Happy May, and welcome back to another Member Spotlight interview! This month, we chatted with Kerrie Burn, Atla Board Member and Library Manager of the Mannix Library at the University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia. I had such a good time hearing about her work with the International Theological Librarianship Education Task Force, her initial impressions of Atla, and her involvement in the 1000 Women in Religion Project. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Kerrie!
AC: How did you get into theological librarianship?
KB: I’d actually done a science degree and imagined that I would work in a hospital library. But when I finished my library studies, the first job that I got was working in a theological library. It was a small institution and you got to do everything, so I learnt lots on the job. And then it just became my niche, I suppose. I had a church background but not a huge amount of theological study behind me. When I went to my second job, it was just a few blocks away at another theological library. Then suddenly, you’re ten years into working at theological libraries and it’s a bit more difficult to move into a hospital or something at that stage.
AC: When did you start working in your current position?
KB: It was about eight years ago. I work at Mannix Library, which is a Catholic library in Melbourne. It primarily serves Catholic Theological College, which is one of ten colleges affiliated with the University of Divinity. This has certainly been the best position that I’ve had in my career. When you’re working with other librarians, there is a sense of collegiality and collaboration.
AC: Do you remember when you first heard about Atla?
KB: I heard of it because I’d been involved with ANZTLA, the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association, particularly early on in my career. That was a nurturing place where people in similar positions were learning as they went. And they were the days when we were transitioning from card catalogs to online systems. There was a lot to be learnt from each other.
Atla was always that thing out there that was like us, but bigger and better. I think there’d been a couple of people from ANZTLA that might’ve been to an Atla conference. But at that time, it was a pretty big deal to actually go to the States and go to an Atla conference. I think I went to my first one maybe six years ago. And I’ve managed to go to four now, which has really been great. I’ve really loved just meeting the people, particularly the Atla staff. Before my first conference, I always thought everything at Atla would just be bigger and better, and we would be like the second cousins twice removed. But when I went to the first conference, I thought, “Well, actually, they’re all just like us.” So that was a positive experience.
AC: Have you attended the last two conferences online as well?
KB: Yes, though I’ve found those a little bit more difficult. I certainly was up to go to some sessions but wasn’t able to participate as much as I had liked. But I’d looked at the program and there’d be a couple that I just really wanted to see. If you see them live, I always feel like it’s better than going back to the recordings. You think you’ll go back and look at all these conference presentations, but you never really do.
I will be attending Atla Annual 2022 in Baltimore this year. One of the great things about having it online too is that so many more people can attend. It isn’t just the library managers who can fly out to the conference; it’s people further down the hierarchy that might not normally get to attend. So that’s great for professional development and just connection with the profession.
AC: You started on the Board of Directors just before the pandemic. Had you been planning on that for a while?
KB: I’d been involved with the International Theological Librarianship Education Task Force and I’d really enjoyed that. I think I was just at a conference and was having conversations with some Board members and I think I probably just asked that naïve question, “What do you need to do to be a Board member?” And it may have been because Atla is wanting to be more international, and I am the first person from outside of North America on a Board, I think. While I’m still a more traditional librarian and a white woman, and there could be greater diversity on the Board for sure, it might’ve been a consideration in encouraging me to go along that track.
AC: I think having you on the Board certainly is extremely helpful for Atla, especially having a perspective outside of North America. Because we are very North-America-centric.
KB: Sometimes it’s little things, like the fact that people in the US will talk about fall and the seasons, which will be completely six months opposite for us. So, I have to be the one who does the translation. Always going, “Okay you say fall… what month is that for you? I’m not really sure…” [laughs] I mean, that’s a very minor thing. And everyone has been nice; it’s not like it’s intentionally imperialist or something.
AC: Sure, but the unintentional, those little things, they definitely matter too.
KB: Yeah, for sure. It comes back to how we welcome people. Hospitality is part of the institution’s Core Values. But sometimes we do have blind spots. We don’t always understand when we come from the dominant group, because it just feels comfortable to us. But we’re not necessarily aware of what is uncomfortable for others in the same situation, and where others need to hide aspects of themselves to feel part of the group. Lots of organizations are grappling with some of those things at the moment, so Atla’s not on our own. It’s almost like a worldwide kind of awakening in some areas. It will take a bit of time.
AC: Is there any aspect of theological librarianship, or of your job in particular, that you find really challenging?
KB: I work in a space where collaboration is very important. You’ve got maybe fifteen libraries all part of a network and ten different colleges, and it’s really great when everybody’s on board with the same commitment to a project. But when some libraries are perhaps more competitive or want to do things their way, that’s a challenging part of managing any project, I guess.
Often we’re working with some smaller religious libraries that are owned by religious orders that might be struggling financially. Smaller libraries have often been able to work on systems that are very cheap, and it didn’t matter if they weren’t quite abiding by all of the cataloging rules, because it was only people in their community that were looking at this cataloging. But once you start trying to have a shared catalog, that’s very challenging when there’s just a complete range of different standards and people who don’t even understand what the standards are and why they’re important.
When you’re operating at the national library level or WorldCat level, what you don’t put in a field is very important, so that’s one of the challenges. I manage the university’s online Library Hub, with all of the online resources via a single interface for all of the ten colleges. So yeah, that’s one of the challenges. Trying to get everybody incorporated into this shared catalog when not everyone has the technical expertise or the staffing.
AC: Do you think there will be a day when it is all in the system and everything matches perfectly? Or do you think it’s always going to be a little bit haphazard?
KB: I think so. We’ve got four libraries sharing a WMS system now and two more coming on later this year. So I think over time it’s easier just to join the larger group than keep going it alone. And the more that join the system, the cheaper it gets for each individual library, so in the end, it becomes a better system and it’s even cheaper than what you were paying for your individual not-quite-as-good system. But it’s a challenge. When you do anything collaborative, it also means giving up some of that autonomy. You have to try and agree on common goals, or library policies so that you’re not having different arrangements for every single library. That stepping away from complete autonomy to being part of that group is hard.
AC: What do you think the future of theological librarianship will be?
KB: I think there’s going to be more challenges ahead as society generally becomes more secular. Interest in theological education may reduce, and that has funding implications; people have to make decisions to close or merge. There’s also an ongoing transition in education away from face-to-face with a lot more online learning, so therefore a lot more focus on e-resources. We’re going to face the rationalization of print holdings as well. There’s just massive duplication across our network because everyone has been working in their own silos. It used to be that everybody needed to have these basic resources, but if they’re available online, you only need one unlimited access.
The other thing that’s important is that although your print does reduce, there’s always your special collections. What are the unique holdings across our whole system that are really important to keep? We don’t want to ever discard any of those items. That’s where things like the Atla Digital Library and the Digitization Grants are important, to digitize some of that material so that it’s more broadly available. Because if it’s not part of the wider network, it’s just not discoverable on National Union Catalogs or WorldCat, and then people just don’t know about it.
AC: Is there a project or big thing that you’ve done in your career that you’re really proud of?
KB: There’s one thing I’m involved in at the moment. It actually started at an Atla conference where I met some people who were involved with the 1000 Women in Religion Project. I went away from that and started the Australian Women in Religion Project at the University of Divinity. So we’ve been collecting a huge amount of data and creating Wikipedia pages for about 130 women – we’ve got a list of about 620 women that we’ve curated over the last few years. I just find that really exciting, that the stories of these women are getting out there and being showcased.
On a personal level, it’s certainly been a learning curve, learning about Wikipedia and Wikidata, but it’s also a great way to engage with people outside the library network and theological libraries as well. Even if I don’t have a job in theological libraries in the future, I feel like this is something I can be involved in in a volunteer capacity down the track. It’s something meaningful for me to do that also challenges me on a technical level.
I think I just like making things happen. I like being the facilitator for getting projects over the line or being the go-to person. I really like anything that’s got to do with publishing as well. So I like being able to write about projects and then get that material published. I was involved with publishing the first volume of the Theological Librarian’s Handbook series with the International Theological Librarianship Education Task Force. I wrote about Australian and New Zealand theological libraries. I’ve recently completed a chapter about collaborative collection development that will be coming out in the next volume in the series.
AC: What do you like to do outside of theological librarianship? Do you have any hobbies or fun facts?
KB: I’m big into veggie gardening and just pottering around the garden. We moved to the country seven months ago and planted lots of fruit trees. One thing which might be different to what most people in Atla have is that I have, as an Australian (although this isn’t the case for all Australians), I do actually have kangaroos regularly in my backyard. Which is so cute! I remember coming to the country and the first morning, I got up and looked out the window and there was a kangaroo in the backyard. I was like, “Oh! I’ve found my happy place!” They’re such cute-looking critters. They can do great damage to fences and trees. We’ve had to put wire fencing around the fruit trees to try and prevent the kangaroos from knocking them over. But I still like to have them there.
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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