An Interview with Carolyn Bratnober, by Allison Morrow
What is your role at Columbia University Libraries? What do you do all day?
I support student and faculty research in religious studies, theology, Biblical studies, church history, and philosophy and I do public outreach and strategize to promote user engagement at the Burke and across the Columbia University Libraries. Within the study of religion my focus is LGBTQ* studies and disability studies within contemporary U.S. Christianities and I have various writing projects and community organizing activities that inform and blend into my academic work. All day, I think about ways the library can support learning and research - from planning workshops in research methods, to curating archival exhibits, to giving tours and orientations, to working with faculty to support teaching and writing, to posting pictures of illuminated manuscripts on social media and our library blog. All this involves a lot of teamwork; I collaborate with colleagues at the Burke, at Union Theological Seminary, at Butler Library, Avery, Starr, Lehman, Barnard, and others.
Describe your "why" story - what led you to this career?
As an undergraduate I explored theater, religion, and journalism and got a job at a news outlet in Portland, Oregon as a fact-checker. Back then I wanted to be a reporter on religious issues and promote interreligious dialogue in news media. Journalism actually led me to pursue a degree in library science and develop my research craft - I wanted to become a librarian and support education through research and information literacy. I came back to New York (where I was born) and studied at the Pratt Institute (MLIS, class of ‘13) and I also interned at the Morgan Library & Museum, pursuing my interest in manuscripts and special collections. Meanwhile, I also found a “side hustle” as a real-time transcriber/caption provider for deaf and hard-of-hearing college students, subcontracting for Student Disability Services offices in various schools. It’s a great day job for someone with an interest in accessibility as it put me in some of the best college classrooms in New York - over five years of bonus college education (plus it helped me pay for grad school). I never lost interest in libraries and kept up in my pursuit of writing and graduate study in religion and decided to apply to seminary after library school. My education at Union Theological Seminary (MA, class of ‘17) changed me in many profound ways, not least of which was my introduction to the Burke Library. The connection between theology, storytelling, and social justice is of crucial importance to me. Academic librarianship is the ideal venue for me to blend my love of writing and learning, my passion for interreligious engagement, my commitment to accessibility, and my practice as a researcher.
What are your research or academic interests?
I have many research interests across several different disciplines, including LGBTQ* studies, disability studies, religion and theology, and media and information science. As a queer-identified gender-nonconforming person, I have always been fascinated by the role of religion in U.S. political discourse on issues relating to the LGBTQ* community. In my research, I utilize frameworks from queer theory and LGBTQ* studies in textual analyses and I explore the ways in which queer theory, critical race theory, and disability studies align in terms of representations of the body and phenomenology. My MA thesis at Union was about the racialization of homophobic interpretations of Biblical passages by the Moral Majority and other organizations during the 1980s period of the AIDS epidemic. Currently, my research centers around digital communications - particularly the use of private social media platforms such as Facebook in grassroots activism and message-spreading, social group formation and polarization, and the concept of data as labor, using a feminist queer lens and theological concepts to address issues relating to privacy and capitalism.
What most excites you about your role?
I’m not sure which excites me the most - my role encompasses many different activities and they’re all exciting, it’s hard to pick just one. Teaching workshops for students in the library is definitely a blast. Seeing their faces when I show them how to get tons of materials for free from the library is one of the best parts about being a librarian. Hearing about students’ research topics is fascinating, too. Working with researchers puts me in the position of learning about new different areas every day; when someone comes to the library for help with research, I get to explore with them and discover things I’ve never read much about before. In the same day, I might spend an hour with one researcher looking at queer Brazilian filmmakers, another at 20th-century televangelists, another at 15th-century Dutch manuscripts. The collections at the Burke are so vast, I’m constantly learning about new various aspects of religious history encompassed at the library.
What is the coolest or most obscure thing you've discovered about the Burke Library since you started your job?
For a long time, I knew the Burke owned the contents of the Missionary Research Library in its archives and I was skeptical of those collections. (“Missionary research? What’s that about?”) But after working with the Burke archives for some time and corresponding with researchers who came to see materials from those collections (several hundred linear feet in total), I came to see their potential for scholarship, including providing insights into both the traumatic elements of colonization and the personal sides of those stories. These collections provide a unique lens into several particular situations of interreligious and cross-cultural engagements and provide on-the-ground primary-source information about the history of globalization under a microscope. Anyone developing post-colonial and liberatory work on these histories can benefit from looking at these dynamics, from the people who were actually there.
What is one thing - professional or personal - you hope to learn in the next year?
I’ve been meaning to take a class in American Sign Language (ASL) for yearsand after the holidays, I’m planning to finally sign up for a course. I know a little bit through my work as a service provider, since I worked with ASL interpreters and deaf clients regularly, and meeting up with my interpreter colleagues in noisy New York bars means the group communicates mostly in ASL. It would be nice to practice and train in a more formal setting and really develop my skills. Learning ASL takes practice within that particular language community to really use it and be able to communicate with others, but it would also be nice to get a better understanding of the frameworks and grammatical elements of the language too.
*I use "LGBTQ" the way I see it as being commonly used as an umbrella acronym to stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans/Transgender/Gender-Nonconforming/Genderqueer, and Queer, while also being a stand-in to shorten much longer acronyms inclusive of other identities seen as being marginalized along the lines of sex, gender, and sexuality.