Meet John Leeker, Director of Library and Archives, and Sarah Levine, Assistant Director of Library and Archives! They told us how they came on board the ML staff, what is special about working at MLTS, and how justice drives their work as librarians and archivists.

ML: Can you tell us a little bit about your life before you came to Meadville Lombard? What was your path toward your current role at the school?

Sarah: My original journey is very far from what I'm doing now. I went to undergrad for technical theater and was a stage manager in New York before coming out to Illinois to start grad school. I was a union stage manager for a few years and realized it still wasn’t enough to make a living for myself. I made a pivot and got my master's in library information science. I did a few volunteer things, including internships, and then my very first real internship was here with Meadville Lombard as the Sankofa Collection Assistant. I worked to digitize the Sankofa collection of UUs of color, and then various snowball effects led me to keep changing positions and remain at Meadville Lombard. I went from a part-time intern to a part-time staff member to a full-time staff member to an assistant director. It went pretty fast! My former life was very different from what my current day-to-day entails.

John: I kind of stumbled into library and archives. I was in graduate school studying Religious History and started working in the archive at the University of Chicago as a student worker. In doing that, I fell in love with archives and information science. After I finished my thesis, I started applying for archive jobs and was hired as a part-time employee working on a specific project at Meadville Lombard, much like Sarah was. My work was to make sense of the archives after the move to the Spertus building. It was a very “what's here, what can be done” approach, and it was my first step. I've spent nearly the next decade just taking steps after that. First in the archives, becoming a full-time archivist, and then stepping into the role of the Director of Library and Archives four years ago. I fell in love with organizing things and information and making that available to people, and I've been doing that for nearly a decade now.

Sarah: John and I both come from more concentrated archives backgrounds than library backgrounds.

John: Most of both of our time now is spent on library stuff!

ML: Why did you choose to work at an institution like Meadville Lombard as opposed to some of the other options that might be available to you as librarians and archivists? What keeps you coming back to work at Meadville Lombard?  

Sarah: When I was looking for positions and found Meadville Lombard, it was towards the end of my program in grad school. I was looking specifically for some kind of archiving position that would allow me to also investigate and move into more social justice issues and the way that social justice imperatives and goals can be enacted through archiving. The position at Meadville Lombard was specifically to digitize materials of UUs of color and lift up underrepresented voices in the archive. That had been my thesis statement of archiving and of what I wanted to do. The position just worked really well with that goal. I would say, I came in for a reason and stayed for the same reason: that the focus of our work is on how we make information and memory work for justice.

John: My story is the exact same as Sarah's. I started here because it was an archive job and I stayed because every time we ran into an opportunity to be more liberatory, Meadville Lombard gave us the support to do that. I think that’s the difference. So, if Sarah and I have an idea of something we want to try, something we think is better, something other cutting-edge libraries or archives are doing, Meadville Lombard has empowered us to do that work and to be more liberatory as memory and information workers. That’s why I stay.

ML: Can you think of an example of a time when you asked to do something that was liberatory and were given the resources to do that?

John: One example is that we have taken the Sankofa model of special collections and applied it to other communities. Meadville Lombard has really put its weight behind doing that community archiving work, in which we work with marginalized communities and bring them into the archiving process where they have ownership and control of their stories. We’ve built out other special collections like Heresies, which Sarah has done a lot of work on, and Quintos, which is our Latinx UU collection. We have also transformed the MacLean special collection, which focuses on religious educators and it's a phenomenal resource that is often understudied by folks. Meadville Lombard has really put its weight behind making the history of religious education and those archives available in classrooms for researchers and for the larger community.

Sarah: I would say as well, looking at the library and our ability to be very expansive in who and what we offer as resources. We’re a small library of two people, but we are consistently trying to get more people to use the archive beyond our students. We, at this point, offer pretty comprehensive stuff to everyone beyond our students. In addition to community patrons, we have alum patrons, who tend to lose a lot of library privileges when they leave seminary or university or are no longer within the academy. Meadville Lombard allowing us to prioritize these kinds of patron groups is very unique, I think. We are making programs that are for, first and foremost, access. We now pay a little more so that we can allow our alums to use journal databases. We were allowed to make that decision, to just take some of our money and say, "No, we want to commit it to this segment of our population."

John: Once somebody graduates, we create them alum accounts automatically; it's seamless. You can continue checking out books from the moment you graduate and continue on as an alum patron.

We also support adjuncts. We have very generous access policies for anybody that teaches a course at Meadville Lombard because a lot of folks who are contingent faculty or between programs or jobs lose access to academic libraries and can't continue doing their research. Meadville Lombard supported us, the library staff, in providing access to library resources as generously as we can to people that teach courses here.

Sarah: We’re hopeful to be able to expand even beyond what we're able to provide right now. This new access to journal databases for alums is a little bit of a test case for us to see engagement and then hopefully move towards other types of resources we can make available. eBooks are the next horizon for what we might be able to give alums.

John: I think it would be useful to talk a little bit more about these databases we keep mentioning. In very broad terms, a lot of scholarship is produced in academic journals and those access to those journals are often behind paywalls. Two large religion databases have offered alumni access, which we can purchase and then make available to our alums. This gives us some access to hundreds of thousands of academic articles about the study of religion. That runs the gamut from history, theology, to psychology, sociology from homiletics to anything else. It's such a wide breadth of practical knowledge, academic knowledge, and knowledge in between. We make these databases available to students and alums where they can log on anywhere in the world with an internet connection and access and download articles.

ML: What a wonderful thing for Meadville Lombard alums! Is there anything else you want the community to know about using the library and the resources that are available to them?

Sarah: Another thing that you get automatically as a Meadville Lombard alum is that you can borrow up to five books from our collection at a time. We ship books all over the continental US and its territories at a very low cost. The only thing that costs an alum to borrow a book from us is the cost to ship it back when they’re done.  

John: One thing we’d love to see more people taking advantage of is our library's public open hours. We have a beautiful new library space that Sarah and I were empowered to design from the ground up. We took our experience of 10 years at Spertus and thought about what we liked and didn't like. We wanted to build a welcoming space that provides not just students, but alums, community members, researchers, and folks who want to use our resources when they're in Chicago, a space where they can engage with them comfortably. The space has natural light, different seating options, different table options, and little quality-of-life things like charging port plugins built into the tables. We really want people to use these resources!

Sarah: It’s different from what we used to have. We had open hours Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 AM to noon when we were in the Spertus building. Things were slightly different there. The building’s security level was much higher, so a bit of a barrier to entry; you had to come in with a guard and have the staff member come and bring you up. This is sort of a new foray for us where we can really have more public hours where there’s less of an intimidation factor and less barrier to entry. We are in an office building smack dab in the middle of the Loop and near several schools. We’re near Harold Washington Community College and a few others. So, there’s a lot of folks around who might need a library.

John: The other improvement that we are still implanting is to give folks who are on campus access to expanded digital resources. If you’re on campus, but you're not an alum, you can access our databases, our eBooks, and all of our digital reference material. We have a very robust selection of digital resources that are available to current students, but can also be accessed by basically anybody if you're on campus. This includes Bible commentaries, religion handbooks and companions, and a rich selection of eBooks and millions of pages of resources that you can access digitally on campus.

ML: Do you know of any other libraries of religion and spirituality that are open to the public to the extent that Meadville Lombard’s is?

John: If you reach out to most libraries, they will welcome you. What we are doing is, as Sarah mentioned, working to lower that barrier of access to make it less intimidating. Some people feel you have to have some specific reason to go to a library or be an official researcher — that you have to have some reason beyond curiosity and a need for information. For us, we want to not only have this level of access, but beyond that what we want to do is be hospitable and welcoming to as many people as possible.

ML: What’s one thing you want people to know about the library that you feel they don't know about the library?

Sarah: The thing that we usually end our orientations on is that one of the services you get as a patron of the library is John and me. In addition to the resources that we offer and can send to you and help you access, he and I are a resource for patrons as well. We want everyone to think of us as their personal theological reference librarians. We love answering questions and we love helping. I want the Meadville Lombard community to know that you have some human resources in the form of us, in addition to all the books and articles and everything else!

John: I would second what Sarah said. We are resources as well to help you hone your questions, to ask better questions, to help you with search strategies, or maybe we just know the right book. Sometimes that happens. It's like, "Oh, that's your question? Here's the book you want." We can also help you with the technical problems of, how do I log in? How do I renew a book? How do I use this database versus more complex things? How can I use quotation marks and Boolean search terms? We can answer very broad questions like, "I'm new to this topic. What are some of the central paths to orientate myself to the subject?"

Another thing I want to stress is that you don't have to have a reason to use the library beyond that you want to use the library. There's so much intimidation of walking into an academic library that you may think that you have to be a student or a tenured professor working on the third book, you have to have all these ideas of authority or you have to have some special credential. That is so far from the truth. You could just want a book or you could just be curious or you could just be bored. All of those are legitimate reasons to use the library's resources. Talk with me and Sarah so we can help you find resources to pique your curiosity or help you with that third book you're working on. Whatever the needs are, it's our job to help you find the resources to answer your questions.

Sarah: And that goes beyond the hours of Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 9 AM to noon. We are also available via email, phone, and Zoom. We will talk to you however is convenient for you. These are services we offer no matter where you are.

John: The vast majority of Meadville Lombard students are not physically in Chicago. Everything we do physical has a digital surrogate. Everything we do digital has a physical surrogate. The library is built from the ground up to have equivalency. So, if we have a physical book display and we have a digital book display, it's the same books. Most of our students, most of our patrons, alums, and community aren't here in Chicago, so it's our job to make ourselves available to those patrons as well.

ML: We are in, to say the very least, a transitional political moment right now where there's a lot of big questions that are being asked, social movements that are struggling to be born, and justice that needs to be made. Meadville Lombard is an institution that is oriented toward addressing some of those things. Speaking for yourselves as employees at the institution, what role would you like to see Meadville Lombard play in this current social moment and looking forward into the future?

John: Something wonderful about libraries, and about seminary education more broadly, is the work we do is to empower our students to do the work. It's providing them with the knowledge, the formation, the skills, the community, and the connections to be prepared to meet this moment and the future moments that we don't even know about yet. On the library side of things, it is taking in the knowledge of our tradition and history and all the knowledge of the world and making it as accessible as we can so that students will have a broad base to draw upon to rise to the moment we find ourselves in.

Sarah: Our job is to create more informed leaders, whether that's as a minister, an activist, or something else. Our job is to provide all the information that would lead people to those kind of vocations. That includes history, but also includes studying our present moment. It's not just the history books we have on the shelves, it's the current scholarship that we can offer as well.

John: Something we do a really good job of at Meadville Lombard is also providing critical perspectives. Every time we give the library orientation, we show how the library works and then we show why you shouldn't trust us. It's that flip side of also understanding how all these systems and structures are a part of larger histories and larger systems that are not without bias. We give that “yes and”, the ability to interrogate structures, interrogate power, and how power is at play within ourselves, within our communities, and in the larger world.