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.

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