Fitting in the Final Pieces of the Puzzle: an Interlinked Collection

This semester is the beginning of the end for a collection that has been meticulously processed, studied, and preserved over the past three years. By the end of 2014, every scrap of paper from the Missionary Research Library Collection – a vast assortment of papers are related in some way to Christian missionary work around the globe since the 1700s – will have a home at the Burke library, and will be available for research purposes. It is very exciting to see a record group through to its end, and to imagine the way these collections that you have spent so much time on will impact academic research in a variety of fields.

As we near the end, the archival process takes a slightly different road. We are taking the final, unprocessed boxes and attempting to find the best home for them, and would hope that their new home would be in a currently processed collection. This means having an extensive understanding of what is already out there, and knowing how best these previously unrecorded materials can be inserted into a pre-existing collection and help bolster the information contained in that collection. Get it? You get it.

So let’s say you have some random letters about education initiatives in China in 1905, written by Dr. Edwin Bliss. These letters are currently not part of a collection, but are related to the materials throughout MRL: 6 (which is Mission Research Library section 6, the China Section). However, they are also related to materials in MRL 12: Ecumenical/World Mission, since Dr. Bliss was instrumental in founding and running the Bureau of Missions during this time. The letters could provide insight into the inner workings of that organization. What do you as the archivist do?

These are the kind of questions that are facing us as we wind down an extraordinary collection. Personally, I find it to be an exciting time, one that allows the archivist to explore the collection thoroughly, whether for the first time (as most of it is in my case), or as a revisit (as it is for project archivist Brigette, who has been here since the beginning). It also highlights how the collection should be seen as a whole entity, instead of many boxes that happened to be housed together. If you haven’t had a chance to see what the MRL collection currently holds, take a look! And check back often as we update, reorganize, and make the collection more accessible and understandable to use.


Road winding through flooded rice fields, Szechuan (UTS: Elliott, Photographs, EG54)

For the first two months of my internship, I worked on a collection from a Methodist missionary in China. I was glad to get the opportunity to do my final internship in the USA. What I hadn’t realized was that it would be a “buy one, get one free” kind of journey: by coming to Burke, I actually got to time-travel to China, 1905-1908. That’s one of the things I like about archives: it can get you to faraway places and long lost people.


Ichang Gorge, Yangtze Valley (UTS: Elliott, Photographs, 18359)

Harrison Sacket Elliott (1882-1951) was a Professor of Religious Education at Union from 1922 to 1950. But before that, he left the US at 22 to be the secretary of James Whitford Bashford, Methodist Bishop of Beijing and Shanghai. Fortunately, Elliott brought a camera with him, and within the three years he spent in China, he took several hundred pictures (UTS, Elliott, Photographs).  In order to get to know him better, I also read the letters he wrote to his family (UTS, Elliott, Series 1). When put all together, it’s like having a diary for all of his time in China. They help with understanding the pictures a great deal. Plus, they are actually very compelling and pretty fun to read. Among other things, there are accounts of an adventurous trip on the Yangtze river, considerations on Chinese religious customs, and detailed lists of dishes he tasted at feasts (I must confess I have a soft spot for the letters about food).


Woman carrying coal, Szechuan (UTS: Elliott, Photographs, 18991)

Most of the pictures are really good, whether they are of landscapes or people. Elliott was curious about all sorts of things. He was impressed by the amazing landscapes of the Yangtze Gorges, of which he took gorgeous pictures, but he was also fascinated by the daily life of the Chinese people he encountered while traveling. He also took extensive notes and photographs about Chinese techniques used for tracking the Yangtze rapids or for agriculture.

Besides learning about China, these documents also  provide a lot of information about Elliott, both as a Western missionary in China and as a son and brother writing home. This is a great thing with personal papers: it feels like getting to know somebody. Without a doubt, my favorite letter is one he sent to his younger brother, Calvin. Calvin is learning how to write and just sent his older brother is very first letter. Elliott responds by a very touching letter in which he explains him how his life would be if he were a Chinese little boy: he would have three names, he would learn how to write with a paintbrush… I really enjoyed seeing how Elliott tries to make his little brother understand the life in China.

I am really glad I got to work on that collection with Ruth. For now, I am working with Brigette on converting finding aid to XML-EAD, among other interesting things – I am very thankful to get to learn so much during my time at Burke!

An unexpected journey

I am through the first month of my internship at Burke, but time has passed so fast that it sometimes feels like I have just arrived. I still have a lot to learn, and the thrill of being in an unknown city is still there!

My Library School (ENSSIB, France) gives us the opportunity to do our final internship in foreign libraries. While some students prefer to stay in France, going away seemed a really good way to learn more, both personally and professionally – developing new skills, discovering another country. That’s why I applied at Columbia University Libraries, hoping to get the chance to work on a digitization project.

A few months later, I found myself standing , a bit jet lagged, in front of a huge Neo Gothic tower covered in snow, and wondering if Hogwarts had moved its location from Scotland to Manhattan.

I didn’t expect to be offered a place in a Theology Library. Still, it made sense to me: my master’s thesis was, after all, about church history. It also seemed like a chance to discover a view of religion and spirituality very different from what I had experienced in France. What was more unexpected was the archival nature of my work. But while I never had the opportunity to work in an archive, it was still a familiar territory: during my bachelor in History, my teachers always insisted on the importance of documents and sources. During my master's, I had some courses about archives– and I experienced several times archives as a reader. What got me into Library Science in the first place was my desire to be the link between past documents and present readers, which is why I did several internships in libraries with rare book and manuscript collections. For all these reasons, I am glad to be able to get a first-hand experience in archives, on a project that will help me developing skills that are useful in libraries as well.

In this perspective, being at a place like Burke makes sense: it is familiar in many ways, but also completely new. I am learning a lot working with Ruth and I really enjoy my work with the Harrison Elliot papers, which I will tell more about in another note.

St. Leander

There are several obvious candidates for "patron saint" of the Burke Library, and one of them would certainly be Leander van Ess (1772-1847). Van Ess, erstwhile Benedictine and translator of an immensely popular German New Testament, amassed what would become the Library's first, core collection. Edward T. Robinson, a member of Union Theological Seminary's founding faculty, arranged for the purchase in 1838 of a portion of Van Ess's collection, including scores of medieval and early modern manuscripts, as well as thousands of early printed books and Reformation-era pamphlets (flugschriften). The Van Ess Collection remains a tremendously rich resource for the study of the material culture of the West, and of book history in particular. Among the collection's strengths are its many well-preserved contemporary bindings. The collection bearing his name, which is the result of Van Ess's life and work as a scholar and teacher, is the proverbial "cornerstone" of the Burke Library's renowned holdings. The above portrait includes the Johannine exhortation to scrutamini scripturas (5:39). In Van Ess's hand is inscribed a brief passage from 1 John 4:16: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."

One Month In to my Burke Internship

I’m about a month into my internship at Burke, and have already learned so much, including how to navigate to Columbia from Brooklyn when the 1 train isn’t work and it’s once again snowing (answer: any way you can, and be ready to walk).  I’ve also learned so much about archiving, preservation, collections, and Union Theological Seminary as a whole.

For the past month I’ve been working on a collection involving the founding of the Bureau of Missions in 1902. The letters of the original secretary Dr. Edwin Bliss and his predecessor Dr. Henry Otis Dwight have provided great insight into the origin and original mission of this organization, and its impact on missionaries around the world. I hope that after I am done with this collection, researchers will be able to use the material to establish a better understanding of the Bureau of Missions.

I’ve also taken part in a conference on digital preservation, which was useful to understanding the process and the meaning behind archiving in a technological age. It goes much further than backing up on an off-site computer. It involves understanding the file you’re working with, attributing metadata and other information to it, storing multiple copies, and allowing access in a way that won’t corrupt originals. Thanks to JTS for letting me attend this interesting conference, one that has already carried into my work at Burke and my studies at Pratt.

Finally I’ve learned about the inner workings of both Burke and UTS. They both serve the same purpose: to educate the students who walk their halls. Yet they do it in such different ways. The education in UTS is supplemented and bolstered by the staff, books, archives, and collections at Burke. UTS provides the groundwork for ideas, Burke gives the tools to bring them to reality. I have enjoyed walking around both the library and seminary and seeing what they have to offer. Now I can’t wait until it’s warm to check out the garden areas!

I can’t believe how fast time is going by; it’s been a great ride so far. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you about the collections, what I’m learning, and the seminary at large!

“The Communications of my wishes may stir up some other to do what I have only the strength to wish…” MRL6: D. W. C. Olyphant Papers

David Washington Cincinnatus Olyphant is credited with bringing the first American missionaries to China, all with the stroke of a pen.

I wish I could give you some good news from this far country respecting our Redeemer’s Kingdom – but I do not see that I can… [Canton, August 6, 1827]

One of the more regularly-used collections in the Missionary Research Library (MRL) is the D. W. C. Olyphant Papers, which is part of MRL6: China. It is believed that the collection came to MRL along with the David Willard Lyon Papers. The Lyon Papers were donated by Lyon himself in 1945.

The Olyphant Papers, while typescript, are the only papers of its kind; the location of the original hand-written materials is unknown. The correspondence was originally composed by Olyphant between 1827 and 1851 with the ultimate recipient remaining anonymous. The letters were copied from the originals by hand by D.W.C’s son, Robert Morrison Olyphant, and then typewritten. In 1914 these copies were lent to Henry Blair Graybill, 1880-1951, a missionary educator associated with the Canton Christian College, who copied them yet again. Finally a Chinese typist under the supervision of David Willard Lyon, 1870-1949, transcribed the letters for the final time in 1916.

For a full biography of Olyphant, please see his collection Finding Aid. His interest in China began through his profession as a merchant in a trading firm. He traveled to and lived in China for a time. It was during his residency that Olyphant wrote the famed letter which ultimately brought missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to China. Olyphant served on the Board of the ABCFM. In addition to his financial support, his trading ships also offered free passage to missionaries traveling to and from China. Olyphant wrote,

I would you could see your way clear to charter a vessel with moderate funds… I would willingly do the business for nothing, or devote a reasonable commission, or a portion of profits towards their support…[Canton, August 6, 1827]

Olyphant’s later letters mention other missionaries and their work, such as pioneering Scottish missionary Robert Morrison馬禮遜, 1782 – 1834, whom he met in Guangzhou 廣州 (Canton). Other topics of interest include opium, and the addition of California to the United States:

I rejoice in the acquisition of California. The missionaries will be so much nearer Christian land, and being so will have so much more of its sympathy and more of its sustaining care. [Shanghai, October 7, 1850]

In 1850 Olyphant traveled once again to China, but ill health forced him to set out on a return journey to the U.S. the next year. He writes simply,

It may be that – it is time for me to retire. [No location, March 28, 1851]

David Washington Cincinnatus Olyphant died while en route overland across Egypt on June 10, 1851.

The collection has been scanned and is available for viewing online.

To request the collection for in-person research, please do so through the Burke Library's Rare Books and Archives Request Form.

My First Day at The Burke

This semester I will be an administrative intern. My supervisor, Dr. Beth Bidlack, was very nice and open with me on my first day at the Burke.  I was very excited but somewhat nervous because I’m not sure how much I will be able to accomplish in the short time that I will be here.  However, I determined to put my best effort forward and make a difference with my hard work.  Beth introduced me to the other staff members, who were very friendly and seem cool.  As she was walking me through the stacks, I was trying to absorb all the information I was receiving.  I must admit, some of it stuck and some did not.

However, as I was looking around, I started visualizing new ways to rearrange furniture and books, and other ways to make the office space more efficient and inviting.  At first, I was not going to take this internship but I’m so glad I changed my mind.  I think I will learn a lot from the Burke staff and Dr. Bidlack.

2014 Library Research Awards

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services (CUL/IS) invites applications from scholars and researchers to its annual program designed to facilitate access to Columbia’s special and unique collections, the Library Research Awards.


CUL/IS will award ten (10) grants of $2500 each on a competitive basis to researchers who can demonstrate a compelling need to consult CUL/IS holdings for their work.  Participating Columbia libraries and collections include those located on the Morningside Heights campus: the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts LibraryThe Burke Library at Union Theological SeminaryButler Library, the Lehman Social Sciences Library, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, and the Libraries' Global Studies Collections.

Applications will be accepted until February 28, 2014. Award notifications will be sent to applicants by April 30, 2014 for research conducted at Columbia during the period July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2015.

To apply, please visit the Library Research Awards website.


What I Look Forward To In My Burke Internship

When I told my friends and family I was getting my masters in library and information sciences, no one was surprised. It seemed like a natural fit for someone who was such an avid reader who loves to get others to read. Now, after my first semester at Pratt Institute, I have learned a lot, one of them being that a degree in library sciences leads to so much more than a chance to talk to people about books. It’s a way to engage in information on every level, from cataloging and archiving, to disseminating and researching. To me, libraries and librarians are both the classical holders of knowledge, and the future of how we will interact with information and learning.
Simultaneously, I’m also pursuing a master’s in Jewish-Christian Relations at Seton Hall University. It’s certainly a specific concentration, but one that is interesting, challenging, and exciting. Classes have included topics like studies of the First and Second Temples, Judeo-Christian prayer, and philosophical perspectives on the Holocaust. The professors are a mixture of priests and rabbis who have devoted their lives to reconciliation and understanding, and it has been a rewarding experience to study under them.
Therefore it is pretty exciting for me to join Brigette and the entire Burke Library faculty to work on the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives project. The work I will be doing in these collections combines my two degrees perfectly. I’ll be interacting with the works and letters of missionaries and organizations who lived religious relationships in a theologically meaningful way. I’ll also be taking the technical skills about interacting with information that I’m getting at Pratt and applying them, learning both in the classroom and on the job. It’s a perfect combination!
I am so looking forward to working on these different collections, and sharing what I learn with you here on the blog. It’s going to be a journey, and I’m happy to have you join me on it.

Why coming to seminary was not the stupidest decision I’ve ever made after all

I didn’t come to seminary looking for a career.  I spent most of my early twenties in a “career.”  Starting out as a graphic designer, events planner, and marketing coordinator for a large southeastern material handling corporation, I went on to work for the third largest life insurance company in the U.S. followed by a prestigious marketing firm in San Francisco, CA.  It didn’t take me very long to figure out that I was not where I belonged.  On paper I was successful, competitive, and upwardly mobile.  Meanwhile my soul was plunging into the depths of despair.  One day in 2007, at the age of 25, I snapped.  I turned my back on the whole rat race, vowing never again to return, no matter what the cost.  Now whenever people ask me about my “career” aspirations, I tend to have a “been there, done that” sort of attitude.

Still, one does need to eat.  And so I spent the latter half of my twenties trying to figure out how to do that while maintaining a reasonably self-satisfying existence as a folk musician, a writer, and an artist.  My search for the perfect “day job” vacillated between part-time retail work that left me with enough energy for my creative pursuits but didn’t quite pay the rent, and full-time non-profit ventures that were meaningful and reasonably lucrative but sucked every last drop of creative life-force out of me.  I was trying to juggle the management of an independent bookstore that I started while also independently managing myself as an alternative-folk singer-songwriter when I heard about an ecumenical seminary in New York City that had a master’s program with a concentration in Theology & the Arts.“Those are both things that I love,” I thought to myself.  “I should do that.” 

Given my struggle to make ends meet, I can understand how it may not have seemed like the wisest choice on my part to move to the most expensive city in America and take out thousands of dollars in student loans to obtain a “Masters of Divinity,” when I have absolutely no desire of ever becoming a church minister or an academic professor.  Yeah, yeah.  I know. 

But this is essentially the manner in which I’ve been making my vocational decisions post-rat-race: I had to “follow my bliss” as they say.  I knew that God had accompanied me on my journey this far, I believed that my soul’s passions must exist for some reason or another, and I never forgot that no matter what happened to me, it would ever be as bad as having to live the lie of sitting in a sales meeting at 9:30 in the morning dressed up in business casual clothing talking about how I thought we could sway our target demographic.  

Basically I had a hunch that if I started feeling my way into the future instead of trying to think myself there, then I might be more likely to actually get wherever it was that I ought to be going. 

Aaaand just for the record, I was right. 

About a year and a half into my seminary program, I received an email about a position that had just opened up in our world-famous library. As usual I was desperate for money, and when I read the word “archives” I pictured something like this:

Old, dusty, vintage stuff.  Mysterious unknown documents.  Secret storage rooms.  Piles of papers and books.  “Those are all things I like,” I thought.  “I should do that.”

It started out as just a quirky part-time work-study job, something more interesting than working in the mail room.  But over the next two years, as I began resurrecting the lives and stories of Bertha E. Davis, Robert C. Dodds, Emory W. Ross (how I came to know his red pencil markings so well!), and Reginald H. Helfferich, along with the heartbreaking tale of William Wilberforce Chapin and his wife Isabel, I slowly realized that this job meant much more to me than a paycheck.  Of course it was invaluable in terms of my academic work, for the deeply nuanced historical perspective I gained with regard to the world missionary project and the cross-cultural encounters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But on another level, I was also starting to feel like this was the best day job I’d ever had.  It just fit me, in so many ways. Right before I left to spend a whole summer in Indonesia, it finally dawned on me.  I am born for this job.  I literally love every part of it, from the mindless, contemplative tasks of removing staples from piles of documents or labeling piles of folders with my neurotically neat handwriting, to the intellectually challenging and engaging detective work of piecing together the biographies of people that history had almost forgotten. 

Sometimes I was embarrassed to admit how much I secretly loved it.  I mean, no one is supposed to enjoy their job this much.  It’s not….normal.  How could I ever explain the deep, weird inner satisfaction that I get from labeling, organizing, and putting things into their proper places?  How could I convey the Christmas-morning-like excitement that I feel opening a whole new unprocessed box filled with unknown treasures – handwritten letters, diaries, photos, slides, newspaper clippings, manuscripts – and having to figure out what’s in here and why anyone would care? 

I loved that I was able to work flexibly at my own pace, and that the work progressed steadily on a project-by-project basis.  My amazing manager Brigette Kamsler, who is both a mentor and a friend, always trusted me to see each of my collections through to completion, and I loved the elated sense of satisfaction I got every time I took something that looked like this:

…and turned it into this:

I also loved that I could sit at my desk with my headphones on and block out the world with the music of my choice as I attempted to discern cursive handwriting from the 1800s or place old photos into Mylar envelopes or make copies of old documents that were turning to dust.  Every now and then, I even got in a miniature workout as we moved cartons of paper up and down the maze of stairwells in our Hogwarts-esque library tower.

The labor of archives is academic and administrative, mundane and unpredictable, methodical and intuitive, intellectual and hands-on, solitary and interpersonal.  It’s like everything I ever wanted in a day job, and I’m starting to think that perhaps by coming to seminary I managed to stumble across something like a career path after all.  At least, it is something that I feel like I could happily do as a “day job” for a long, long time.

Recently I saw It’s a Wonderful Life again, and I was struck by one scene in particular at the very end [SPOILER ALERT], when George Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence is showing him what the world would be like if he had never been born.  The town of Bedford Falls had become Pottersville. Mr. Gower had gone to prison for twenty years. Ernie’s wife had left him. Uncle Billy went to a mental institution.  And George’s little brother Harry died at the age of nine, so he was unable to save the lives of a number of soldiers during the war. 

This was all very bad.  But the worst moment of all, the final climactic most terrible thing, is when George asks Clarence what happened to his wife, Mary: 

“I’m not supposed to tell, George.”
“Please Clarence, tell me where she is.”
“You’re not gonna like it, George!”
“What?!  Where is she?!” he yells.
“She’s an old maid.  She never married!  She’s about to close up the library!”

I do have to say, the melancholy horror of this moment is somewhat lost on me.  She never married?  She works at the library?  I don’t know…. that sounds like a pretty wonderful life to me. 

(She even has a cute hat!)

This is why you can't ever let anyone define success for you.  Success happens along the way, in those moments when you remember who you truly are because you find yourself being it.  And honestly, I have had so many of those moments working on the fifth floor of the Burke library….tiny, fleeting moments of success in which I felt like I knew myself, and I felt happy.  For that, and for the laughter and the solitude and the insights (and even the dust), I am so grateful for my work there.  I am sad to be leaving, but as I finish up this last semester at Union Theological Seminary, I am excited to imagine the path forward, still steering towards my heart’s horizon, but now with the practical experience, skills, and self-knowledge that will hopefully open up new opportunities for success along the way. 

Thanks especially to Brigette, Liz, Matt, Anthony, Amy, Ruth, and Beth for teaching me so much and for making me always feel part of the Burke family.