In the Loop: Working as a Theological Librarian in Chicago

In the Loop: Working as a Theological Librarian in Chicago
 by Barnaby Hughes

When people ask me what I do for a living, I typically reply, “I’m a librarian.” But before they can ask me what library I work at, I quickly add, “without a library.” I work for the American Theological Library Association, which, like the American Library Association (ALA) and the Catholic Library Association (CLA), is headquartered in the Chicago Loop.

I first came across the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) while completing an assignment for my LIBR 200 class. As someone with a theology degree, ATLA immediately piqued my curiosity. So when I saw a class in theological librarianship among the Web-based Information Science Education (WISE) offerings at the end of the semester, I jumped at the opportunity. Every week, the course instructor would interview an academic librarian; all were members of ATLA. And the majority of the course materials originated as papers presented at ATLA conferences.

Little did I know that a year later I would be moving to Chicago to take up a position as CPLI metadata analyst. What that means, basically, is that I index Catholic periodicals. The CPLI in my title refers to the Catholic Periodical Literature Index, originally produced by the CLA until its acquisition by ATLA in 2011. ATLA also produces the Religion Database (RDB) and ATLA Serials (ATLAS), which is a full-text subset of RDB.

CPLI, a database much smaller and narrower in scope than RDB, currently comprises about 150 titles. They range from newspapers like L’Osservatore Romano and the National Catholic Reporter to academic journals like Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Nouvelle Revue Théologique. Soon, I will be responsible for indexing a specific list of titles that will probably contain a number of journals published in the British Isles, journals published by or about religious orders, as well as French journals on various topics.

The most difficult aspect of indexing, as with the cataloging of books, is assigning appropriate subject headings. Since I’m indexing articles, rather than the books, the topics can be incredibly specific. Today, for example, I indexed articles covering topics as diverse as Yves Congar’s charismatic ecclesiology and the unintelligibility of philosophical language in Hegel’s thought. It does not help that the Library of Congress Subject Headings do not quite get specific enough. For the former article, I had to cobble together headings such as Church—History of Doctrines—20th century; Gifts, Spiritual—Catholic Church; and Pentecostalism—Catholic Church.

Some of the best preparation for this job came, not from my classes at SJSU, but from my work as managing editor of SLIS Student Research Journal. The careful reading and analysis of journal articles that Dr. Anthony Bernier taught me (and the rest of the editorial team) has been indispensable for quickly grasping sometimes complicated subject matter. More generally, however, my job entails a responsibility to the end user, who must be able to find relevant resources in CPLI. And that gets to the essence of what it means to be a librarian.




Barnaby Hughes lived in England for nearly ten years where he studied history, theology, and medieval studies. He currently works as the CPLI metadata analyst at the American Theological Library Association, writes theatre criticism for Stage and Cinema, and sings in the choir of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Chicago.