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M. Patrick Graham: The librarian turns the page

By Molly Edmonds | Emory Report | Aug. 24, 2017

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Retiring after more than two decades leading Emory's Pitts Theology Library, M. Patrick Graham likens his role to “hosting a banquet, where you introduce your guests to the greatest scholars and authors of all times and places."

No food or beverages are allowed within the Special Collections reading room in Pitts Theology Library, but despite that restriction, you might find yourself a guest at a feast there. That’s how M. Patrick Graham, librarian and Margaret A. Pitts Professor of Theological Bibliography, sees the work of the library.

“It’s like hosting a banquet, where you introduce your guests to the greatest scholars and authors of all times and places, provide a hospitable surrounding for their engagement, and then admire the great things that come from their time together,” says Graham, who will retire Aug. 31, after 29 years at Pitts.

Graham was first a guest at the banquet when he was a student in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, where he earned a PhD in Old Testament in 1983. He returned to Pitts in 1988, serving two years as a cataloger of non-English language materials and four years as a reference librarian.

While working at Pitts, he completed a master of library and information science from the University of Texas at Austin and further perfected the intricacies of academic librarianship under Channing Jeschke, the influential librarian who catapulted Pitts to stardom by tripling its holdings through the acquisition of the 220,000-volume Hartford Seminary collection.

Carl Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament, says that Jeschke and Graham were alike in many ways: “Each possessed a persona of quiet dignity that masked a powerful Protestant work ethic driven by an expansive intellectual vision and a disciplined creativity, gifts enhanced by stunning organizational and administrative skills.”

When Jeschke retired in 1994, Graham became director of the library — “the librarian,” in library parlance — and continued the work of growing Pitts’ collections. During Graham’s 29-year tenure, the library has expanded from 460,000 to 610,000 volumes, a 32.6 percent increase.

Graham also took the lead on making Pitts’ resources available to those who can’t visit in person by creating the Digital Image Archive, an online catalogue of 60,000 downloadable images scanned from Pitts’ Special Collections.

Just as Pitts was growing, so too was Candler. Graham spent a decade as chair or co-chair of the building committee that oversaw construction of a new 128,600-square-foot facility for Candler.

“He spent untold hours consulting and working with faculty, Emory’s Campus Services staff, architects, and the design and construction specialists hired to complete the project,” says Holladay. “Through all of this, he faithfully represented Candler’s interests and priorities and advocated effectively on our behalf. His footprints and fingerprints are everywhere to be seen.”

Librarians as educators

Graham’s legacy also includes the remarkable staff at Pitts. Holladay notes that Dennis Norlin, former executive director of the American Theological Library Association, once called Pitts “the finishing school for theological librarians.” While Candler professors sent their students from their classrooms to Pitts, Pitts was Graham’s classroom, and his former students serve theological libraries across the country.

Graham’s classroom is full of life, says Holladay. It’s a “splendid architectural monument, to be sure,” he says, but it’s also a “hive of activity. Unlike some librarians, who see their collections and the buildings that house them as museums — or even worse, as storehouses — Pat sees the library as more like a working laboratory, filled with centers of activity and energy, pockets of discovery and experimentation.”

Graham counts the cultivation of the extraordinary staff at Pitts as one of his greatest accomplishments. “The quality of service and professionalism among Pitts staff impresses visitors or newcomers who have come from other academic institutions,” he says. “They tell me how impressed they are with the competence of Pitts staff, their commitment to service, and their intellectual engagement with those who come to them.

“Such excellence does not just happen but is the product of hard work, mutual encouragement, thinking together about our profession, and helping one another to go beyond what is the baseline for performance,” he says. Graham takes great pride that this level of excellence is now considered the norm for Pitts.

As the fall semester gets underway, Graham will miss his favorite tradition — “the opportunity to welcome new students, call their attention to the wonderful resources that have been assembled for their benefit, and then offer them encouragement for one of the most important periods in their lives” — but he knows he has built a staff that can ably handle the task.

“There are strong currents in higher education today that push libraries to treat students and faculty as customers,” Graham says. “My hope is that the staff of the Pitts Theology Library will continue to resist this impulse, see themselves as educators, and offer the very best professional expertise to Candler and the university as a whole.”

In his retirement, Graham looks forward to spending more time with his children and grandchildren, developing his gardening and photography skills, and completing his own research projects. He also plans to volunteer for a “good theological library in the area.”

After all, how can you pass up such a lavish banquet?