Surprises in the Archives: Reflecting on My First Month at the Burke

A month has passed since I started at Burke as a summer intern, and I now find myself reflecting upon the last four weeks. While I came into this internship with previous processing experience, I have found that I am constantly learning something new at Burke, whether it’s learning how to wrap a book in acid-free tissue or to avoid using the word “miscellaneous” in a finding aid. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that the archive holds many surprises that are just waiting to reveal themselves.

For the first half of June, I worked on a collection documenting the 1900 Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions. This conference ran from April 21 to May 1, 1900 and was held at Carnegie Hall and local churches in New York City. It was the largest formal religious event ever held in the United States and the largest international missionary conference ever. It brought together missionaries from around the world to discuss various topics, including evangelism, education, and geographical surveys of missionary work. One of the most fascinating aspects of this collection is the vast amount of documentation related to female missionaries, particularly in regards to “Women’s Work” sectional meetings. Processing the collection was relatively straightforward, as it largely consisted of two types of records: stenographic reports (essentially transcripts of entire meetings or sections of the conference) and conference papers (reports, papers, and addresses presented at the conference). As I began to arrange the collection chronologically, it became apparent that certain dates were not represented in the material. Particularly troubling was the absence of material from April 21, the opening day of the conference. I knew from the conference program that several notable people had given opening addresses on that date, and I was interested to read the addresses given by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt but resigned myself to the fact that these records appeared to be lost.

For the last two weeks I have moved on from the Ecumenical Conference and have been working on the vast array of administrative records from the Missionary Research Library. When I arrived at Burke today I expected to continue with this. However, Brigette informed me when I sat down at my desk that she had found more material related to the Ecumenical Conference. As someone who loves to cross things off to-do lists, having to return to my first project was, as Brigette said when she informed me, “bad news.” However, I quickly came to realize that this surprise was in no way bad. As I sat at my desk reading President William McKinley’s opening address to the Ecumenical Conference, I realized that my previous definition of complete is insufficient to working in an archive. There are always going to be surprises and magically appearing material needed to be dealt with. I am looking forward to seeing what other surprises the Burke Archives have in store for me this summer. The completed finding aid for MRL 12: Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions, NYC, 1900 is now available online.

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