Monthly Archives: September 2013

Archival Jitters- First Day at Burke

There is a lot of information! This is a recurring thought when it comes to the field of archives. There are standards and there are schemas, there are rules and there are processes. Each organization has its own in addition to those endorsed by the SAA. My first day as an intern at Burke was no different. It was all about learning about the rules and regulations as well as the structure of the department and yes, there was a lot of information to remember. As my supervisor Brigette, introduced me to people and walked me through stacks I struggled to absorb all the information I was being given. I knew that there were things I would forget, particularly all the acronyms, but I still struggled to commit them to memory.  

Like every newbie I was filled with excitement but also panic.  I worried about my performance and giving the internship my best effort. I wanted to learn and  make a difference with my work; also there was the matter of leaving an impression so that my work here could serve as a testament of what I could do as a professional. As I received my tour I was struck by the beauty of the building and the way the collections fit within it. I paid attention to the arrangement of the space and the way in which the old worked next to the new.  I was particularly captivated by the spiral staircase; there was nothing remarkable about it except that it represented where the archival field used to be and where it still is in people’s imagination. Working for a traditional archive meant that you were in a position of power and getting access to these collections meant you were in a position of privilege. But yet here I was, a non-ivy league student working uncovering history and current “closed” records to provide access to the masses. It is exciting to be a part of this shift and is even more exciting to be a part of it at a place like Burke where history and tradition are still present in its architecture and its design.

I was also pleased to learn that the internship would be very much hands on. I would not simply be ordering papers for someone else to process but I would be contributing my knowledge and getting my hands dirty. I have to admit the stack of readings seemed intimidating at first but when I realized their relevant nature to what I am going through as a student and as a future archivist I was grateful for them.  I also thought that the idea of a scavenger hunt was pretty cool. Often you work in places that do not encourage you to learn about the institution as a whole and trap you in a department as if you where the demoted planet of pluto. In short, my first day is new and overwhelming but nothing sort of exciting.

Back to the Burke: My Return from Southeast Asia

Last spring I wrote an article about my upcoming summer in Indonesia, an opportunity I received through an academic fellowship funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, the same organization that supports my work at the Burke Library Archives.  Now, three months later, I am back.  Of course, everyone wants to know: "How was Indonesia?"

What can I say?  It was absolutely life-changing.

Through the help of the faculty, staff, and fellow students at Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta, I was able to research the complex relationships between religion, belief, culture, and the arts in Java by attending numerous artistic performances, taking regular gamelan music classes, and interviewing composers, puppet makers, religious leaders, dancers, instructors, musicians, gong makers, and everyday people about the role of music in their ritual and spiritual lives.  My master’s thesis hopes to put some new language around the role of music in ecumenical theological and cultural understanding, and this research will certainly make a significant contribution towards that end.  I also took a class on Interreligious Relations from the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, and was incredibly inspired by the way that the religiously diverse faculty not only taught but demonstrated meaningful and effective communication across ethical and theological differences.  

The benefits gained from this program were not merely academic.  The most important learning happened in relationship with the wonderful community of people that I met.  Through developing deep – hopefully lifelong – bonds with friends from across the world, I learned not only about Indonesian culture but a great deal about my own.  Meanwhile, the experience of living in an Islamic country (hearing the call to prayer five times each day, searching for food during Ramadan, covering my hair up from time to time) challenged me to develop a much deeper appreciation for the value of discipline and humility in my own relationship to God.  In this context I grew in my faith and integrity as a Christian.  

For more information please visit the blog that I kept during my time in Yogyakarta, which contains articles, photos, video, sound clips, bits of interviews, and more: indonesiasummer.tumblr.com 

Through the Lens of the Archives

I was impressed by the deep relevance of my archival work in the Missionary Research Library Archives during my travels in Southeast Asia.  I was able to understand the different expressions of Christianity that I encountered in Java not simply through the lens of the missionary agenda or its postcolonial critique, but through the more nuanced appreciation that I have gained for the incredibly complex ways that people navigate issues of religious belief, ethical integrity, and cultural identity in their own time. 

It was also interesting to see evidence of how the disillusionment of most mainline Christians with missionary work led to the decline of their presence in countries like Indonesia, and to observe the growing influence of religious fundamentalism that has risen in its wake.  I began to wonder whether the attitude of non-involvement in missionary work held by most progressive Christians is really moving us toward a more religiously tolerant world.  Again, this led me to continue pondering the ultimate short-sightedness of even our most well-informed, ethically-minded choices.

Traveling to the other side of the world for three months is as terrifying as it is exciting, but knowing the struggles of travelers from the 19th century actually helped me to maintain perspective in some of my most personally difficult moments.  In particular, I carried within me the memory of Katie Isabel Chapin (Isabel Burrows) and Bertha E. Davis, two women that I came to know intimately through my archival work.  In a strange sort of way, I felt like they gave me strength. 

Bertha Davis has been on my mind especially since coming back to the United States.  Most of the diaries in her collection are from 1932-1940, decades after returning from several years of missionary work in Burma.  It is clear from her diary entries that she never fully re-adjusted back to life in the Midwest.  On April 6, 1938 she writes,

I have been having another spell of the dumps…I like Salem but it is not home to me: I have no roots here.  So many friendly people, but I am all alone too.  People do not go to one another’s homes.  If I go once or twice a year I am well-received (usually) but I remain solitary – different from the “city loneliness” where one usually finds a few others within reach who are ready for reciprocal calls…  Only in Burma would I ever feel really at home.

I can relate to that.  My own re-entry has been somewhat fraught as I become more and more steadily aware of the seismic shifts that have taken place within me academically, theologically, culturally, artistically, and personally.  In so many ways large and small, I feel that I discovered another home in Yogyakarta, and it is clear to me that I must return there. 

In the meantime, though, while I finish the final year of my M.Div. degree, I must say I am very, very happy to have my job back at the Burke Library Archives.  Especially after seeing what an impact these stories have made on my life and my perspective, I look forward to seeing what I unearth and learn in the year to come.