Get thee to a seminary
June 7, 2010 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Should I become a librarian in a seminary?

I have a doctorate in Greek and Roman history, with a solid background in the languages. Unfortunately because I did not get a doctorate in Classics, I don't have a solid background in teaching the languages, which made it hard to find an academic faculty appointment.

In transitioning from adjunct to library student, I did some translation projects: they were all Christian translation projects, seventh-century Byzantine Greek Church authors, fourteenth-century canon law proceedings, seventeenth-century English Protestant ministers' treatises with Latin quotations.

I entered a master's in library science program and two years later now have my MLS. My adviser suggested, since it is hard to find subject specialist positions in ancient history, I should broaden my search to seminaries. There is a slight problem.

I am not even a nominal Christian, though as a fairly well read person I am familiar with Christian memes and ideas (I did a minor on early Church history). I am at best an agnostic: if there is a God, He/She/It is extremely distant. I am repelled by American-style right-wing religious fundamentalism and in general by sentimentality in religion.

I don't want to come off as an anti-religious bigot, but I am not happy about the possibility of having to work closely with people who believe in the imminent End Times, or who expect me to donate a major fraction of my income (which will probably be low) to the church, or spend all my free time in church activities. I am looking for professional employment, not cult membership.

I will probably meet attempts to convert me with polite resistance. I could offer sympathy to members' intellectual and spiritual conflicts, but the religious vocation strikes me as something of an anachronism -- though, of course, a major in classics and a Ph.D. in ancient history are also anachronistic.

I am not sexually active but I am probably lesbian/bisexual, another potential deal-breaker.

What denominations have you found both relatively non-cultic, socially liberal, and academically serious? I suppose that a Catholic institution in a major city would be academically highly reputed; I would prefer a major city.
posted by bad grammar to Work & Money (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you might want to look at Jesuit schools, if my boyfriend's Jesuit education is anything to go by.
posted by telophase at 6:06 PM on June 7, 2010

Have you looked into ATLA (American Theological Library Assoc) yet? Their sites will give you an idea of what librarianship in a seminary-like place is about, since it seems like you have a few preconceived notions that might not be accurate.
posted by leesh at 6:07 PM on June 7, 2010

Seminary != Bible college. While I'm sure it's not universal, seminary usually is heavily academic, involves a lot of questioning assumptions, etc. Bible college is what you want to avoid. Seminaries have an ongoing problem where the graduates go out into service and discover that their parishioners have serious problems with them talking about how Paul didn't write all the Pauline epistles. There are certainly more liberal and more conservative places, but if you look into the sort of places that educate people from the UCC and the Episcopal Church especially, you'll probably be fine.
posted by gracedissolved at 6:13 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

The seminarians I've known personally were in liberal denominations--United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Unitarian--and have tended to be extremely socially liberal and queer-friendly (several of them were L, G, B, or T). Moreover, broadly speaking, from what I can tell (admittedly, from a bit of distance), there's a pretty broad range of views among students at big seminaries: I've been acquainted with or read the essays/blogs/books of religiously liberal and conservative seminarians and faculty who seem to get along in the same institution. I'm thinking of places like the divinity schools at Yale and the University of Chicago.

The type of denomination you don't want to be involved with probably wouldn't hire you. A seminary that specifically trains, say, Southern Baptists, probably isn't for you. But I think you need to meet some real live div school students and faculty before you make too many assumptions.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:14 PM on June 7, 2010

Once you look into this a little further you'll see that you've got nothing to worry about. Think Georgetown or Notre Dame - or the divinity schools at Harvard or Yale. The scary "seminary" you're imagining is the kind of podunk Bible College that doesn't have a library.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:21 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's pretty easy to assess a seminary/religious university's...personality, let's say, from their website, literature, and reputation. I worked at a biggish Jesuit university in library school, and it was so not a big deal that I wasn't religious. None of the librarians I worked with tried to convert me, or anything (plus I got to see President Bartlet Martin Sheen give a speech, and we got a whole week off for Easter!!).

In closure, I'd say it sounds like it could be an awesome option for you, but do your homework!
posted by grapesaresour at 7:02 PM on June 7, 2010

No reputable seminary will pressure lay employees to tithe or donate to the organization.
posted by nestor_makhno at 7:04 PM on June 7, 2010

I graduated from Duke Divinity School and you would be fine there. Gracedissolved nailed it. If it is a theological school of a larger university, you are probably fine (unless the larger university is Liberty, obviously). If it is a seminary independent from a university, if it is of the more left-leaning denominations, you would be fine as well.
posted by 4ster at 7:36 PM on June 7, 2010

All the seminarians I've known are quite liberal and questioning.
posted by k8t at 7:48 PM on June 7, 2010

I'm a specialist librarian in a religion-based institution. It is a large place, and there is a diverse group of workers. We have all types of religions represented and people are very professional and respectful, both individually and professionally. I was a bit concerned before I started as my family practices this religion, but I don't. I'm never pressured or questioned, and our religious leaders are always really nice and respectful, probably some of the nicest people we have.

I'm glad I went into it with an open mind, I recommend you do as well and see what the interview is like. Trust your gut on determining if it is the right fit for you. Feel free to memail me if you want specifics or have questions.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:01 PM on June 7, 2010

MeFi mail me and I can pass your details to a librarian at a Catholic university in the States.
posted by KMH at 12:50 AM on June 8, 2010

There's always the big Benedictine abbey at St. John's University in Minnesota, where they recently commissioned a gorgeous illuminated bible:

An interesting scholarly community.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:06 AM on June 8, 2010

Sometimes you run into the problem that the more liberal they are, the less they really care about Latin and Greek. Liberal Catholics are a dying breed, so you might find something now only to run into problems later. Episcopal (of the right flavor) probably hits the sweet spot of liberalism + scriptural seriousness, but these are issues all the mainline protestant denominations have been struggling with for decades.
posted by rikschell at 8:16 AM on June 8, 2010

MLIS + MTS here; I too have considered work in a seminary library. A friend of mine is head librarian at a major mainline denominational seminary.

At the entrance of our seminary library these words are carved into a building stone:

Seek the truth
Come whence it may
Cost what it will

Seminaries--at least in denominations such as those of the United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and those that Meg_Murray noted (though I prefer the term mainline, not liberal)--are places of questioning, serious research, and spiritual formation. Denominational seminaries these days have an ecumenical/interfaith flavor.

As a seminary librarian, you are in service to the students and the faculty. They bring many different ways of being faithful to their beliefs to their time in seminary. Some are male and some are female. Some are conservative and some are progressive. Some are straight and some are gay.

What will be most important are not your personal beliefs, but your understanding of the body of knowledge of seminary study, which includes, in addition to church history, subjects such as biblical studies; systematic theology; pastoral ministry; counseling; ethics; American / European / African religious history; liturgy; and homiletics. Seminary libraries tend to have smallish staffs; expect to rotate among reference duties, circulation, and technical services.

If I had your language background, I'd try getting in the door via cataloguing/technical services. I'd get some systems librarian knowledge and/or experience. Modern languages would also be a plus.

Good luck to you! It's a wonderful field.
posted by apartment dweller at 1:26 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

This made me think of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, which is very liberal and a pleasant place. Hung out with students there who were all over the map -- agnostic, Jewish, all sorts of unexpected things. I used to go there to study when I needed a break from my school.

Plus their library is one of the most beautiful indoor spaces in North America, IMO.
posted by zvs at 2:57 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you. I will follow up on these leads.

I would have nothing but respect for people who want to explore the philosophical/theological and historical background of Christianity, rather than enforcing dogmatism. Librarian professionalism should take care of the rest.

My worry about encountering people whose religiosity makes them not respect personal boundaries is because I have had some uncomfortable personal experiences with evangelicals -- two friends who advised me to convert the way secular people might advise you to take Prozac or see a therapist (I was depressed first year at college); Seventh-Day Adventist relatives whom my secular side of the family gets along fine with -- except there are vast areas we can't talk about. The SDAs have not given up on us; they still send us Adventist literature (after my father has been an atheist for forty years)!
posted by bad grammar at 5:09 PM on June 8, 2010

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