Students enrolled in CE 223 "Queering Ethics" taught by Prof. Sarah Azaransky at Union Theological Seminary, examining an archival document folder at the Burke Library

Queering the Archives at Union Theological Seminary

Students in the course Christian Ethics 223, “Queering Ethics,” taught by Prof. Sarah Azaransky at Union Theological Seminary, visited the Burke Library on Wednesday, March 6th, to discuss queer frameworks of power, authority, and queer subjecthood in relation to archives. The class and I delved into hands-on archival inquiry with the papers of emilie m. townes, a former professor at Union and currently the Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, a self-identified lesbian and a leading figure in womanist thought. We framed our activity with discussions of archival theory, with readings from Derrida and Foucault among others. The students debated the ethics of archival acquisition processes and research — especially as it affects the history and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons today. For several of the students, this encounter at the Burke Library was their first time handling archival documents.

Students enrolled in CE 223 "Queering Ethics" taught by Prof. Sarah Azaransky at Union Theological Seminary, examining an archival document folder at the Burke Library

Students enrolled in CE 223 “Queering Ethics” taught by Prof. Sarah Azaransky at Union Theological Seminary, examining an archival document folder at the Burke Library. This photo appears on the Burke Library’s Instagram account @BurkeLibraryUTS

In preparation, the eighteen masters-level students in the class read a literature review of theoretical views of the archive by Marlene Manoff titled “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” (Libraries and the Academy, 2004, 4:1). We framed our discussion around ethical issues at play in critical archive studies when it comes to the custodianship of both literal archives as well as the proverbial collective archives of social memory. If, as Derrida says, “There is no political power without control of the archive,” who decides what is kept in the archive, and how is their political power sustained? When it comes to topics in LGBTQ studies, especially in art, literature, and political movements, key figures often defy typical organizational frameworks, and resist categorization. How do researchers identify a gay or transgender writer, for example, who spent their early life in the closet, and was not labeled as such or recognized for their work (or their identity) until later in time? What are the power dynamics at play for archivists, in curating and making primary-source materials of these figures available and searchable for scholars? How do researchers with questions pose their inquiries without being imposing on, or intrusive to, queer subjects? Hefty questions indeed. After a break, we shifted gears from discussing archival processing to handling materials from the emilie townes papers first hand.

The students worked in pairs to examine the contents of one document folder each from the emilie townes papers, including some manuscript writings from early in her PhD program. One group found that some of Dr. townes’s personal research notes had been typewritten on the back of what appeared to be event flyers or inserts for church program booklets. The students speculated it may have been to save paper, but the reason was not readily apparent; we were unable to tell from the Finding Aid whether the existence of these flyers had been previously documented at all. One of the event flyers (pictured below) advertised a 1987 event called “Homosexuality and the Church” at Faith United Methodist Church, in Downers Grove, Illinois — a particularly eye-catching object, given the present ongoing debates concerning homosexuality in the UMC denomination. (Leaders at the recent UMC General Conference in St. Louis, MO, debated and voted to reaffirm the current stance of the denomination, that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But the debate continues, as numerous LGBTQ-affirming UMC churches around the world maintain the contrary stance, in welcoming solidarity with their LGBTQ communities.) It is truly a pressing issue, one that is deeply personal to me and to many students at Union. Yet, from a cursory look, without apparent information about this document, we cannot know how it came to be among her papers, nor what role this event played in Dr. townes’s life and education. A key takeaway from this exercise, predictably, was that archival documents often raise more questions than answers.

"Homosexuality and the Church" event description page, on the verso of a typewritten document of research notes, from the emilie m. townes papers, series 2, box 2, folder 3, Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

“Homosexuality and the Church” event description page, on the verso of a typewritten document of research notes, from the emilie m. townes papers, series 2, box 2, folder 3, Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Some of these masters-level students are beginning to consider the possibilities for continued graduate study, and possible projects for future archival inquiry. Some students are even considering collaborating on a potential project on the LGBTQ history of Union Theological Seminary together, requiring extensive time in the UTS records held at the Burke archives. Such a project would be a hefty undertaking, but one of great value to the community here, I have no doubt. In the end, the session received a greatly positive response, and it seems these intrepid students thoroughly enjoyed their close encounter with the archives.

Color Our Collections at the Burke Library

For the second year in a row, the Burke Library participated in a worldwide weeklong initiative to spread awareness and engagement with Special Collections known as Color Our Collections.

Poster for Color Our Collections, February 2019. Image resembles a colored-in picture from a medieval manuscript of two people drawing.

Poster for Color Our Collections Week 2019 (http://http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections)

In this series of events, initiated by the New York Academy of Medicine, libraries and museums around the world upload black-and-white versions of images in their Special Collections to create unique coloring books for users to color-in with pencils. (Coloring, traditionally an activity associated with young children, has grown in popularity among adults of all ages in recent years, for its relaxation effects and impact on mindfulness and calm; many bookstores now carry coloring books for adults, and lately I have seen multiple people my own age coloring in coloring books on airplanes.) During Color OurCollections Week, many institutions host coloring events and offer printed versions of their coloring books. Guests can attend these coloring events or visit ColorOurCollections.org and download coloring books from libraries and museums around the world. Participants can upload photos of their creative coloring to social media using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections and see others’ posts and explore the collections from far-flung institutions. This lets users explore and engage through hands-on experience with their collections from home. The Burke Library uploaded a coloring book chock full of images from the archives, rare books and manuscripts.

Image is the cover of a student publication called The Plastic Bag from 1968, image shows a rhinoceros being lifted by balloons with the title "the free university: lifting the weight"

Image from the Burke Library 2019 #ColorOurCollections Coloring Book, “The Plastic Bag” student literary publication, circa 1968 (from the Union Theological Seminary Records, Archives of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, New York)

There are many wonderful coloring books available on this year’s Color Our Collections page from other libraries and institutions; our colleagues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University uploaded a very fine selection of images, and the New York Academy of Medicine (the original founders of Color Our Collections) always include intriguing health-related and scientific images from their special collections. From outside the U.S., the Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán and Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg coloring books were both beautiful. Having been raised going on canoe trips in the north woods of Minnesota, I was intrigued by the coloring book from the Grand Portage National Monument Archives, featuring images of Ojibwe artwork, birch bark canoes, and the region’s natural features.

Page from the Color Our Collections 2019 coloring book of the Grand Portage National Monument Archives. Image is a black-and-white edited photograph of a room in a museum featuring a birch bark canoe and indigenous artwork from Minnesota.

Page from the Color Our Collections 2019 coloring book of the Grand Portage National Monument Archives (https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/grand-portage-national-monument-archives-collection-coloring-book-2019)

The Burke Library’s own on-site Color Our Collections event, featuring complimentary tea and snacks, drew about a dozen guests, including students from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, as well as a few library staff members who saw a poster for the event and decided to drop in on their lunch break to do some coloring.

Photograph from the Color Our Collections 2019 coloring event at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University. Image shows a table with popcorn and people's hands holding pencils and coloring in images on paper

Photograph from the Color Our Collections 2019 coloring event at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

Participants seemed intrigued by the images from the Burke’s collections, engaged in lively conversation about the history of the Burke and its role in the university, and appreciated the fact that we hosted such a nice event open to the community. Some of them took extra coloring books to give to friends. We promoted the event on social media, and some of our remote followers commented requesting links to the site so they could download their own coloring books. Having been alerted to the existence of Color Our Collections last year by Myong Jin, the Collections Assistant at the Burke Library, I was very glad to have collaborated with her again put on our second such successful event this year, and look forward to hosting it again in 2020.

On the Virtues of Small Books

From Jeffrey Michael Wayno, Collection Services Librarian, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

 

As a librarian, I have a rather awkward confession to make: I’ve been having a difficult time finishing a book. A few months back, in the midst of my yearly summer reading binge, I started Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, the longtime New York City Parks Commissioner and builder extraordinaire, who over nearly five decades in the middle of the 20th century dramatically reshaped the city that I’ve come to call home. The Power Broker is a wonderful book: endlessly fascinating, full of insights about both the man and also the political and social processes at its core, and, above all, beautifully written. And in spite of its length—The Power Broker clocks in at 1,162 pages—I thought this would be a relatively quick read, the kind of light, enjoyable reading that I’ve come to relish in summer months. But here I am, five months later, still stuck on p. 850, desperately trying to cross the finish line before I travel upstate for the holidays. Most of my life as an historian and now as a librarian has revolved around books, and I’ve slogged my way through more than a few lengthy tomes. So what has made The Power Broker such a challenge?

 

A few days ago, the answer came to me. Put simply, The Power Broker is just too large of a book. Although fairly standard in terms of physical size, the volume weighs almost five pounds! The weight and general bulk of the book makes it surprisingly difficult to hold in a way that is comfortable for the reader. Unlike a more intense academic publication (which can be hefty to the extreme), The Power Broker is the kind of book you want to read in bed or on the subway. And yet, doing just that isn’t very easy. Every time I’ve picked it up, I’ve found myself thinking consciously about when I can put it down again.

 

Over the last two months, ever since starting as The Burke Library’s new Collection Services Librarian, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about books as physical objects. One of the great pleasures of my job is to teach rare book and manuscript sessions for Columbia, Barnard, and Union Theological Seminary classes whose topics are enhanced by looking at The Burke’s marvelous special collections, which include ancient Greek papyri, medieval manuscripts, and early printed material, to name only a few categories. These sessions necessarily grapple with changes in the production of written materials over the centuries: the move from tablets and scrolls to the codex (what we know as the ‘book’), and from materials written meticulously by hand to those printed using movable (and now digital!) type. We tend to think that in the 21st century we have a wider variety of written formats than people living in, say, the 12th century. But in many ways the opposite is true. Medieval manuscripts and early print materials come in a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, and weights.

 

Just the other day, while perusing The Burke’s collection of medieval manuscripts, I came across two manuscripts that exemplify this variety. First there is UTS Manuscript 76, a wonderful little Book of Hours produced in the Low Countries in the 15th century. As a collection of prayers that medieval men and (especially) women used on a daily basis, Books of Hours needed to be portable, even while they were also highly decorated. This particularly wonderful manuscript is so small that it fits in the palm of your hand! And even though it is made of parchment—a heavier material than paper—it is still quite light:

 

UTS MS 076, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

UTS MS 076, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

 

Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you have UTS Manuscript 25, a gargantuan Italian antiphonal (or choir book), also from the 15th century. This manuscript, which needed to be large so that a group of singers could read the musical notation and words with ease, weighs more than twenty pounds:

 

The large UTS MS 025 (underneath the very small MS 076, for scale), The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

 

These examples, of course, are extremes. There are plenty of medieval manuscripts that fall somewhere in between MS 76 and MS 25. If—as they say—variety is the spice of life, then the world of medieval manuscripts is particularly rich in flavor. But that same diversity should remind us that men and women in the Middle Ages faced similar challenges to the one I encountered with The Power Broker. How big a book was determined—at least in part—how you used it and, indeed, what you could do with it. Form and function went hand in hand.

 

So this holiday season, as many of you prepare to travel near and far, I hope you will think about packing a good book to read. But if you do, remember the lessons of The Power Broker: bigger is not always better. Small books have virtues in abundance, and as physical objects they can be a joy to read.

The Seth Kasten Memorial Exhibit Case

Recent visitors to the Burke may have noticed something new on the first floor. This week, thanks to the generosity of the friends and family of Seth E. Kasten, a new exhibit case has been installed on the first floor, just opposite the circulation desk. Seth was a librarian at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary from 1973 to 2011 and this case will stand as a testimony to his many years of dedicated service to the Burke’s communities and collections. Seth helped countless individuals from near and far in their research and study and led choral groups at Union and at the annual conference of the American Theological Library Association.

We are deeply grateful to the Seth’s friends and family for this gift to the Burke Library in his memory. We are planning an opening event for the spring and an exhibit that will pay tribute to Seth’s passion for music — stay tuned!

“Spirit of ’68” Part II: Research in the Administrative Files

By Jake Hearen, Student Research Assistant for the “Spirit of ’68” Exhibit

(Posted c/o Carolyn Bratnober, Public Services Librarian)

I came to Union a bit behind the power curve. My formal involvement within a theological framework is relatively new. I had not heard of James Cone until I visited in the spring; I promise his books are near the top of my reading list. So, I jumped at the opportunity when I heard about Special Collections needing assistance with researching for the upcoming exhibit.

I realized how daunting the project as I became oriented to the particulars of the project. At its focus was the Union Commission and its predecessor organization, The Free University of Union Theological Seminary. These initiatives resulted in response to the tensions between Columbia students and the administration brought about by the Vietnam War and the gentrification brought of Columbia’s expansion affected the Union community.

In its entirety, the project was a single archival box stuffed with materials mostly from the 1968-69 school year but other documents appeared to include several that came from far beyond the walls of Morningside Castle. There were a few student publications from Columbia regarding the student protests. There were even a few standout pieces such as an international gathering of college students and a manifesto from the 1969 National Black Economic Development Conference.

Archival folders in UTS2 Records, Administrative Files, Series 4B, Box 2, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, New York NY

Archival folders in UTS2 Records, Administrative Files, Series 4B, Box 2, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, New York NY

But what stood out most came from within the seminary. One letter, drafted by a student who witnessed seminarians severely injured while mediating between police and Columbia students, noted how our unique role as future chaplains and ministers allows us to instill change from within power structures more than any other vocation. Another document from the Union Commission itself highlighted the values of the seminary such as looking at the potential application of computers as technology evolves and the importance of the Burke Library.

This institutional memory clarified the gaps I felt between an earlier Union with activists like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the later of James Cone. Those seminarians stood defiant with their peers before the atrocities beset upon an Eden and said no more. Their spirit of coming together against the destructive will of institutional corruption with compassion in their hearts is something that I pray I embolden over my next few years and the many more to come. -JH

“Spirit of ’68” Part I: Building an Exhibit…

The year 1968 has been memorialized recently with a slough of exhibits, events, new books, and other testimonials marking the 50th anniversaries of that year’s revolutionary upheavals, movements, and protests — Union Theological Seminary of course has a long history of resistance activism, and librarians at the Burke thought that Union should have its own display of archival materials from that historic year.

Recent memoirs and history monographs on the year 1968. Photograph by Carolyn Bratnober, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018)

Recent memoirs and history monographs on the year 1968. Photograph by Carolyn Bratnober, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018)

Little did I know, at the start of creating this exhibit, that Union underwent its own revolutionary changes that year, and indeed Union played a pivotal role in Columbia’s infamous 1968 student protests. My research for the 1968 exhibit unearthed some of this history, which I am excited to share via the Burke Blog as part of this series.

I knew about Columbia’s student protests from reading James Kunen’s memoir The Strawberry Statement many years ago. In April of 1968, students at Columbia occupied university buildings in protest of Columbia’s involvement in recruitment and weapons research for the War in Vietnam, and in the gentrification of Harlem in general. Columbia’s administration sought to quell the protests, which lasted several days and drew significant media attention, by calling law enforcement — whereupon, predictably, the police used brutal tactics against the students, throughout several days of violence. When I consulted the archives of Union Theological Seminary’s president’s office files, community photographs, and student publications from that time period, to see what I could find for our 1968 exhibit, I was heartened to see news coverage showing Union students involved in resistance during the Columbia protests, and even doing nonviolent interventions with the police. What surprised me was the fact that Union students and administrators came together on this issue, agreeing to cease all UTS classes for the remainder of the school year; there is a letter from President John C. Bennett included in the exhibit, officially halting classes and forming a series of alternative revolutionary teach-ins called the Free University in which students could assemble and strategize to build revolutionary momentum around the protests. I and my co-curators thought these events should definitely be the focal point of our exhibit on Union in ‘68. We conducted a great deal of research to get a closer look at these resistance efforts, which in fact catalyzed a series of liberatory changes at Union (which will be described in greater detail in subsequent blog posts by my collaborators) and we decided to call this exhibit “Spirit of ‘68: Revolution and Resistance at Union Theological Seminary.”

"Union Students Strike for Columbia" banner, UTS 2 Records, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

“Union Students Strike for Columbia,” photograph (1968) UTS 2 Archive Records, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

The whole exhibit was a team effort. Staff from the UTS Development Office, Emily Odom and Kevin Bentley, who possess extensive knowledge of Union alumni, helped with curation. It was their idea to host an event during the 50th Reunion of the UTS Class of 1968 in early October, when many alumni would be coming to town, which was truly a stroke of genius. We organized a nice reception to mark the opening of the exhibit on October 4th, and extended invitations throughout the Union community. Background research was a major part of putting the exhibit together, and the files from this time period in the UTS archives are extensive; thankfully, a Union student, Jake Hearen, offered to pitch in on the reading and research, and he became our indispensable Research Assistant for the project.

"Spirit of '68" exhibit display on level L1 of the Burke Library. Photo by Carolyn Bratnober, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

“Spirit of ’68” exhibit display on level L1 of the Burke Library. Photo by Carolyn Bratnober, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

Prior to starting the research for this exhibit, I had thought putting the physical display together was going to be the most challenging part; however, as it happened, members of the Conservation & Preservation Department for the Columbia University Libraries were happy to help construct photograph frames, book cradles, and display mounts for each of the items we selected. (After all, these materials are both unique and extremely fragile, and they deserve utmost care in their handling and display.) The entire team worked hard to create this exhibit, it was a massive undertaking and could definitely not have been done by one person alone.

For the opening reception, we also had the idea to involve the guests in collecting memories and metadata about the items on display– we put up a projector screen and projected a slideshow of images of documents and photographs from the time period, and invited guests to note in a nearby notebook if they recognized individuals by name, and dates and place info for events featured in the slideshow. We also included a table of books about 1968 for guests to browse (some of which are pictured here). It turned out to be quite an event, attended by alumni, faculty, librarians, and students, with sparkling conversation over desserts and champagne, and everyone seemed to enjoy the evening very much. Eventually I hope that research around these events will lead to broader understanding of this time period– I hope to include some of this crowd-sourced metadata in the archival Finding Aid, and to have many of the exhibit’s materials digitized for an online exhibit that will offer researchers the chance to see these items remotely in the years to come, and to continue exploring this revolutionary era in our community’s history.

Students and alumni at the "Spirit of '68" Exhibit Opening Reception (October 4, 2018). Photo by @UnionSeminary on Instagram (2018).

Students and alumni at the “Spirit of ’68” Exhibit Opening Reception (October 4, 2018). Photo by @UnionSeminary on Instagram (2018).

 

Apps and Tools for Citations and Note-Taking: a Workshop for Undergraduates

Anyone who has written a research paper knows that formatting footnotes and bibliographies can take up a great deal of time and mental energy in the library. Whether tracking a scholarly conversation within secondary literature, or scouring a huge archival collection in primary source research, managing one’s thoughts and research notes (and making sure one can find them again) can be cumbersome; yet, in today’s electronic world, there are scads of tools available to help researchers find and manage their citations and their ideas. This week, a professor asked if we could hold a session at the Burke Library, facilitating a discussion and workshop about the pro’s and con’s of some of the top digital apps and programs for managing citations and taking notes, just for undergraduates writing thesis papers in Religion and Theology. We enthusiastically rose to the occasion! I set out to review the top tools used by researchers in the Burke Library, and began developing the workshop. It ended up being a great opportunity to engage with some information-literacy principles around data privacy, digital preservation, and fair use as well.

First I conducted an informal survey over social media, asking writers, researchers, and students what digital tools and apps they take notes with. Out of 10 responses, the apps that were mentioned included Evernote, Google Docs, Notability, OneNote, Trello, Scapple, and Zotero (many respondents also mentioned that they use pen and paper — some things never change!) Within a few days I had the chance to explore each of these tools and their potential usefulness for college students. I created this table (below) to guide our discussion of the pro’s and con’s of every app, so the students could decide for themselves which ones would fit their note-taking needs. (NOTE: I am not paid to advertise these products, I am simply reviewing them for instructional purposes.)

Zotero is the program I decided to start the workshop with and spend the most time on. For those who have not yet boarded the Zotero train to Easy Bibliography Town, it’s a program that lets you keep track of your sources (books, articles, special collections, etc) and generate bibliographies, footnotes, endnotes, and parenthetical references for papers with the click of a button; no more copying titles, authors, and publisher locations by hand and formatting where the comma goes for every single footnote. You download the program and install a quick add-on to your web browser, then simply find the items in CLIO or any other library catalog, and you’re able to add the sources to your Zotero library with a click in your browser.

Google Docs and Evernote are two popular mainstream programs for organizing text-based notes. Both allow users to save content to a computer hard drive or in “the cloud” (web-based servers requiring a login). OneNote provides the unique feature of letting users enter text and also draw freehand shapes, arrows, and circles to map ideas visually. The students who attended this workshop were already using Google Docs for taking notes, for the most part, though some had tried OneNote as well. The group in the workshop engaged in thoughtful conversation about price and costs with these programs; Evernote is free to use, OneNote is only available through the somewhat expensive Microsoft Office suite, and Google Docs is “free” to use but it also requires a login and may track user activity.

Three newer apps — Notability, Trello, and Scapple — were completely new to everyone in the workshop (including me). Through exploration I found that Notability ($9.99) is a fun note-taking app for Mac computers and mobile devices (not PC’s, sadly). Users can type, draw, and even speak into a microphone to record notes and annotate PDFs with markings and highlighting. Scapple ($12 for students) is a mind-mapping app for connecting ideas and concepts. Trello (free/requires login) is an organizational collaboration tool that allows groups to assign project components and due dates. The students in the workshop discussed the potential pro’s and con’s of using newer apps, including concern about the novelty of these companies and whether or not their work could be deleted if the companies don’t last. Longevity is a concern in any project that involves digital preservation; it was a good chance for the students to discuss these information principles, in a conversation centering their own intellectual outputs.

I added to the workshop an app called Tropy, which I heard about from a colleague who works primarily in archival research. Tropy allows users to take photos of archival collections, upload them and organize them based on their research needs (for example: a lengthy archival document, captured one photo per page at a time, can be saved as a single group) and users can markup and annotate the image files to record their notes and ideas. Our exploration of Tropy also included a conversation around copyright and fair use; Tropy.org provides an overview of what constitutes fair use of archival collections for research purposes, which nicely framed the discussion.

All together, these apps span a great deal of potential uses, and provided a stepping stone for an engaging conversation around several information-literacy principles as well as a lively hands-on workshop. We are definitely considering hosting it again as a one-off workshop in the future.

Alums CAN Access the Library!

‘Tis the season of graduations—from our college undergraduates to the newly-minted PhD’s, this month has been full of brilliant now-former students becoming a part of the extended alumni network.  As alums, you continue to have access to the Columbia Libraries System, in modified ways.

Photograph of happy graduating students at Columbia University Commencement 2018

Columbia University graduates, May of 2018. http://library.columbia.edu

Do not fear—your access to beloved library materials does not end with your matriculation from Barnard, Columbia, Teachers College, or Union Theological Seminary.

You can go onto the Columbia Libraries homepage and learn about access privileges at http://library.columbia.edu/services/using-libraries/alumni.html

Some of the highlights of alumni access privileges:

  • You can access E-Resources from the comfort of your own home!
  • You may come in and utilize the library and look at materials in person for the rest of your life!
  • You have the opportunity to pay for borrowing privileges for $30/month.  Borrowing privileges may be purchased over in Butler Library at the Library Information Office.

 

Reading the Stacks: Remnants of Community in the Circulating Collection — by Brandon Harrington

For the past year, I have been reading the stacks at the Burke Library. Not reading every book, but reading the collection: how it is organized, what subjects have more texts, what sections see more traffic.

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, "Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress." by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, “Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress.” by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

 

Since December 2016, I have been playing the vibrations between student and Library Circulation Assistant. The library is where I work in a double sense. But over the course of my time at Union, the two roles have collapsed into one another, and I can honestly say that my education at Union would have been very different had I not gained extensive familiarity with Burke’s collection. My knowledge of Burke’s holdings has grown through sharing in the curiosity and creativity of countless patrons. Helping researchers find books has been an education in and of itself, taking me to aisles and titles I would likely never otherwise explore. But apart from assisting patrons, my familiarity has grown most through shelf-reading.

 

Shelf-reading, a crucial part of library maintenance, is one of the responsibilities that comes with being a Circulation assistant. It consists of going through the stacks, book by book, to make sure the collection is shelved correctly. It helps us find books that were mis-shelved and marked “lost,” pull books in need of repair, and return books to other Columbia libraries that wound up in the Burke stacks. With a total of over 700,000 onsite books in 5 levels of stacks spanning 24,580 square feet, it is rather easy for a book to find its way onto some distant shelf, far from where it should be. While shelf-reading is an essential task for ensuring that patrons can locate resources, the task of shelf-reading sounds tedious. But my not-so-secret secret is that I love it.

 

It is one thing to understand that libraries organize knowledge. It is an entirely different thing to tangibly experience the assumptions that go into their organization. Burke has two different collections with distinct classification systems: the Union stacks and the Library of Congress (LC) stacks. The periodical section is shelved alphabetically. None are “neutral.”

 

The Burke is one of the few remaining theological libraries that still circulates books shelved according to the Union classification system, originally designed for the Seminary’s holdings. Julia Pettee developed and implemented the cataloguing system over fifteen years, beginning in 1909. The acting librarian at the time, William Walker Rockwell, recorded in the preface to the published classification: “It is a principle of this classification to look upon Christianity as the central theme reaching out in all directions; and wherever a Christian topic touches a field of interest to make a place for it within that field.”[1] (Check out former librarian Elizabeth Call’s piece on Julia Pettee published on this blog in 2014 here.)

 

Reviewing the breakdown of the Union stacks, I realized how drastically today’s collection has changed in character with the continually-growing LC stacks, just as the population at Union has evolved over the years. The latest incoming class is reportedly the most religiously diverse, including the largest population of unaffiliated students Union has ever welcomed. Looking back on the ideals, assumptions, and goals that went into the organization of the Union stacks, it became clear to me how much the collection is a relic of the Seminary’s past character. So much so that it seems to describe a different Seminary entirely from the one I have come to call my home. Because of its date of production, the Union classification has no designation for Liberation or Feminist or Womanist or Queer Theologies. No space within its categories for the theological voices that have been so formative and foundation for me and for many of my peers. No space for the ways of doing theology that have since emerged largely within Union’s walls.

 

Shelf-reading the collection today, I find that the sections most out of order best reflect the evolving character of the Union community. While I recognize the necessity for our books to be organized, I revel in the disordering that happens. Reading the stacks reveals a latent sense of Burke’s community of readers. The disordering archives a challenge to its organization, a manifestation of the fact that new works are being produced, works that might give cause for reorganizing the collection, works that will push the boundaries. The books on the shelves change constantly, and the bits of information, communicated through the collection itself, speak volumes with a moment of pause and a little attentiveness. I find in the disorder a remnant of the community I will soon leave after graduation.

 

Two weeks ago, we lost Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Since Cone’s passing, the section where his books are housed has thinned quite a bit. I know that folks are returning to his words, continuing to hear his voice through his writings. It reminds me of something I noticed in the library while taking Prof. Cone’s course, Foundations in Christian Theology, the last time Dr. Cone taught this course, the course with the infamous 20-page syllabus.

 

I saw Dr. Cone’s impact through the changes in the stacks. Cone repeatedly encouraged: “You have to find your theological vooooooice.” Over the course of the semester, the BT section, the LC classification for “Theology,” swelled and compressed, mirroring the theological turns we traced every Tuesday morning under Dr. Cone’s passionate and meticulous guidance. We were pulling books to find our voices.

 

I graduate in eight days. We have almost completed shelf-reading the LC stacks. They are reset for another round of disordering, and I wonder how the stacks will bear the remnants of its community in the years to come. As I close this chapter of Circ assisting and graduate study, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read the stacks and to see through them the reflections of the Union Seminary I have known and been a part.

 

                       -Brandon Harrington, UTS Class of ’18

 

[1] Julia Pettee, Classification of the Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, ed. Ruth C. Eisenhart (New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1967), iii.

Surprise from Japan: Encountering Toyohiko Kagawa

Several months ago, the Burke Library received an unexpected visitor, a researcher from Japan. She said she was from the Kagawa Memorial Center in Kobe, and she wanted to see some archival items in the collected papers of Toyohiko Kagawa. Although her visit was unscheduled, I helped her set up a reader account and request the materials via our online Special Collections forms, and luckily we were able to fit her in for an appointment that day. As it happens, Kagawa has stuck with me since that day — I have become fascinated by his life and work, and have worked with other researchers who make use of his papers in the library who study him too. I even read a biographical graphic novel about him, two pages of which are shown below (more on this further on…)

Scenes from a graphic novel about the life of Toyohiko Kagawa, depicting his life as a student, coming to New York from Japan as a young man circa the early-1900s.

(Click for full size image.) Fujio Gō and Ōsaki Teizō, translation by Timothy Boyle. “Beyond the Death Line: The Society of Love and Cooperation Envisioned by Toyohiko Kagawa.” Kagawa Memorial Center, Kobe, Japan (2015).

I had never heard of Toyohiko Kagawa before. (I am still fairly new to the Burke; actually, I was a student at Union Theological Seminary after earning my MLS, and I know the Burke’s circulating collection and research databases very well, but I still have a lot to learn about its Archives and Special Collections holdings.) It turns out that Kagawa’s papers are held in the Missionary Research Library, held at the Burke. He visited the United States many times, and his papers eventually came to be collected at the Kagawa National Center, headquartered nearby in Brooklyn — UTS professor Harry Emerson Fosdick was on the sponsoring committee. Toyohiko Kagawa was a pretty impressive person, and an inspiring subject for seminarians to study.

Newspaper clipping from the Akron Beacon Journal, 1954, announcing that Toyohiko Kagawa would preach there.

(Click for full size image.) Author unknown. “Toyohiko Kagawa, Noted Japanese, To Preach Here.” Akron Beacon Journal, Saturday, Sept. 11, 1954. (From the Missionary Research Library Section 7, Toyohiko Kagawa Papers, Series 1, Box 9.) From the collections of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

 

Toyohiko (given name) Kagawa (family name), born in 1888, was a theologian, activist, labor reformer, and pastoral caregiver, who worked in service of improving the lives of farmers and workers in Japan and internationally throughout his life. (He struggled with health complications and died in 1960, having been nominated once for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1955.) What strikes me most about his life and work is the incredible range of activities his leadership touched in Japan — from building medical hospitals in the “slums” of Kobe to founding cooperative farms to organizing labor unions, he accomplished a great deal towards empowering farmers and laborers. He spent a brief time in prison after being arrested following a labor demonstration. As well as being a gifted writer and theologian, he was a shrewd economic thinker and researcher — for example, he studied horticulture while forming his cooperative farms, and from reading about farming practices in Greece he got the idea of planting chestnut trees in the grazing areas of pigs in mountain farms, so that the roots would prevent rock slides while the trees provided food for the animals. Not to mention his prolific scholarly and literary life. He is said to have missed a lot of class while he was a student because he spent so much of his time in the library. (You can see why I find his personality so endearing.) He became a prolific writer, and his constructive activities were funded in large part thanks to sales from his books and speaking engagements. Having studied at Kobe Theological School, he eventually made several trips to the United States, including to earn an MA and MDiv at Princeton. Later in his life he made several speaking and churchgoing tours of the U.S., including in 1954, which are well documented by correspondence, newspaper clippings, and other materials in the Toyohiko Kagawa Papers.

A section of a speech given by Toyohiko Kagawa in 1954, including the phrase: "I would help the laborers to help themselves, acting as good Samaritans through their own organizations..."

(Click for full size image.) Toyohiko Kagawa. Remarks at the World Council of Churches meeting, Aug 17, 1954. (From the Missionary Research Library Section 7, Toyohiko Kagawa Papers, Series 1, Box 6.) From the collections of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

I learned a lot about Kagawa by studying the materials we have here in the Burke Library, and from reading this biographical graphic novel that our surprise visitor gave me after her visit. It is called Beyond the Death Line: The Society of Love and Cooperation Envisioned by Toyohiko Kagawa. The Kagawa Memorial Center produces and distributes these books, drawn by Fujio Gō and written by Ōsaki Teizō, and I cannot find another copy in any library catalogs in the United States. She gave it to me personally, but perhaps I will donate it to the Burke Library’s collections so others can continue to study Kagawa like I did.