All Roads Lead Back to Brooklyn

Matthew and I had the pleasure this summer to work with Dr. Henry Goldschmidt in having a library and archives session with the Religious Worlds of New York Summer Institute 2016 fellows.  In addition to giving an overview of the resources at the Burke Library and elsewhere, we also had them look through the Department of Church Planning and Research records, 1855-1985.

This was a great collection for them to look at since it contains a ton of reports largely compiled between 1930 and 1980 on practiced religions in New York City.  Needless to say the uses of this collection are infinite in possibility!  This collection is such a rich resource on the history of NYC’s demographics.  One fun fact: the surveying tactics that the organization used were adopted by the U.S. Federal Census!

There are many reasons why I love working with students who are doing archival research, but one reason in particular are the discoveries they make — which if it were me going through the boxes, might have been details I would have overlooked.

One such discovery (well there were several during this class session, but the one that stands out in my memory) was within this 1946 publication titled Brooklyn U.S.A. by John Richmond and Abril Lamarque, which I am pretty sure I came during my tenure at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library and archives.



Inside this unassuming but eye-catching publication we are introduced to Sidney Ascher, the president and founder of the “nondues-paying” Society for the Prevention of Disparaging Remarks Against Brooklyn.





Looking some online I found this awesome interview with Sidney about his club from the WNYC Archives from August 4, 1948.  In this interview he proclaims that there were half a million card carrying members and when asked what one had to do to become a member, Sidney states “Just love Brooklyn.”


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First Steps Processing the Henry Pitney Van Dusen Papers: An Odd Sort of Activist

Rebecca Lossin was a summer intern who began processing the Van Dusen Papers in the Burke’s archives. Below are some of her thoughts processing the first several series in the voluminous Van Dusen Collection. The project will be completed in the 2016-2017 academic year with the support of the Columbia University Libraries Primary Source Internship. Read on and stay tuned for more on Pit’s life and legacy in the coming months!

The late 1960s found Henry Pitney Van Dusen in a flurry of letter writing activity. At this time the Vietnam War was at its height; the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 sent ripples through otherwise placid religious communities at home and abroad; students across the United States were making demands of their governments and universities; and women sought equal places in institutions of higher education. The modernization theory that sat so comfortably with a traditional missionary mandate throughout the 1950s and early 1960s was on its way out and new set of political relationships and expectations were on the horizon.

Van Dusen served as the President of Union Theological Seminary from 1945 to 1963 after which he continued to be active in the academic world, weighing in on issues at UTS, organizing semi-annual symposia on theological themes and serving on the Board of Trustees of Princeton University. “Pit,” as he was affectionately called by friends and colleagues, was always active in several organizations at once. He was a prolific and respected theologian and, if his notes from the time he spent teaching Systematic Theology are any indication, extremely well-versed in subjects as various as Augustine of Hippo and William James.

The papers of Henry Pitney Van Dusen are a rich and informative collection that should appeal to scholars of many stripes and the information contained in these surprisingly well-organized record boxes could paint numerous and varied pictures of this active and well-documented man. It seems to me, however, that “Pit” was at his most active and most interesting when theological questions intersected with political events.  While he was clearly capable of giving learned lectures on “Homiletics and the Pauline Letters” or  “The Evangelical Revival” the volume of correspondence and other writing that Van Dusen produced in relation to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Vietnam, and the institution of apartheid in South Africa, indicates a particular passion for political events.

Van Dusen does not settle easily into current popular categories of Left and Right. His political positions would seem utterly contradictory within the context of today’s party platforms (indeed, we see something similar in the current Pope). He was, for example, deeply suspicious of coeducation, preferring that Princeton take its cues from the Harvard-Radcliffe model, where, according to his letters, a Mrs. Bunting did a fine job of reminding young ladies of their future roles as wives and mothers.

He supported the war in Vietnam and was mortified by the publicity that a few of his fellow trustees obtained by publicly declaring their anti-war positions. While, in the end, The Princeton Board of Trustees chose not to address this issue in any official capacity, Van Dusen took it upon himself to distribute surveys in order to discern what a majority of the members’ positions actually were. His correspondence indicates that he wanted to correct the record publicly so that it was not assumed that Princeton was anti-war,  but was discouraged from doing so by other trustees.

Politically nuanced, Van Dusen was horrified by the institution of apartheid and devoted his inexhaustible energy to encouraging Princeton’s board to take an official position against the practice of apartheid and to divest from companies that directly or indirectly supported the government of South Africa or benefited from their practices.

He took what seems, from his records at least, to be an unpopular and arguably pro-Arab position during and following the Six Day War or the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Files dated as early as 1940 indicate that he is not a supporter of political Zionism, but the voluminous correspondence that resulted from the 1967 war shows a man who took a principled stance that was at odds with a majority of his colleagues. He received letters that ranged from reasoned and even-handed disagreement to pure vitriol. One correspondent claimed that “the pathological unconscious of Christendom has at last come to the surface in this man.” There are indications in later letters that he suffered along with his family from his very public opinions regarding this matter and became more cautious about sharing his views later in that year.

And there is, of course, his principled stance on euthanasia, which he and his wife put into practice late in their life by committing suicide together.

What I find most compelling about Henry Pitney “Pit” Van Dusen is not any of his political positions alone or in combination, but the overwhelming evidence of a man whose faith and religious beliefs oriented him solidly and unapologetically in the face of widespread and sometimes vitriolic opposition.  The only thing lacking in these papers is any indication that Van Dusen could be swayed by popular opinions or a group consensus. Even, it turns out, when this consensus was doctrinal–he was very nearly denied ordination because he did not believe in the Virgin Birth.


#LoveInAction: Voices in Social Justice



The Burke Library is excited about the start of it’s newest outreach project, #LoveInAction: Voices in Social Justice.  This project will train two Union Theological Seminary students in the theory and practice of oral history and archival research.  The students will be doing extensive research in the Union archives in order to prepare and conduct oral history interviews of alums during the Student Interracial Ministry reunion, a program that will happen in May 2017 (details TBD).  The participating students were selected through a competitive application process and we are thrilled to announce them here:

Kristine Chong
Tabatha Holley

We are so excited to have Kristine and Tabatha working with us on this amazing project for the next academic year!  We will be sure to post updates along the way.

Greetings from the Burke’s Interim Head, Meredith Levin

Now that we are all immersed in the hectic daily routines of the academic year, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself as the Interim Head of the Burke Library. It is my pleasure to work with the wonderful Burke staff, UTS faculty, and students this year, and I look forward to meeting many of you in the next few months.

I come to the Burke from just across Broadway (and a few blocks south), where I have been the Western European Humanities Librarian at Columbia’s Butler Library since 2014. I consider myself a true humanist and am delighted to be surrounded by such brilliant archival collections and incunables here at the Burke. I have a B.A. in English Literature (with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies) from NYU, an MS in Library and Information Science from LIU, and an MA in Italian Studies, also from NYU. In my regular role as a subject librarian at Columbia, I collect materials (print and digital) and offer research support for students, faculty and scholars in French and Italian language and literature, Comparative Literature, European history from the Renaissance to the present, and the history of science, technology and medicine.

I am thrilled to be here and eager to learn what makes the Burke special to each of you and what you think we might do better. Feel free to stop by my office on L3, call me (212.851.5611), or email me ( with any questions, suggestions, or if you just want to say hello!

I wish you all a productive year and thank you for welcoming me into the warm UTS community!



Behind the Stacks: Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor

Cover of bound volume. -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1888.

Cover of bound volume. — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1888.

Children’s missionary periodicals have some of the most charming, amusing, and eyebrow-raising content I’ve come across in the Burke Library’s collections. The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor is one in particular that caught my eye with the delightful cover shown above. The Burke has fairly comprehensive holdings of this periodical, which was published in London by the Church Missionary Society from 1842 to at least the 1950’s in various title permutations. The images below give a glimpse at the editors’ efforts to engage their young audience with a visually arresting publication, a conversational tone, and encouragement of reader participation.

Green cover of bound volume; the periodical was known as the “Green Book.” -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1871.

Green cover of bound volume; the periodical was known as the “Green Book.” — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1871.

Title page of New Series Volume 7. -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1871.

Title page of New Series Volume 7. — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1871.

Editor’s letter noting the “prettier” cover, new title page illustration, and a non-change in price. -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Jan. 1871, p.[1].

Editor’s letter noting the “prettier” cover, new title page illustration, and a non-change in price. — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Jan. 1871, p.[1].

Red cloth cover of bound volume. -- Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, 1880.

Red cloth cover of bound volume. — Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, 1880.

Title page of 1880 issue showing price has remained at a halfpenny. -- Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Jan. 1880, p.[1].

Title page of 1880 issue showing price has remained at a halfpenny. — Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Jan. 1880, p.[1].

Editor’s letter introducing green-tinted paper. -- Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Jan. 1880, p.2.

Editor’s letter introducing green-tinted paper. — Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Jan. 1880, p.2.

Editor’s letter noting objections to the green paper. -- Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Dec. 1880, p.134.

Editor’s letter noting objections to the green paper. — Juvenile Instructor / Church Missionary Society, Dec. 1880, p.134.

Illustrated cover of bound volume (the endpapers inside are green). -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1884.

Illustrated cover of bound volume (the endpapers inside are green). — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, 1884.

Call for entries for “Prize Clock.” The periodical frequently held this kind of design contest. -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Jan. 1884, p.12.

Call for entries for “Prize Clock.” The periodical frequently held this kind of design contest. — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Jan. 1884, p.12.

Results of “The Bible Clock Competition.” -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Apr. 1884, p.48.

Results of “The Bible Clock Competition.” — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Apr. 1884, p.48.

Note regarding cover options for the year’s bound volume. -- The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Dec. 1884, p.137.

Note regarding cover options for the year’s bound volume. — The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor, Dec. 1884, p.137.

The items pictured in this post are from both the open stacks and special collections at Burke. To learn more about visiting the Burke Library, please see our website for General Library Access or Special Collections Access.

Queer Books in the Burke Library: a Web Comic

In addition to being a student at Union Theological Seminary and working at the Burke Library, I also draw a weekly web comic called It’s part diary, part art project. It’s a way for me to creatively and visually engage with the ideas I encounter as a seminarian. Most of the comics are about Christian theological concepts and biblical passages as they relate to the experiences of LGBT*QIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) persons today. This summer, I’ve been thinking about critical librarianship (sometimes referred to online among librarians with the hashtag #critlib) and the ways in which categories and organization systems affect real life. For example, how does the way the library categorizes different books on sexuality and gender reflect — or even produce — library users’ thoughts, beliefs, and actions affecting queer people? While pondering these #critlib ideas I wrote and drew the following cartoon, illustrating a map of the Burke and taking the reader on a “tour” of the queerest sections in the library. Hope it’s thought- and laugh-provoking! To view the comic in enlarged format, either right-click it and choose “View Image” from the drop down menu, or click the following link to view it on my web comic site:!

Queer Books in the Burke Library with characters and images

Internship Project: A Budding Librarian/Archivist’s Perspective

Hello everyone!  I am excited to be a contributor for the Burke’s blog. I am an MLIS student at Long Island University and spent my summer as an archives intern here at the Burke mainly processing the collection of the esteemed Paul F. Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union. I started this project back in June and it has been going extremely well. I do not have a background in theological studies, but I did attend catholic school for twelve years – there I took religion as a sixth class – so I am not completely unfamiliar with religious doctrines. I would like to mention that Knitter is best known for his belief in religious pluralism. He was previously Professor Emeritus of Theology at Xavier University where he taught for 28 years before he joined the Union Theological Seminary in 2007. Most of Knitter’s publications and teachings have to do with religious pluralism.

The collection was originally comprised of eighteen cartons. I did an intensive survey of the materials which lasted me about the entire month of June coming in two days a week.

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Once I had a sense of what Knitter’s papers included, I began to physically process the collection according to an arrangement scheme I created and had approved by Rebecca, the Burke’s Project Archivist. In addition to ordering and arranging materials in keeping with the arrangement scheme, physical processing involves relocating materials from the acidic conditions they arrived in into acid free folders and boxes.

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I am also creating the finding aid as I perform the physical processing; this will allow researchers to access materials in person, through CLIO and the Burke’s website. The bulk of the collection is course files for the classes Knitter taught at the Union Theological Seminary, Xavier University, and other institutions. The course files are filled with intriguing topics including feminism in religion and inter-religious dialogue.

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The collection also contains Knitter’s thesis, critiques of his works (notably from the Vatican), correspondence, and other memorabilia that would be intriguing to anyone who is interested in Knitter, pluralism, or both. One aspect of physical processing that I especially enjoy is preserving materials. Many papers are acidic and can turn brittle. Metal paper clips also rust.

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They can be placed in archival envelopes and plastic paper clips are used instead of metal.


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I enjoy this project because I get the chance to help preserve the history of a community for years to come. I also enjoy creating ways for others to access those materials as easily as possible because I believe they are more valuable when used. These, I believe, are some of the fundamentals of why we do what we do. I’m very glad to have been asked to be a part of this experience.


Cartoonists, Dramaturgs and Old Testament Feminists: An Archivist’s First Months at the Burke

Hello Burke world! I joined Union’s library staff this February, filling a vacant Project Archivist position whose previous occupant guided the successful processing of the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives, the Missionary Research Library collection, and more with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation and other grant-funding organizations and individuals. I’m originally from New Mexico (a place with an aridity that I’m sorely missing during my first summer on this swampy island), and recently completed my M.L.I.S. in Archival Studies from McGill University in Montreal. Coming into this community has been in many ways a rigorous crash course in ecumenical studies, but happily a smooth process of folding into and keeping step with the everyday work of a small academic archive situated in an expansive research university. The learning curve I’ve ridden this spring has been notable given my status as a new archival professional with interests both in academic librarianship, special collections and rare books and archives. Prior to coming to the Burke, my background in archival practice had been situated in the U.S. and Canada, and primarily saw me leading small survey and processing projects in cultural heritage, art and academic settings with an acronym-riddled arsenal of best practices and archival theory at my disposal.

Phyllis Trible at work. Trible’s archive consists of text-based, visual materials and realia reflecting Trible’s historic career in Biblical criticism, feminist studies and the Old Testament. Her papers bridge the UTS Archives to the Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, and is an actively growing collection now available for on-site consultation. 

The extent of my religious studies acumen prior to joining the Burke was limited to my middling knowledge of the Presbyterian beginnings of the small Midwestern town where I lived during college, the particular dryness of Eucharistic hosts during my Catholic adolescence, and a fairweather interest in the eternal consequences of my meager mortal actions. I come from a literary studies and critical theory background, and have always been drawn toward the nuanced, less visible ways in which people and communities of people make sense or chalk up their experiences of this life, those experiences of religion and spirituality that respectively become occasions for world-making, diasporas, rituals and art forms that seem endlessly abundant in relief and hope. Part of what compels me toward the humanities, history and narrative has been the particular privilege and work of acknowledging my own ignorance of the world beyond my own, the limits of individual perspective, but also of the ways in which knowledge is produced to bind our subjectivities to one another. In the process of memory-making and historicization, I am equally interested in the erasures and violences that also constitute a part of the ways in which we understand our spiritual and social worlds.  Theology, perhaps more than any field I’ve taken up so far in my life and nascent work, attests to this pervasive knee-jerk desire to balance sense-making with reverence, critical thought with faith, silence with articulation. This process of coming to know, even in silence and subjectivity, is what drew me to library science, and archival practice in particular.

The projects that met me at the Burke did not disappoint. As the Project Archivist responsible for the processing, housing, and long-term preservation of the UTS 1 Archives – an aggregate of archival collections stemming from faculty, alumni, and other Union-affiliated individuals acquired by the library – I have become a sudden steward of a world steeping in interdisciplinary, interdenominational discourse. From my first day in the library, I realized that I had entered a space that, though a slim five-block walk north of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, is unique in its historical and academic context. As one of my colleagues told me on admiring the crucifix-emblazoned doorknobs leading into our on-site archival space, “The divine is in the details”. It’s indeed astonishing to be a custodian of archival collections outside my formal background and to learn so quickly and richly about the haptic space the seminary is situated in, the gargoyles that greet me in the stairwell, the filigreed doorknobs evoking Union’s denominational past, the engraved edifice on the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary (…“And the bush was not consumed”), or the limestone gauntlet of the neighboring Interchurch Center (a.k.a. the God Box).

The variance and allure of the people and spaces I’ve had the privilege of connecting with since arriving at the Burke has been matched only by the archival collections themselves. With the invaluable assistance of library school interns, Columbia and UTS student employees, and the support of my colleagues and mentors, I have been bolstered in processing the papers of people like Phyllis Trible, a beacon of Union’s community and bracing feminist Biblical scholar; Max Coots, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Union graduate whose joint Master’s in religious education in 1953 between Teacher’s College at Columbia and Union was fulfilled with a brilliant full-color cartoon thesis depicting the politics of post-war activism, racism and redemption through the UU tradition; and the papers of Bob Seaver, Union’s beloved late professor of Speech and Drama, whose papers include audiovisual evidence of his singular teaching style as well as his extensive work in religious drama in the ecumenical and theater communities. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Seaver’s papers so far have been his extensive notes used when preparing for his courses in preaching. In these notes, Seaver’s approach to vocal exercise and tuning the human voice become a form of scrawled language poetry. One undated note card reads:

We’ve been dealing with how to release breath
Breath — The source of sound
Work on the jaw
Tongue, concerns
How to free the channels
Through which sound travels
Jaw — widens the exit
When some deep emotion
Is the impulse for sound

Tongue — shapes sound 
Throat — the main channel
The task — relax the channel

Stimulate the source.


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Two frames of Max Alden Coots’ cartoon thesis submitted in fulfillment of his M.Div./M.Ed. in 1953 from Teachers College and UTS. Coots, an artist and Unitarian Universalist Minister, is one exemplar of the visually and conceptually compelling approaches to religious education that Union alumni and faculty have practiced throughout their careers. 

Processing collections coming from individuals like these is not only a privileged sort of intellectual labor, but one that begs to be curated and made accessible to researchers beyond the auspices of Union’s immediate audience. Drawing on the talents of our in-house staff and from the support of our larger organization, I feel confident that new knots of researchers, students, scholars, and armchair theologians will find themselves as intrigued by the gems to be found at the Burke as I have become only six months into this new role through a mix of digital curatorial work, on-site exhibitions, cross-institutional collaborations, and streamlined practices for uploading and curating finding aids.

As I scythe through the work accomplished and the projects that I’ll undertake over the next two years, I am becoming pinchingly aware that I’ve just begun to skim the surface, to scratch the bed of all the intellectual and physical labor that lies ahead. As we approach our goal of 30-35 linear feet of processed archives per month, and as the steamy heat lamp of New York City summer settles in, I could hardly feel more energized to embark on the remaining mountain of collections. Where do you even begin to excavate the history of glory? Flick light, switch on dual monitor. Select Start.


Behind the Stacks: literally

plough marks

Freshly hewn blocks of wood? Or roughly ploughed fore-edges of the collected works of Christian Scriver from among Burke Library’s rare books?

Sometimes the most interesting views are not the front of bookshelves with all the book spines facing outward, but rather the back, where you can find various edge decorations, hardware, and conditions that make for a visual treat. I often find these during shelf maintenance tasks that involve removing a range of books from a shelf, thereby revealing the backside of another shelf. Literally from behind the stacks, here are some choice reverse views of Burke’s special collections shelves:

marbled edges

Some classic marbled edges

tartan pattern edge

A simple tartan pattern for edge decoration


A solitary tube

Green ribbons

book closures

Book and box closures, old and new

blue edges

Blue colored edges (with neighboring green)

gauffered edges

Gauffered edges

tidy shelf

Protective enclosures are good for the books and make it easy to keep a tidy shelf… but they do hinder chance discoveries of other interesting reverse views!

Analyzing Scavenger Hunt Scores to Understand Library Familiarity Among Incoming Students


When I was a kid I loved scavenger hunts– the harder, the better! Whenever we took a field trip with school I preferred to explore a museum or new place with a scavenger hunt, rather than have someone show me around on a long tour of things I wouldn’t remember. Scavenger hunts contained mysteries that were fun to solve, making the places and objects I found more interesting when I finally found them.

A year ago the Burke Library decided to flip the script on the standard orientation tours held for incoming Union Theological Seminary students and created a scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt was designed so that students can get introduced to the library by finding features in the books, the building, the computer stations, the online catalog, and the library manual. Each feature is something students need to know how to find, in order to make the most out of the library’s many resources while they are in studying towards their degrees. After doing the scavenger hunt, the idea is, students will know how to find the resources with ease once classes start.

This summer I am assessing student responses from last fall’s inaugural hunt in order to revamp the questions where necessary.  I am passionate about making sure students have easy access to all the resources they need for their studies. As a student, I know it can be frustrating to need a book or article urgently, but not know how to get it. Especially if one is a “new kid in town” and has never used the library before. The best time to learn how to access library materials is BEFORE classes begin, not the day before a reading assignment is due. That’s why it’s important that the scavenger hunt give students a thorough introduction to the library during orientation, so they can be fully prepared to gain access to the materials they need ahead of time.

From looking at the scavenger hunt results, it seems that new students last fall had the most trouble with understanding three particular types of library resources: periodicals, databases, and BorrowDirect/InterLibrary Loan options. This is understandable for many possible reasons: students who did their undergraduate studies many years ago might not have used any kind of online catalog before; students who are new to the Columbia University Libraries may never have heard of BorrowDirect or InterLibrary Loan and not know the difference between them or what they are for, etc. There are many factors that could be affecting so many students’ answers. I am looking forward to conducting further analysis on the results of the scavenger hunt and seeking to make sure my fellow students have access to the kinds of information materials they need for their studies here at Union.