same. If we’ve gotten better at something, we’ve gotten better at thinking about the processes by which seminary and theology students use materials and think through them.
I think that librarians are not quite as convinced now that the only thing you need to do is hand a person a book. Librarians in general, which spills over into theological librarianship, believe that you have to teach critical thinking about the resources. I think that maybe is something that has intensified over the last decade.
The more diverse our communities are, the more thought we need to have about “what are we assuming?” And the more avenues of getting information that we have, the more thoughtful we need to be about, “Where did this come from? Who did it? What methods are at work here?” Some of this comes naturally to me because my first discipline was science.
Atla also clearly has moved into a more global view of itself. It has a broader sense of its academic scope, its subject scope. Not everybody in the Atla membership is really quite comfortable in that space. But they are very hospitable people.
Atla also clearly has moved into a more global view of itself. It has a broader sense of its academic scope, its subject scope.
You know, Herman Peterson gave a speech at Duke in 2001 that changed my life. It was on theological librarianship as a ministry. He laid out three categories: the steward, the servant, and the sage. And there were three virtues connected with that. A steward must be faithful. The servant must be responsive, hospitable, open. And the sage must be a teacher, must be equipped to teach.
And I really thought about what he said about hospitality. That ability to restrain one’s own point of view enough that you can hear someone else’s. You can receive the stranger.
Read, The Guest Brings the Blessing: Hospitality in Theological Librarianship, beginning on page 84.Read
I wrote a little essay called “The Guest Brings the Blessing” several years ago. It’s in the Summary of Proceedings, you can read it if you want to. But when I was a little girl, if we had the visiting preacher over for dinner, my dad would call on the preacher, the guest, to bring the blessing. And so then I talk about hospitality as understanding the stranger. We think of ourselves as hosting these students and they need to learn all this stuff. But in hospitality, the stranger also brings a gift. They bring their story.
The student who comes into the academic community, their job is to tell their stories, to open their minds. If you think of a little Middle Eastern walled village in the Iron Age or some time, and somebody comes to the gate of the village at sunset asking for shelter, if they’re admitted, if they pass their credibility test and they’re permitted for shelter, there’s a code: “Do no harm.” And then you’ll be given what you need. You’ll be given a place to rest, feed for your animal, water, something to eat, and you won’t be taken advantage of while you’re the guest, but the reciprocal of that is that you don’t harm, you don’t steal your host’s silver.
And the other thing is, a guest brings something that the people of the village don’t have. The guest has been traveling. The guest has just come from war or has crossed a river or they’ve been on the other side of the mountain or they’ve seen the big city. And these people haven’t. So they have a self to bring into that community. Maybe they’re a poet, maybe they’re a storyteller. Maybe they just have wonderful stories to tell.
So I think of the student, in a way, as a traveler, who’s at the library for a while, but they’re not staying here. They’re in transit. And this is a hospitable place for them. Their job really is to tell their story, because by doing that, they find their story.
So I think of the student, in a way, as a traveler, who's at the library for a while, but they're not staying here. They're in transit. And this is a hospitable place for them.
In the New Testament, there’s this old word, a Greek word, propempo, about how people send people on, and it really means pack their sack lunch, give them what they need to go on to the next part of the journey. And that’s kind of what we do in the library. Somebody stays with us a while, but we provide what they need to go to the next stage of their journey. We equip them to make the next step. And that’s the function of hospitality, to receive the stranger.
I think that Atla’s core value of hospitality is not something that’s different. I don’t think that’s changed. I think that is fundamentally what education does. And theological educators, including the theological librarians, enter into an encounter, a transformative process, with students who are open to that. And most students, that’s what they’re there for. They’re waiting for somebody to engage with them.
Now, not all librarians serve in settings where spiritual formation is part of their concern. Because that’s mission-related, and it’s not the case in a law library or a public library, necessarily. But I think that kind of sacramental temperament is really central at the membership level of Atla. And the nice thing about that is, it has the kind of language that can be expansible beyond the Christian community. And I think that’s a strength and not a limitation.
I’ve been thrilled that Atla has thrived the way it has. I think Atlas has been a great gift, especially to small publications like the one we publish here, Restoration Quarterly, that’s indexed in the Atla Religion Database. It’s also present full-text in Atlas. That little journal is thriving because of the royalties from Atlas. I think such opportunities have diversified the resources. I just hope we do more.
Member Spotlight is a 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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