Southern Harmony: The Human Touch in the Digital Age

The 2017 Local Host Committee met and created the theme for the 2017 ATLA Annual Conference, Southern Harmony: The Human Touch in the Digital Age. Here is the story behind the theme.

In 2017 the American Theological Library Association will gather in Atlanta, the center of the American Civil Rights Movement and home of many institutions that commemorate that struggle. The literature, music, and religions of the South have exerted influence far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and the Mississippi River, and at this conference librarians will come from across North America and beyond to visit Atlanta and its institutions and think together about the roads behind and those ahead and how ATLA can realize its core values of creativity, innovation, and transformation.

The conference theme is taken from Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, an enormously influential shape note tune book, compiled by William Walker and first published in 1835.[1]  “Harmony” is offered to the Association as a capacious frame for thinking about how theological librarians can draw on technologies as well as human capacities and community to connect students and other patrons to ideas about history, literature, music, and theology. “Southern,” of course, helps focus on the specificity of sectional issues relating to harmony and dissension: race relations, the civil rights movement, the many southern-rooted religious traditions, and sacred music traditions.

Specifically, rather than “Southern Harmony” being a claim for tranquility in the South, the phrase provides an entrée into race relations and the Civil Rights Movement, the Sacred Harp tradition, communities that exhibit both harmony and discord, and the rich literature of the region from figures such as Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor. As the conference explores “harmony” as a creative blending of parts that differ, whether that be:

  • the use of digital technology to make rare manuscripts available to wider audiences and elicit productive collaboration among scholars/communities that differ greatly from one another;
  • the challenge that librarians face in providing schools of theology with diverse student bodies and yet doing so in a way that promotes dialogue and mutual learning; or
  • the effort by librarians and faculty to equip ministers/scholars for professional lives that are coherent and balanced, making careful and critical use of ancient texts and practices in contexts that are often characterized by conflict, distraction, and fragmentation.



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