Monthly Archives: August 2014

Library Research Awards: My Experience Conducting Research at Burke

In December 2011, Columbia University Libraries announced a new awards program designed to facilitate research access to the Libraries’ special and unique collections; it became known as the Library Research Awards Program. Each year, the Libraries award ten grants of $2,500 each to those researchers who demonstrate a compelling need to consult Columbia Libraries special collections for their work.  All US citizens are welcome to apply and preference will be given to those outside the New York City metropolitan area.  The intent of the grant is to help defer the cost of visiting the Libraries for research needs. The Burke Library is one of the libraries that participate in this grant, which is awarded on a competitive basis through an application process.


Matthew Unangst, a graduate student at Temple University, was a 2013 recipient of Columbia University Library’s Library Research Award for his project “Making East Africa: Colonialism, Race and Islam.” Matthew consulted a few rare pamphlets from the Missionary Research Library:

Was lehren uns die Erfahrungen, welche audere Völker bei Kolonisationsversuchen in Afrika gemacht haben?

By Alexander Merensky, published Berlin: Verlag von M. E. Matthies, 1890
[MRL Pamphlet Call Number: 1565]

Eine Auswahl aus der deutschen Missionslitteratur : mit einer Übersicht über die deutschen Missionsgesellschaften
Published Halle a.S.: Verlag des Studentenbundes für Mission, 1897
[MRL Pamphlet Call Number: 1444]

Weltkrieg und Weltmission by Johannes Warneck

Published Gutersloh: Drud un Berlag von C. Bertelsmann, 1891
[MRL Pamphlet Call Number: 1670]

The Missionary Research Library (MRL) was created by John R. Mott in 1914 after the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. It was created in response to the need for a central resource to provide information for the development and preparation of missionaries, as well as a documentary source for the history of mission work. MRL offered many types of records including pamphlets, which Matthew used; books; and other collections such as archives. Thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Missionary Research Library Archives are being fulled processed and made available for use.

In the summer of 2013, Matthew spent a few weeks with us at the Burke Library. Not only did Matthew find more than what he was looking for, but he also has a better understanding and grasp of the process of research. Matthew was impressed with Burke’s unique and interesting collections, stating:

There’s just so much to go through. It seems at this point that the missionary publications are going to be an important part of every one of my chapters as the on-the-ground perspective about political and social changes in East Africa as the central administration…figured out how to govern the colony.”

The Burke Library offers so many exciting collections just waiting to be discovered. What will you find on your next research trip?


My Experience Conducting Research at Burke
By: Matthew Unangst

I spent three weeks this summer conducting research for my dissertation at Burke Library. My project explores ideas about race and space in the first decade of the German colonization of today’s mainland Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. Burke Library has the best collection of German missionary publications from the late nineteenth century of any library or archive in the United States, so I applied for a Columbia Library Research Grant to visit the library. I was lucky enough to receive one.

My time at Burke was extremely productive. Most of what I was looking at was German missionary periodicals, published by various mission societies around Germany. Those periodicals ranged from the semi-official Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift to periodicals meant for children, such as the Kleine Missions-Bote. It seemed that many of the materials I was reading had not been opened for a long time. Not all of them were in great shape – some of them were 130 years old and not designed for preservation in the first place – so I usually was covered in a cloud of dust by the end of each day. I also took advantage of Burke’s collections of missionary books and pamphlets, some of them in special collections, from the late nineteenth century.

I am using the missionary publications I read at Burke as my main source for local interactions between Germans and Africans in German East Africa. The colonial state was only just beginning to establish control over much of the colony during the period of my study, so missionaries were often the main contact between the state and local populations. Missionaries were often more attuned to local political circumstances and local desires than were central administrators hundreds of miles away. Though they wrote from their own German perspective, missionaries noted instances and circumstances in which people living near the mission reacted particularly strongly to missions’ or the state’s actions.

I want to thank the Burke Library’s staff for its help during my time there. The staff was an enormous help in getting me settled and helping me find the materials I needed. The reading room of the library was unquestionably the most beautiful place that I have done research. I look forward to my next trip there to follow up on the work I did this summer.

Last Day at the Burke

I don’t want to write this post, because it means that a wonderful summer of learning about archives at the Burke is drawing to a close.

I can begin with a story. As I headed into the Burke Library today, I met Ruth, the Archivist for the Union Theological Seminary and Burke Archives, pushing a cart into the elevator. She told me she was retrieving items that had been on public display, and showed me the form that was used to track what was on display, and where it belonged when it was filed. And then she told me a fascinating tale: the specific manuscript she was retrieving was from the Spanish Inquisition, a transcription of the testimony of a shoemaker, who had (when intoxicated) complained that the number of Papal Jubilees were making it impossible for him to make a living. He was imprisoned and tortured for speaking against the Pope… and then billed for the expenses incurred during his imprisonment, including the machines used to torture him! And, somehow, this document from the Spanish Inquisition wound up in the collection of one of the first UTS faculty members, in, I believe, the 1840’s. Because of gaps in its provenance, we may never know how a document from the Inquisition found its way to New Jersey.

I learned all this, along with tales about one of the first female divinity scholars, in a brief elevator ride. Ruth is an excellent storyteller.

What does a chance meeting (and rather grisly story) have to do with the end of my summer internship? It shows that, as much as I have learned about the work of processing archives, writing finding aids, and sharing the richness of the collection through the wider world through smart social media strategy, I have only begun to learn about what the collections at Burke have to offer, and only begun to see the depth of knowledge and generosity of the people working with the libraries and archives.

It would be impossible to name a highlight of the past two months. I began this summer knowing only the rudiments about archives, with a vague outline of the pathways of study available to students at the Union Theological Seminary. I have been able to learn so much and see so many parts of the process of working with archives, and working on library outreach, as well as beginning to understand a few aspects of theological scholarship.

Over the past weeks, I’ve worked closely with Brigette Kamsler on learning archival theory and getting some hands-on experience with processing parts of the collection. Thanks to Brigette’s guidance, I’ve gotten a terrific range of experiences and insights in just a few short weeks. I have worked on updating finding aids, processing archival material, researching historical contexts, digital preservation, and even administrative issues like pest management. Articles Brigette gave me to read and discuss helped me understand the rationale behind the tasks I have been learning to do.

I’ve also been able to work with Elizabeth Call on researching and developing ideas to build the Burke Library’s presence on social media. I have a background working with social media marketing and publicity, and have focused a number of school assignments on the use of social media in libraries. Researching what cultural institutions, libraries, and publications (whether secular or religious) are doing with social media, and then talking with Elizabeth about how those strategies might adapt to Burke has helped me understand the logistics of doing social media in a library setting as well as getting a crash course in current studies of theology. I’ve also gotten a glimpse of the work on program design that goes into outreach and public services. (Did I mention, I worked on a scavenger hunt?)

I could make a list of the things I’ve learned: how to process archives, update and publish finding aids, how to update records using EAD, collection management and administration, what theological social media accounts are worth following, how books come from offsite storage, good ideas for professional development, the role libraries and archives play in understanding the history of missionary work… and on and on.

But the main thing I’ve learned is: be ready to try something brand new, no matter what phase of your schooling you’re in. And having mentors supporting you and guiding you through interesting projects can make all the difference.

Testing a Scavenger Hunt

Today, I tested a scavenger hunt across Columbia’s libraries.

Have I mentioned that this is the best internship ever?

Elizabeth asked me whether I’d be interested in testing a scavenger hunt she’d designed to help incoming UTS graduate students get acquainted with Columbia libraries. Some of the tasks on the hunt meant physically exploring library spaces, others involved navigating websites. I love the idea of using a scavenger hunt to orient them to the libraries locations and what they have to offer!

“I’d love to!!!!” I told her. I’m pretty sure she heard the italics, and the exclamation points in my reply.

I have been working so closely in the archives, and I’m only vaguely familiar with the rest of Columbia’s library holdings. Also, my sense of direction is, shall we say, less than stellar. So, chances are, I made a terrific test subject. If I could find my way through the hunt, the new students would be just fine.

The hunt was designed to be accessible through a web link that students could access from their phones. Taking pictures along the way would help them prove they’d found each item on the hunt.

So, armed with my phone and a map of Columbia Libraries (did I mention my useless sense of direction?), I made note of the time and set off, on a sunny afternoon. My job was to work my way through the hunt and see how long the tasks took, whether the directions were clear enough, and in general, do a user test of the scavenger hunt.

Let me say that again: I did a user test of a scavenger hunt. Best. Internship. Ever.

Last semester, I took a terrific class in Usability Theory and Practice at Pratt (and I highly recommend learning about UX to anyone studying library and information science). So, as I went through the hunt, I was working with some of that mindset: are the directions for each task clear? Are the things I’m supposed to find clearly labeled and easy to see? Does the language of each question match or echo the language I see on signs, maps, and websites?

Working with that mindset made me take notes of a few places where questions needed to be worded differently.

If I had been doing the scavenger hunt as a timed contest against other grad students, I would have run into trouble in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. The hunt task said to find out what the current exhibit was called…. and I couldn’t resist lingering a while, to stare at the exhibits on display, and read the descriptions! Such fun! After I finished the hunt, and typed up my notes, I came back!

I also hit a snag getting to Avery Library. Feeling very pleased with the sunny day and the fun of testing a scavenger hunt, I decided to cut across campus, and enjoy the storied architecture of the academic buildings surrounding me. Never mind the small bit of construction in my way.

This turned out to be a mistake.

Pro tip for Burke students trying to get to Avery: Leave the campus entirely and walk around on Amsterdam Avenue. You will get much less lost than I did.

After I finished the hunt, I put together my notes for Elizabeth, taking it task by task, and making note of where I had encountered problems.

I can’t wait to hear back from her about how the actual students did on the hunt. I assume that they’ll beat my time of about two hours (like I said, I got distracted by lovely rare book exhibits, and then fabulously lost). And I’m sure they’ll have fun.

Field trip to ReCAP Offsite Storage

Image of Book Cart at ReCAP with Columbia University Logo

Columbia’s shelving carts at ReCAP

Today, I joined a busload of other Columbia librarians for a field trip to ReCAP, an offsite storage facility for books and resources shared by Columbia, the New York Public Library and Princeton. ReCAP stands for The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium.

ReCAP houses over 11 million total volumes in giant, massive airport-hangar looking rooms.  (With room to grow into 30 million!) There is also a specially controlled, colder vault to preserve film.

I blogged about the tour in more detail on my personal blog. You can read the full entry, and see a slide show, there.

Millions of Books! Field trip to ReCAP

Saying Goodbye to Burke…For Now

My last day really snuck up on me. One can really get lost in boxes and boxes of unprocessed archival material, it seems. But all good things must come to an end, and for me, that took place today. After a great 7 month internship at Burke, I closed the lid on my last archival box.

I can’t express to you how great this internship has been! I’ve learned the entire archival process, from acquisition to finding aid promotion. I’ve seen great material that paints a picture of the world the missionaries encountered. And I’ve worked with the amazing staff at the Burke Library. Brigette, the project archivist, was an outstanding teacher and mentor. From the very beginning she made sure I knew what we were working on and why. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the collection, knowing where everything is and how the entire collection is connected. The rest of the staff is stellar as well. They are insanely smart, friendly, welcoming, and passionate about the work they are doing at the library. If you ever get a chance to work with them on a research project, I suggest you do.

Though my internship time is done with the Burke library, my professional and personal relationship will continue. I look forward to my next step, knowing that Burke is the reason I’m taking it at all.