Monthly Archives: January 2015

First Days Interning at the Burke

As a new intern at the Burke Library, I have been asked to write a brief blog entry about my first impressions and expectations for the semester. I began my first day two weeks ago with a great sense of anticipation – it’s pretty exciting to be getting up to go exactly where you want to be at a particular point in time – despite the grim, sleety weather.

My internship at the Burke will serve to fulfill a requirement necessary to receive an archives certificate in my library science program, but I only chose to use the internship as a practicum in order to be able to devote as much time to it as possible this semester, given other commitments. In recent years, concerns about the ethics of hosting unpaid internships and its effect on the market for entry-level professional labor have been raised, justifiably, within the archivist community. Some students also question the wisdom of undertaking internships for academic credit, as I am this semester, as they see it of a case of paying one institution (a school) to work for another (an internship site) instead of paying for traditional classroom instruction.

While mindful of the thorny issues involved in these debates, I am grateful that the Burke has continued to take on archival interns and I have few qualms about foregoing a traditional course in lieu of this internship. The opportunity to gain experience in the processing of archival materials under the supervision of a professional archivist and to be exposed to the internal processes of a venerable library such as the Burke is extremely valuable to me and the one that I have been looking for since enrolling in a library science program.

As one of my intern predecessors noted in her first-day blog, this is “essentially . . . an internship for the uninitiated archivist.” By the end of this semester, I hope to become, if not “initiated,” at least fully introduced to the world of archival processing and to have put my best foot forward in trying to learn and contribute as much as possible while I am here.

Outside of my own experience, this should be an exciting time to be here at the Burke. Not only has a new year begun, but a new processing project is just beginning, as the Burke has just been awarded a three-year $190,000 grant by the Henry Luce Foundation to process the Union Theological Seminary Archive (see, and I look forward to seeing how a multi-year processing effort begins to unfold.

Finally, sleet and rain aside, I couldn’t have asked for a more fortunate first day to intern at the Burke Library, as that day each of the 48 manuscripts comprising the Burke’s Syriac manuscripts collection were laid out, side-by-side, in the conference room – able to be viewed all together for the first time – and I was invited along!

Cataloging Our Syriac Manuscripts

I took one class on Syriac while I was a student at Union and I was immediately in love.  It combined the structure of a semitic language with seriously fascinating theology and had the added bonus of being relatively obscure. If there’s anything I love, it’s languages few people have any use for. Imagine my delight when I started working at Burke and realized we had a collection of Syriac manuscripts that were uncataloged.  That was almost 4 years ago. Now, thanks to a supportive director, enthusiastic co-workers (both at Burke and Butler), and my need for a final project at library school, we’re finally able to start working on them.

Syriac manuscript_2

About the collection: Burke has 48 manuscripts, ranging from single page fragments to a large, red leather-bound volume with hundreds of pages. Most of them were acquired in the late 19th century, many specifically produced for Union.  Writings like these were most often acquired from monasteries, since early religious texts were almost always produced by monastic scribes.  Monasteries were generally unwilling to sell their own originals but collectors could purchase copies.  There are a number of print catalogs describing these manuscripts, most notably Goshen-Gottstein’s  Syriac Manuscripts in the Harvard College Library, in which Union’s items are included as an appendix. Most of the manuscripts come from Urmia, Iran, which is evidenced in the heavy use of eastern scripts. There are also a few manuscripts written on what almost looks like loose-leaf paper. At first glance these look like they might not be of much interest, but in fact a few of them may be among the only extant versions of the originals from which they were copied.

Syriac manuscript_8

About the project: The goal is to make these items findable for researchers who are interested but either do not have access to, or are unaware of, the print catalogs.  Each of the 48 manuscripts will have its own record in CLIO with the most complete description possible.  We will include much of the information from the Goshen-Gottstein catalog but will need to make some changes. Many of the titles assigned in that catalog do not reflect the titles that are on the items themselves and none of them are in Syriac. Our priority is to reflect as much as possible the way the item describes itself, rather than deciding what we think it should be.  This process actually one of the reasons cataloging has become my main area of interest.  Assuming the authority to decide how to describe an item can be a fairly straightforward process with modern print books: record whatever title it presents, the names of any contributing people/organizations, date, size, etc.  The introduction of standardized identifiers like ISBN’s also creates a level of certainty that the book I have is the same as the book you have.  With manuscripts, its a different story. With manuscripts in non-roman characters that read right-to-left and deal with religious materials, it can be a different universe.  There are issues with where, exactly, the title is to be found, how it is recorded, how to identify an author, scribe or other important contributor.  Dating is an adventure in itself.  Many of these manuscripts are dated on the Seleucid calendar and so need to have the original date recorded, along with a date converted to the Gregorian calendar.  As far as any of us can tell, this project will be the first time a Western library has cataloged materials using Syriac characters. In the past most titles were either created in English or transliterated. The transliteration table for Syriac was only approved by the Library of Congress in 2012 and our main cataloging program (OCLC) only added support for the Syriac fonts in 2014. This means that we will have a unique opportunity to represent these materials in their own language, in their own scripts, using their own terms. Other descriptive elements will be in English, including subject headings so the items will be findable for anyone.  In addition, we will likely include a transliterated title to add another way to locate the materials.  The ability to let items speak for themselves is perhaps more important than ever in an age where self-identification is what people have come to expect. It is also easier than ever given the (relative) flexibility of newer cataloging tools.

Syriac manuscript_1

About cataloging: Cataloging has changed a great deal in the past few years and the movement toward ever-interconnected searches has created flexibility in some areas and rigidity in others. The need to confirm the same-ness of people, places, titles, etc. means that standards terms have to be established so that different libraries can be sure of whether or not they have the same items. There is a lot of completely dry literature on this (I have seen email chains go on for days about the punctuation at the end of an author field, seriously) but for me the interesting part is the authority to establish those names. For example, one of the scribes associated with our manuscripts is recorded as “Ruel” and “Ribal.”  We will have to decide which of these spellings will become the formal way in which any manuscripts copied by this person are attributed, and which will be added in other parts of the record as “variants.” Anytime we want to include a reference to Urmia, we will need to also include a reference to “Urūmīyah (Iran),” since that name is already established by the Library of Congress as the form to use.  It is certainly a small exercise in authority, but when you’re talking about western catalogers dealing with non-western scripts, these decisions matter. Not only do they dictate how these items will be connected to others like them, they say a lot about how those catalogers perceive the items they have in hand and the larger culture from which they come. For example, early catalogs of Syriac manuscripts tend to refer to eastern scripts as “Nestorian.”  The term is a loaded one since it has its roots in the split between early Christians over the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity.  “Nestorian” is a term that came to be applied to one side, was not an identity that they chose for themselves, and was often used in the context of heresy. The term was expanded to describe the script of manuscripts produced in the regions where these Christians lived, and the name sort of stuck.  So, early collectors with relatively little knowledge or regard for how the producers of these works would care to be identified continued using the term.  We will not be using the term “Nestorian” in our descriptions. For now, the term “Madnḥāyā,” or “eastern” will be used, since it more accurately represents the geographic region that produced a particular script.  All of this is really just a long way to say that, however stiff and clunky you may think the catalog is, know that we are always trying to make it better and more reflective of what these things are and how best to find them.
The project is slated to be completed by the end of Spring 2015 (assuming I want to graduate, and I do).  In the meantime, enjoy the pictures and check out the print catalogs!

More Than Women’s Work


By permission of Letty Russell, 2006.

There is something rather intimate about sorting through, preserving and arranging another person’s papers.  I came to know Letty Russell in a more personal way, handling papers that she herself handled.  I not only worked through a myriad of syllabi related to her time as a professor at Yale Divinity School, but also Letty’s own handwritten notes from conferences, photos taken during informal gatherings, and even a bag of women’s liberation buttons.  Although Letty passed away in 2007, her papers have given me the opportunity to “meet” her in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.  Through this experience I have come to understand that interacting with archival material is a unique opportunity to come know an individual, even if that person is no longer living.


A portion of the Russell collection as housed in the Burke Library Archives.

Not only have I come to know Russell more closely as a scholar, I have also begun to appreciate my own indebtedness to her and women like her.  Russell intentionally built relationships with other female scholars through teaching and collaboration.  Her co-teachers included Katie Cannon, Shawn Copeland, and Kwok Pui Lan.  In addition to teaching in partnership, there were a bevy of female scholars with whom Russell collaborated on publications and developed working relationships with through correspondence.  Notably, there is a plethora of material in this collection on the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies Russell and her partner Shannon Clarkson co-edited.

As a woman and as a doctoral student in New Testament with interests in feminist and liberationist hermeneutics, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the struggles which women like Russell had to overcome to earn their places in the academy, the church and the world.


Dialogue of the Asian and Asian American Women in Theology and Ministry in San Francisco, 1992.

For example, Letty began her career in education at the East Harlem Protestant Parish in the early 1950’s and continued to serve there through 1968.  In a parish context, Christian education, then was and often still today is considered “women’s work.” In order to gain legitimacy for her position Russell became one of the first women to receive a degree from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA.  Although she had already completed a doctorate and was ordained, there is early correspondence in the collection that addressed her not as Rev. Dr. Russell, but as Mrs. Hoekendijk.  Russell married Johannes C. (“Hans”) Hoekendijk, professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, in 1970, and lived with him at UTS until his death in 1975.


Convocation Jubilee at Yale Divinity School, 1982.

In moving from work primarily in the church to work primarily in the academy, Russell moved from one male-dominated set of institutions to another in which the education field continued to be perceived as “women’s work.”  When Russell was being reviewed for tenure at Yale Divinity School she insisted that, if she were to receive tenure, that it would be in the theology, not the education, field.  Russell believed that it was only through the legitimacy provided by the theological field that she would have the platform through which to continue to address feminist and liberationist questions.  Russell became a full Professor of Theology in 1985 and remained at YDS until 2001.

I am struck by a deep sense of gratitude for feminist and liberationist scholars like Russell that have made my own work as a woman and a scholar possible.  I am hopeful that this collection will provide access to Russell as a women, theologian, minster and educator that has the power to continue to influence future generations of women and men toward a time in which education will no longer be disparaged as merely “women’s work.” 

Nobody Expects . . .*

When you walk into the Burke Library and look through the book and periodical stacks and the reading room reference shelves, you probably feel that you know what is here.  However, have you heard about the library’s “so-called” hidden collections?

The archives in the Burke Library contain 350 collections of unique documents and artifacts which cover 4367 linear feet of shelving – we are quickly approaching our first mile!   Archives contain the papers, writings, objects or digital files of faculty, students or organizations.

Because of the fragility and unique nature of all these documents, they are shelved in separate climate-controlled storage, but may be accessed by any researcher through requesting an appointment on this form.

Rows of archives boxes may look rather dull …


…but dip into them and the Burke’s archival collections will bring to life extraordinary experiences spanning across several centuries, up to recent times. Researchers, from near and far, visit the library to consult these collections to complete research for papers, dissertations, books and films.

There are many things about these collections that have captivated my interest over the years – one being the mysteries they hold. One such one has to do with materials relating to James Washington Wood.

An old inventory of Union Seminary collections lists a brief entry for James Washington Wood (1813 – 1884). Wood was one of the first students to graduate from Union back in 1839/40, when Union Seminary was based downtown at 9 University Place. Ordained in December 1839 as a Presbyterian pastor, Wood first worked in Deckertown, New Jersey, moving to Chester, New York and finally Allentown, Pennsylvania.

We would expect that the box of Wood’s papers could contain the usual items from a pastor of that period, possibly a notebook and some sermons. However his cryptic label on the original box, which was falling apart, stated: James Wood’s Spanish Manuscript.

Woods_2_OldlabelisignatureThe label was quite correct, but this was no ordinary Spanish manuscript.

In over 200 pages written by the distinctive hands of up to 5 scribes, this manuscript consists of the full records of the case brought before the Spanish Inquisition, against Juan Panis of Zapatero de Viejo in 1728-1730.


The documents throughout these full trial records tell a sad story and reveal that this unfortunate man was accused of heretical blasphemy before the branch of the Spanish Inquisition at Barcelona as late as the eighteenth century.

Woods_6_PageJuan Panis was clearly distressed at losing income from not working on the day of the Papal Jubilee in 1725, which Pope Benedict XIII had declared to be a holiday. Unfortunately Panis voiced this rather loudly in public and the results of his actions can be read in this detailed manuscript.


The personal disaster for Juan Panis lasted until his case report,including his renunciation, was accepted by the Council of Inquisition in Madrid, 1730.




However the final straw for him must have been his receipt of a bill/invoice listing the costs Woods_7_Finalbillwhich he had to pay on his release, which covered all his food during years of imprisonment as well as the instruments of torture.

Now why is this item in our archives such a mystery?

Pastor James Washington Wood clearly gave these complete Spanish Inquisition trial documents to Union’s Library during his lifetime. He was born in Florida, New York State, in 1813 and was working only in churches on the East Coast USA.

So how do you think that Wood eventually came to own and gift to this library these extraordinary documents, extracted from a secure and surely secret storage in Barcelona or Madrid?


* …the Spanish Inquisition! Quotation from Monty Python.