Hello, and welcome back our favorite (or my favorite, anyway) semi-regular series, Member Spotlight! This month’s edition features Melissa Chim née Aaronberg, Reference Librarian at General Theological Seminary in New York, New York. Melissa is also a member of Atla’s Scholarly Communication Committee and will be presenting an Atla webinar in March for Women’s History Month! I had the best time talking to Melissa about the importance of languages, the literature of the French Resistance, and how much we love old books. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Melissa!
AC: How did you get into librarianship?
MC: I always had such a strong love of books, which I think is something that all librarians start with. My background is actually in history and philosophy. My first masters is in History and I focused on the history of literature. My thesis was on the literature surrounding the French resistance; I did that as my honors thesis for my bachelors in history, and then I expanded on it for my history masters.
After that, I always knew I wanted to work with archives and old books and anything to do with history. My aunt has actually just retired from being a librarian for thirty years. My mom suggested, “Oh, you should get your library degree too,” so I applied, and I got into Saint John’s. I knew I wanted to focus on Archives. I did a dual concentration between archives and academic libraries, because while I was at Saint John’s, I got my first library job as a library assistant in a small college out here on Long Island. I thought, “Oh, I really enjoy this too.” I wanted to open myself up to working with archives with either historical societies or in academia. My internships were in historical societies and museums too.
After working in that field for a while, I saw the job opening for General Theological Seminary. They specifically said in the posting that they wanted someone with experience in academia, special collections, so I thought, “This is perfect for me.” And now I’m in theological librarianship, which I think is a great culmination of everything that I enjoy about being a librarian!
And now I’m in theological librarianship, which I think is a great culmination of everything that I enjoy about being a librarian!
AC: How long have you been in this position?
MC: I actually just started in January. I was there on-site for about two or three months, and then everything with the pandemic started, so we moved online. It was funny too because at my previous position, I was working for an independently owned archive and everything was digital. For a while there, we were actually in an office in the city, and then halfway through, he said, “Let’s move to remote.” So, when we transitioned here to being remote for the time being, I thought, “Oh, I’ve done this already.” The only thing is, I can’t physically be with the special collection, and that’s my only complaint, is being away physically from the books. But it wasn’t too big of an adjustment, so I feel very lucky in that respect. I’m happy to say, though, that I did get married a few weeks ago, so that’s one thing we were happy about in 2020.
AC: Oh my gosh, congratulations, that’s so exciting! I’m so happy for you.
MC: Thank you! We got married on Bastille Day, and because my background is French history, I said, “We have to do it on Bastille Day.” And my husband obliged, so I was very happy.
AC: Were you able to have family there?
MC: We did. We just had immediate family. We had it outside in front of our town hall, because they have a little park right there and a little gazebo, so we were able to do it there. It was just immediate family, and we’re hoping by the spring, if we’re lucky, we can have a larger party at a restaurant and hopefully go on our honeymoon.
We carved out a little piece of happiness, even if it was just one day. And we still have our honeymoon and things to look forward to, so we’re hoping by next year, even if we still have to do remote and still have to wear masks at the grocery store, maybe things will be a little bit freer where at least we can actually travel out of New York. It’d be kind of nice.
We carved out a little piece of happiness, even if it was just one day.
AC: Had you heard of Atla before you started at General?
MC: No, I hadn’t. I heard of it through my library manager, Patrick. He was telling me about it and showed me the website, and I thought it was amazing. I thought, “Oh wow, this is an area of librarianship that I’m not really familiar with.” Now that I’m settled into my job, I really wanted to get more involved, because I feel like if I’m involved in a wider community like that, I will learn so much I could bring to my everyday library job. So, I just sent an email through the little contact page on the website and said, “I saw you have committees. Are you going to need anyone on those anytime soon?” and I think a couple of weeks later, I got the email from Christine Fruin saying, “Would you like to be a member of the Scholarly Communication committee?” And I said, “Yes, I would!”
AC: What’s your impression of theological librarianship since you’re so new to the field?
MC: I find it so exciting because I feel like in my day-to-day job as a theological librarian, I could be an information literacy instructor, I could be an archivist, I could be a linguist – we have a lot of books in French, German, and Latin and a few other languages too, so whenever I go into special collections, I can always test out my languages. Wearing a lot of hats like that is something I find very fulfilling about being a librarian. I love the idea of how theological librarianship crosses over so often with academia, publications, webinars and conferences, and also archival studies too. I think to be a theological librarian, at some point you have to put on the historian hat and the archivist hat. That’s my favorite part of theological librarianship. Because it’s still so new to me, I feel like I have so much to learn. I’m trying to teach myself Latin because I feel like it’s so helpful. I speak French already, Spanish, and I speak Chinese; I speak Cantonese. So, my thought is, I should add Latin too!
I think to be a theological librarian, at some point you have to put on the historian hat and the archivist hat. That’s my favorite part of theological librarianship. Because it’s still so new to me, I feel like I have so much to learn.
AC: When did you start learning French and Spanish? You say your background is in French History, yes?
MC: Yes, in French literary history. I started Spanish way back in high school… well, actually, junior high. I’ve been trying to keep up with it, because there are so many patrons that are Spanish-speaking, and there are Spanish-speaking schools, so I felt like I definitely wanted to continue with that. With French, I didn’t start until college, because as I started to do my honors thesis in French history, my history professor actually said, “Oh, you know what, as part of your thesis, you should look at these works in the original French.” I thought that was kind of cool. So I would sit in the library, I would have the original French with me, I would have my little dictionary, and I would kind of go through, and every so often, I would stop, open the dictionary and look at it there. Right now, I’ve been doing more reading in French, but I’m trying to keep up with speaking it too, just because we plan on having our honeymoon in Paris, so I need to brush up on that too.
AC: What about Chinese, what about Cantonese? When did you start learning that?
MC: I learned that about two years ago, because my husband’s family is from Hong Kong, and we were taking a trip over there. I was learning Cantonese to impress his family and also to make my way around Hong Kong.
It was really fun there. I had been studying it for about a year, and then we took the trip. It was so funny because when people would hear it, they would laugh – not in a mean way! But just because they weren’t expecting it. They would turn to him and say, “Oh, she’s so smart!” It was so funny.
It’s so beautiful there too. The flight itself is very long; I think it was about a fifteen-hour flight. But even though it was long, I would definitely go again.
AC: In terms of French literary history, do you study a survey of all of French literature or is there a particular time period that you look at?
MC: The area that I specialize in is the French Resistance literature that I referred to. I focus a lot on the Existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, and now that I’m where I am now in theological librarianship, I’m looking into French Bibles and Book of Hours. But my first love in research is definitely placing literature in its historical context. There’s such a rich body of literature during World War II, and it speaks to the time period historically, but also to how philosophy was changing around that time. I could go on and on about that, it’s one of my favorite things.
AC: Please do! That is what this whole series is about. We want to get to know you and hear about what excites you.
MC: Actually, a new body of research that I’ve been looking at is using cross-cultural communication, especially students and researchers who come from different cultural backgrounds, but also those who might not have English as their first language. I did one publication for that for the ALA journal Endnotes; that was when I was still studying at St. John’s. I’m really hoping to turn that into a book or something. I was actually talking to the editors at Books@Atla Open Press and I kind of threw the idea out there to see. I think the next step will be doing an actual formal proposal.
Speaking with people from different cultures and hearing how they interact with their library is something that really excites me. I’m very happy that a lot of students at General Theological Seminary are coming from other countries as well; we have a good portion of international students. It’s kind of cool to meet with them and see where they are on their academic journey, how they’re doing spiritually, and things like that, so it’s really nice.
Speaking with people from different cultures and hearing how they interact with their library is something that really excites me.
It’s really fun too, even if you only know a language conversationally. For example, in Cantonese, I can speak conversationally, but I can’t do it at an academic level. But I was able to speak with one student who is Chinese – he spoke Mandarin, but had taught himself Cantonese – and so when we see each other at lunch, we’ll just say in Cantonese, “Hi, how are you doing? How’s your family? How is everything going?” And just having that connection is so important to actually get them back into the library and have them be comfortable to ask those really in-depth research questions, or even how to physically find a book on the shelves. Starting basic like that can open up the doors for so many other things.
AC: What would you do in a normal day at your job?
MC: On a normal day, I definitely interact with students and faculty most of the day. I’ll have them come up to the desk or I’ll get emails from students, so that interaction takes up a large part of the day too. If there’s a quiet time, maybe during lunch when the library’s pretty empty, that’s when I do more day-to-day tasks, like checking in books or re-shelving things, or I might go and work on a project that I’m working on. Last March, I did a webinar for Women’s History at General Theological Seminary. During my downtime, I would go back into Special Collections, do the research I had there, upload pictures and things like that, work on the PowerPoint. There’s a good balance between being very busy with reference work and then also having some downtime to work on special projects and work in the archives. I feel like my day is pretty balanced, which I think is really nice.
AC: Since you’re so new to theological librarianship, did your family and friends know what theological librarianship was before you started this job, or did they say, “What? Huh?”
MC: I think my aunt probably knew a little bit more about theological librarianship, because she was in the library field for so long. But when I explained it to my family, they saw it more as a combination of academic libraries and archives. When they ask me about how my job is going, they frame it as “How is everything at the school going?” They kind of relate to it more as if I’m working for a college or a university, not specifically a seminary. But some of the things I bring up, with the special collections, I’ll mention, “Oh, not many collections have these kinds of things, it’s more found just in theological librarianship.”
AC: What do you find most challenging about your job or about theological librarianship?
MC: I think one of the most challenging things is also that theological librarianship is just so different from every kind of librarianship, and the students at the seminary can be so different than what you would find in a normal college. With seminary, there’s so many more emotions; it’s so much more of a personal decision to go. Actually, it was funny, because when I was interviewing for the position, they told me, “You’ll probably develop a very strong relationship with the students and they might want to come to you with their personal issues and things like that, spiritually and also academically.” It can be challenging to juggle those distances, because you might want to give them advice, but the situation might not actually call for advice; it might be just you listening to them is enough. Sometimes you get in the mindset of “Okay, they’re coming at me with a problem and I have to fix it,” when it’s actually, “No, they just want someone to listen to them and just to be able to vent their feelings.” Then I think, “Okay, I can be a good listener.”
It can be challenging to juggle those distances, because you might want to give them advice, but the situation might not actually call for advice; it might be just you listening to them is enough.
A lot of students tell me, “I never envisioned myself going to graduate school,” or “What do you mean I have to learn how to cite something in Chicago or Turabian?” It’s very new to them. When you have students who may have been out of college for a while and are doing a career shift now, navigating those things is pretty difficult for them. I think you just have to be patient and make sure that they know where to find the information and are comfortable asking you things.
AC: What do you like to do outside of your job and outside of theological librarianship?
MC: I love museums so much. I really do. I love going to museums. My husband actually proposed to me in a museum. It was during the Tale of Genji exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also love cooking too. And like I mentioned before, I really love languages, and so I love just playing on my phone and teaching myself a couple words of a new language, I find that fun.
AC: Do you have a favorite book or a favorite movie? I know that is the worst question that everyone hates, because they say, “How can you choose just one?”
MC: I know, that is so hard to choose. I guess my favorite movie is probably the Triplets of Belleville. It’s a French film from 2003, it’s animated, and it probably has the best soundtrack ever – I listen to that soundtrack as much as I can. It’s very French and jazzy. The animation is spectacular. I love that movie so much. I saw it in the theatre when it first came out when I was… oh gosh, I think I was twelve. I saw the trailer for it and asked my parents and they said, “Oh, that looks cool. Sure, we can do that.” They’re like, “Yeah, of course my child wants to see a French movie, what else is new?”
AC: Totally normal! Melissa, thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
MC: Thank you!
Member Spotlight is a new 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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