I’ll admit that prior to getting my job in archives at the Burke Library, the extent of my familiarity with archives was based on some combination of the following: Obi Wan Kenobi’s search for the mysterious planet Kamino in the Jedi Archives in Star Wars Episode II, Tom Hank’s struggle to get into the Vatican Archives in Angels and Demons, and my brother’s strange obsession with using archival materials to dig up our family genealogy records. Yet despite my overall ignorance, somehow nothing in the world sounded more exciting than spending hours at a time holed up in a dusty library tower, sifting through boxes of materials that time (almost) forgot.
I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a librarian. What can I say? I’m book-ish. I’m also admittedly a vintage kind of girl; I like reclaiming the old for the new. On top of that one of the major things that attracted me to coming to Union Theological Seminary for my master’s degree was that it boasted of having the “largest theological library in the Western hemisphere,” with holdings of over 700,000 items, including extensive collections of rare archives and special materials. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. But it sure sounded cool.
On my first day at work I was shown to my desk, introduced to the others in the tower, and given a tour of the archive storage facilities. All of that was pretty much what I expected. But then I was handed several academic articles on archival theory and told to spend the next couple of days reading and familiarizing myself with the material. A crash course in library and information sciences: not what I was expecting. I had always wondered what a degree in library studies could possibly entail. Having always been a pretty organized person, all my life it had seemed to me that the proper place for anything was basically self-evident. But of course, real truth is always a moving target, and what is self-evident to me at one moment may be in no way evident to someone else in some other moment. “Facts” are never as secure as we want them to be. Information is always being framed and re-framed by the motivations and assumptions that give it context, and context is made up of a thousand silent and invisible factors that create the paradigms that give facts meaning and make information matter.
Organizing information is complicated.
During that same semester I was also taking a class that covered roughly a thousand years of church history. Union’s world-renowned history department prides itself on teaching seminarians to read history not as students but as scholars, meaning that we are never given a history textbook to tell us “what happened.” Instead, we kept reading from, and hearing about the importance of, primary documents and sources.
Primary documents are original historical documents, and they are incredibly empowering. By consulting primary documents you are consulting history itself on your own terms and with your own questions. You don’t have to settle for some other scholar’s version of the story (and for women, you don’t have to settle for what is so often his-story). You can draw your own conclusions, make your own connections and interpretations, solve your own mysteries, draw up your own report. This is what makes the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary so important. This is why people travel from all over the world every day to come here and look through our records, to lay their eyes on those primary sources and sleuth out their own facts, asking their own questions, writing their own stories.
Through this work, I have had the opportunity to collect my own information and begin writing my own stories about a variety of subjects, most of which are vital to the writing and the work that I hope to do as an ecumenical Christian. Maybe it is just the artist in me that possesses such a deep appreciation for tactility, but being able to see and handle primary documents for myself has led to some truly profound insights. It is one thing to read a .pdf article or a published book containing transcriptions of text that someone wrote 200 years ago; it is quite another thing to hold in your own hands the fragile, slightly crumbling sheets of paper that the 200-year-old author actually scrawled his or her ink upon.
One major shift in my perspective happened early on while working on my second collection. I found two letters from 1901 written by Badi’u’llah and Muhammed Ali to the newly-established Baha’i faith communities in the United States. The language and style was so reminiscent of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian churches of the first century. This somehow gave clarity, potency, and incarnate form to the way I thought about those ancient texts. The words are now translated into hundreds of languages, printed and bound in hundreds of editions of what we’ve now come to call the sacred “New Testament,” the Word of God. But at one point, they were just letters. Real letters. Could it be possible that such a worthy fate would befall any of these documents I am currently now holding in my hands?
It was then that the somewhat obscure, behind-the-scenes work of library archivists throughout time began to take on huge significance for me. I realized that this is not just a quirky part-time work-study job of organizing boxes, books, and folders. This job is about shaping history. It is about empowering the people of the present and the future to write their own stories about what they believe happened in history, and why. And as it turns out, nothing in the world is more exciting after all.