The Beginning of a Beautiful Career: Interning at the Burke Library Archives

Scouring boxes of papers for an indication of original order, picking out rusty staples, developing an appreciation for acid-free paper, trying not to walk into film crews, eating lunch in a pristine courtyard, and translating the disturbing reports of prisoners of war: these were just a few of the things I did as an intern at the Burke Library Archives earlier this year. This internship was my first foray into archival processing, and I admit I’m hooked. For someone wondering whether or not to intern at Burke, here are a few reasons why you should do it.

First and foremost, Brigette, the Project Archivist and my internship supervisor, is an absolutely fantastic mentor. She has a unique way of combining flawless professionalism with warm guidance and encouragement. I was immediately impressed with how organized and prepared she was at my interview; never before had I had an interviewer answer so many of the questions I’d prepared before I even got to ask them. Brigette’s amazing guidance continued on my first day when she gave me a stack of background readings that constituted a crash course in the most essential knowledge to begin processing archival collections, including readings on both the nuts and bolts of processing and what it means to be an archivist on a more philosophical level. I’m drawn to both the hands-on work of processing and the greater calling of archivists to be activists and advocates of their profession in addition to being stewards of their collections, so I ate this up.

The second reason you should intern at the Burke is that you get to work in a beautiful place. The professor for my Archives Management course this semester pointed out on the first day that archives are either housed in the basement or in the attic. In Burke’s case, we’re in the attic. I realized the first day during my tour that while the Union Theological Seminary is a gorgeous old building (hence the film crews using it for various TV shows), it is also gorgeous old building, and housing valuable historical primary materials under a potentially leaky roof is sometimes just part of the everyday pain and risk of being an archivist. I also admit, though, that the archives work environment is alluring to me. There was something about the inclusion of a spiral staircase and dusty work environment in the internship description that took me back to my undergraduate days of being a theater properties master, and it just somehow seemed fitting to get back into that kind of a workspace. During a tour of the Burke my first day, I was taken up that spiral staircase to see where the Missionary Research Library (MRL) and William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library (WAB) collections that I would be working with were housed, and again I was charmed.

Last but not least, the experience you get working with Brigette at the Burke Library Archives is invaluable. After gaining firm grounding in the space and basic knowledge of archives processing, I was entrusted with processing a few small collections. Brigette’s guidance was absolutely essential to begin with, and I was grateful to have the feeling that I was able to ask any question at any time.

I began to translate a collection of reports from German-speaking missionaries stationed in Cameroon who were taken as prisoners of war in 1914 when the English and French armies took control of the area – see the Finding Aid for more. These reports were fascinating (you can read about them in another blog post). I was very happy to have the chance to use my German language skills to contribute to the archives in a unique way. This again was thanks to Brigette, who was sensitive and creative enough as a supervisor to offer me projects that built on my existing skills.

My most significant project at the Burke was processing the papers of John J. Banninga, a collection that was highlighted as particularly significant in the Henry Luce Foundation grant funding our work on the MRL and WAB collections. This collection includes a wealth of information on the efforts to unite Christian churches in South India, an initiative that took decades to realize and encompassed the greater part of Banninga’s career. The letters, reports, and clippings he kept reveal deep complexities and sometimes surprising disagreements that arose in the attempt to bring together churches that function largely autonomously elsewhere in the world. Both processing the actual papers and researching Banninga and the Church of South India gave me a peek into a discipline and an area of the world of which I have very limited knowledge. One of the reasons I decided to become an archivist/librarian is the opportunity to continually learn while simultaneously enabling future research.

I can say there was no part of my internship at the Burke Library Archives that I did not enjoy. The best times were when my finished finding aids were approved, and when I was able to publish them online and see them come up in the Columbia University Library catalog. I learned a great deal about processing archives, and made a very small contribution to research. Perhaps most importantly, though, this internship was the beginning of what I think (and hope) will be a long and beautiful career.

Lea was recently hired as a part-time processing archivist at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

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