I just finished processing my first collection at the Burke Library and I am filled with excitement but also with anxiety. While the hard work of describing and arranging is over, the finding aid needs to be evaluated and then made available to the public. The idea that this document will be made public terrifies me but my function as a facilitator of the historical record is an honor. Thus, archivists (or in my case archivist in training) take the job of providing access seriously and perform a lot of steps prior to providing access to a finding aid. After all, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
The collection I have been working on is the National Workshop on Christian Unity records which consists of 8 archival boxes or about 3.75 linear feet. Compared to the size of other collections at the Burke this is a fairly small collection and can be at first glance discounted as one with superficial value. But after spending a few weeks analyzing and arranging its contents I believe that there are many things that we can learn from this series of records. As part of my preliminary processing I was asked to evaluate the collections’ research potential and its value to the Burke Archives. This was a valuable exercise because thinking about what the collection had to offer influenced the care that I took handling, describing and arranging the records. It also provided a good framework with how these records fit into a discourse, in this case, that of ecumenism. What can a varied collection of speeches, financial reports, agendas and minutes tell us about the organization that created them? What do they tell us about the movement?
But more importantly, what do they tell us about the interaction of that movement with the socio-political environment? There are many things that we can learn from this information; primarily we learn that the ecumenical movement is dynamic and is dependent on society. One of the things that I found interesting was the workshops’ origin in the Vatican II council. It was interesting to think of why in the 1960s, the Catholic Church thought it necessary to address Christian unity and promote a more progressive view of Christianity. When we put Vatican II and the National Workshop on Christian Unity in context we realize that the church is affected by its surroundings. The 1960s was a time of revolution, a time of unimaginable discoveries and unprecedented steps. The church was not exempt from this. The National Workshop on Christian Unity records contain, for example, speeches and correspondence addressing issues such as busing, inter-faith relations and interracial relationships.
Another factor I dealt with in processing this collection was the way in which organizations and individual people documented their own history. The collection starts with the first conference in 1964 and extends until 2008. The influence of technology is evident through the introduction of email correspondence in filing materials as well as multi-media including picture and audio cds. Furthermore, some files were contributed by staff that took care in preserving the organizations history.
Overall, the National Workshop on Christian Unity can reveal a lot more than thoughts on ecumenism. As I inventoried the records and assigned an arrangement, I thought about the stories that can found within the lines of the contents list. As one goes through each box one can virtually take a journey across time and space and travel from Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 to Chicago, Illinois in 2008. One also can note the story of people working together in local and national settings, in committees and subcommittees across the country to create an event that promotes collaboration and unity. It is powerful that a single record can say so much about the context in which it was created when it is arranged in a particular order. I have learned a great deal in this first month at the Burke Library and I am looking forward to learning many more lessons.