Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, “The Questions” in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
CBA: A curator is someone who cares for special and unique objects. Many libraries divide their objects into main collections and special collections. The majority of our library’s approximately half million books are shelved in the main collections, available for anyone to browse. My job is to look after the collections which require greater care and supervision: rare books, personal papers and manuscripts, research collections, as well as a substantial portion of our digital collections.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
CBA: I was drawn to this work because it draws on so many of my different interests, from theology to software development. My education is in philosophy and theology. While completing my Ph.D. in systematic theology at Princeton Seminary, I was also working as a research assistant in the Center for Barth Studies and on projects related to the soon-to-be-founded Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology. The seminary library maintains research collections to support the activities of both centers. I discovered that I not only enjoyed working on programs for these centers—planning conferences and so forth—but also on developing their bibliographic collections. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to put together world-class research collections on figures of such prominence as Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.
Now that I’ve become the curator of special collections my areas of responsibility have broadened. I must divide my attention more equally among our collections, which range from the official archives of the seminary to artifacts sent to the school by missionaries. This is not a vocation for someone who wants to specialize in just one subject. But it’s a great occupation for anyone who likes learning something new about something different everyday.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
CBA: When I first started working in the library, there was a great deal I did not know about librarianship, not only about the more technical subjects, but also about the historical scope of our particular collections. I discovered early on just how much learning takes place informally, through conversations with colleagues, reading literature on one’s own, and experimenting with new ideas. When you are new on the job, having informal lunches on a regular basis with colleagues can be the best way to learn the ropes.
Comment: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
CBA: Do not be afraid to call settled opinion into question. I learned from reading Rene Descartes as a philosophy student in my undergraduate days that the best way to judge the truth of something you believe is to subject it to doubt. My wife says I live by this every day, which has its plusses and minuses! I also learned from the American pragmatists, especially William James, that not acting on what you say you believe constitutes a practical form of doubt. Finally, Karl Barth taught me how to incorporate questioning into theology while still remaining faithful to the truth of the Gospel.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
CBA: My wife and I draw inspiration for both our vocations from reading and talking about the Bible together. I also participate in a weekly discussion of the Reformed confessions with other professionals. Generally my reading falls into four areas: theology, history, business, and software engineering. I find that reading widely rather than narrowly is great for discovering unexpected insights on your own field of study.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
CBA: I do not have a very structured work schedule. Typically, I begin my day at the office by checking email, consulting my list of projects, and then settling on one concrete task or another. I try to take a walk at lunchtime to get some perspective on the day’s work.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
CBA: I am not really a big gadget person. I don’t even carry a cell phone except when travelling. However, a ‘tool’ I really love is my iPod Nano. I use it to listen to various podcasts, primarily on business and software engineering (HBR IdeaCast, .NET Rocks, Software Engineering Radio, and so forth). I purchased a new car radio which provides a direct connection to the iPod. Now I no longer regard my commute as wasted time—driving has become my best classroom time. Of course, I do miss listening to NPR!
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
CBA: I am working now on a major project with George Harinck and his colleagues at the Historical Documentation Center for Dutch Protestantism at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. We are planning to put all of Abraham Kuyper’s personal papers and manuscripts online for scholars. It has been amazing to look through all the private correspondence that Kuyper kept up alongside his public writing—he was a man of unparalleled energy and drive. I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring these unpublished documents to a wider circle of scholars.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
CBA: I was not very systematic about planning my work until about a year and a half ago, when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The GTD philosophy of listing projects as well as context-dependent next steps helped me get an overview of my various obligations and responsibilities. Sometimes people remark on the two-page printed list of “to do” items I always carry around—it seems like I have a lot of work. Actually, I think most professionals would have a list as long or longer if they really noted down all their projects and tasks, but most people keep that information in their head. The problem with the informal approach is that it doesn’t scale well. GTD maintains a nice balance between formal project planning, which can be stuffy and easy to neglect, and total informality, which leads to missing obligations and rushing deadlines.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
CBA: My work connects pretty directly to the rest of my life. My wife is the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church so I help out there quite a bit. Also, I typically spend evenings reading or writing on subjects which relate directly or indirectly to my work.