Meet Sarah Burke Cahalan, Director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton

by Emilia D’Agostino Pisani

The Marian Library is celebrating its 75th anniversary with events and exhibits throughout 2018. Events inspired by the Library’s rich musical holdings, feature a concert of medieval music interpreted for women’s voices and an early-music ensemble performance. An exhibit will document the history of the Marian Library honoring the founders’ vision and all of those who have served the Library. Another exhibit will feature materials from the Middle Ages to the present that will draw students and faculty from many disciplines throughout the University as well as theologians and scholars from around the world.

In 2016, Cahalan became the Director of the Marian Library that was established in 1943. The Marian Library and International Marian Research Institute (IMRI)  is a key component of the consortium of libraries at the University of Dayton; a Catholic university in Ohio that was founded in 1850 by the Society of Mary.

Cahalan realized she wanted to be a librarian while working in Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center. She studied Folklore and Mythology as an undergraduate student.  After receiving her MSLIS from Simmons and a MA from the Courtauld Institute, she worked as a librarian at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D C for about five years. She enjoyed public librarianship outreach opportunities and community engagement. She wasn’t actively looking for a new job when she saw the Marian Library posting. It looked intriguing, so she investigated further and decided to apply for the position.

Being Catholic informed Cahalan’s interest in the Marian Library but, she doesn’t feel that one has to be Catholic to work with Catholic collections. Rather, what matters is an interest in engaging with the tradition. She sees so much of the human experience in the collection, such as holy cards that are worn with use and garden plans devoted to the Virgin Mary. The Library also acquires materials from traditions beyond the Catholic experience, for example, documenting the frequent appearance of the Virgin Mary in the Quran.

Cahalan is a tenured faculty member who reports jointly to the Dean of University Libraries. She is responsible for strategic planning, budgeting, marketing and administration of the Marian Library resources and services. She partners with other faculty and staff in the University Libraries managing the special collection library that supports research on, and devotion to, the Virgin Mary. The Library’s multi-language collection includes over 95,000 books and pamphlets, a stamp collection, crèche collections, medals, postcards and works of art.

Cahalan looks for opportunities to integrate the special collections with academic programs.  She understands that people find the library even if you don’t do the work, but that doesn’t mean that you should rest on your laurels saying “See? We have patrons.” She believes that the work is in building new and creative connections.

The Library IT specialist regularly updates information about services, acquisitions, special events and exhibits on the University website. The information often stimulates discussions about how specific materials might be of use for a class. Presently there are three special collections collaborating in a one-credit semester-long class. Cahalan hopes that this initiative can continue or become a module that could be connected to classes in other departments. The Library has a good relationship with the Campus Ministry, which has been a collaborator for chapel exhibits and has used rare materials in prayer sessions.

There is nothing as valuable as personal relationships. A number of instruction sessions and longer-term projects have been scheduled because Cahalan had coffee with someone or served on a committee. She sees it as part of her job to speak up about how important the collection is to the life of the University; she knows that “sometimes you have to be a bit obnoxious”.

A challenge for a religious collection is connecting with patrons who may not be interested in the devotional elements of the collection. An ongoing task is to ensure that patrons can use the special collection for classes in graphic design, music, art history and other fields of study. There are even connections to health sciences, for those who might be interested in exploring the relationship between faith and the healing effects of praying for a patient before a medical procedure.

The success of Cahalan’s librarianship begins with her interest in the Catholic tradition. She meets the collection’s advocacy and outreach challenges with an unabated determination to promote the relevance of the collections by integrating them into the University’s academic programs.

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