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Research pioneer Annie May first theological librarian in the church

In Ponca City, Okla., a statue of the pioneer woman commemorates the courageous women who traveled west to the frontier. I was in high school when various artists were invited to submit their conceptions for such a memorial. The work selected has always seemed ideal to me –-a woman in a long dress striding forward as she holds a child in one arm and grasps the hand of another. Although the wilderness frontier has passed, people still lead in new directions and new work. A woman who pioneered in theological research died March 9, 2006. She was Annie May Alston Lewis whom I met in the early 1970s when I was given administrative responsibility over the Oklahoma Christian Library. I met her when she talked to a group of deans about developing strong libraries.
Annie May was an impressive woman who understood that research is central to the academic process. She had made vast improvements in Harding library before she accepted W.B. West Jr.’s invitation to come head the Harding Graduate School of Religion library. She amazed me as she discussed the process of building a library collection, showing a keen understanding of the administrative work. She knew books and periodicals.
Paralleling her ability to know what works to purchase was her ability to choose people who could effectively serve in the library. She had staffed the Harding library with such effective people that her moving to Memphis left no void. Don Meredith, her successor as head librarian at Harding Graduate School, was hand picked, being recruited to be the reference librarian.
Librarians at Christian schools have often been women of exceptional skills, often being the only women in administrative roles in our schools. Where Annie May pioneered was in her study of theology. She was educated at Harding where she majored in English. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in library science at Peabody College. While serving in Searcy she earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, the premier school for library science. She later also earned an M.A. at Harding Graduate School to better understand disciplines and student needs.
After accepting West’s invitation to head the library at the Graduate School, she returned to the University of Chicago to take a course in theological bibliography to prepare for her new work. Her diligence in reading and studying the materials in the graduate school library prepared her to be a mentor and guide to several generations of graduate students who relied on her for finding materials and on her wise understanding of the contents of books and periodicals.
Annie May, a friendly adviser to me all through my early years as a dean, helped me look for staff and advised me on strategies for funding the library. I was never as good at getting funds as she was, but she consoled me that it took time “to educate presidents” about the importance of the library.
Don Meredith, in a tribute to Annie May on Harding’s Web site, wrote, “The first theological librarian in the churches of Christ, she was entrusted to build from scratch a quality collection to support a theological graduate program. She attacked this project with the same hard work and determination of her tenure at Searcy.”
Meredith summed up her achievements, “When Lewis came to the Graduate School of Religion, the library contained about 5,000 volumes and subscribed to 82 periodicals. When she retired in 1983, it had almost 69,000 volumes and received 582 periodicals.”
Annie May was a Bible scholar respected by the Graduate School faculty and Bible scholars throughout our fellowship. But her reputation extended beyond our fellowship. The first member of the Churches of Christ to serve as a theological librarian, she became the first of our fellowship to belong to the American Theological Library Association. At annual meetings she met librarians from all the great schools of theology, making contacts to build a strong theological library.
Christine Parker, an alumnus of Harding Graduate School of Religion, wrote an interpretation of Annie May’s life. She thoughtfully observed, “Confidence in what God made her to be and conviction that she knew her role in His work in the Kingdom were in everything she did. Out of these things came a great deal of her spiritual influence. Annie May knew which books you should read and where to put your commas. But more importantly, she knew how to inspire God’s leaders to be who God made them to be.”
Annie May Alston Lewis was our fellowship’s pioneer in theological scholarship. I pray that many, including the bright spiritual young women of our fellowship, will honor and follow her lead.
July 1, 2006

Filed under: Insight

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