Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sexual Politics in the Archives

As an incoming MA student at Union, having previous experience working libraries as well as a Master of Information & Library Science degree under my belt, I’m excited to join the student staff at the Burke Library for this next step in my academic studies in theological librarianship. My  area of research is ethics, specifically around issues related to the role of church institutions and the rights of gender and sexuality minorities, and I was surprised to discover in the archives a letter written by Anthony Comstock—one of the principal villains in the story of America’s war on “obscenity” and author of the highly conservative Comstock Laws, which criminalized the dissemination of information regarding contraceptives, abortion, and erotica—in one of my first-ever projects in the Burke Library.

This project was for the papers of James Morris Whiton (1833-1919), a Congregational minister who preached and taught in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Whiton wrote back and forth with Anthony Comstock, and this correspondence has remained buried in his papers for about a hundred years—it was unlisted in the handwritten contents list accompanying Whiton’s papers. Its significance emerged gradually as I refoldered and rehoused these documents.

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James Whiton

You may be wondering why we have the James Morris Whiton Papers. He is not an alumnus, and he never taught or worked at the Seminary. One possibility is that Whiton served as Chairman of the New York State Conference of Religion for several years around the turn of the century, alongside William Adams Brown, Presbyterian minister, systematic theologian, ecumenist and UTS professor. As colleagues, Whiton and Brown may have shared and influenced one another’s ideas. Perhaps someone felt that the Whiton Papers would be a good addition to collections that reflected the history of this intellectual circle.

Whiton held this prestigious position of Chairman when he was an older man; however, for most of his life, Whiton seems to have been thwarted in many of his attempts to achieve prosperity in his career. Although his diaries reflect a deep-seated sense of ambition, he resigned or was forced to resign from multiple positions as minister to various congregations and dean of various preparatory schools and seminaries. Whiton often complained of shortage of income; the reason for these unpleasant career shifts is not explicitly mentioned in his writings.

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock

Whiton kept detailed personal diaries and maintained a comprehensive collection of his correspondence (including the Comstock letter) which spells out his unfortunate career trajectory. In 1872, when Whiton was the pastor of the North Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, he apparently wrote to Comstock to ask his assistance in his principal aim: eliminating the practice of passing-around of erotic books and other materials within the community of Lynn via the mail. (The Comstock Laws targeted the dissemination of information regarding contraceptives, abortion, and erotic materials by prohibiting these items being sent via U.S. Post.) Comstock replied to Whiton offering his assistance by any means necessary.

By this time Whiton had a reputation for his devotion to squeaky-clean moral standards in every community he led. However, some apparently found his tenacity overbearing; in Lynn, he recalls in his memoirs, he was viewed as being overly strict when he served as a member of the school board, advocating for stringent disciplinary measures to be taken against pupils. (He would later be ousted from his post as schoolmaster of Williston Seminary in 1878 in response to an outcry by parents that he was too strict in his scrutiny of pupils’ dormitories, imposing surprise inspections of the boys’ footlockers in search of contraband, leading to so many suspensions that the parents found his rule intolerable.) In Lynn, Whiton recalls, a local woman in his congregation once even spat on him in the street. It would be four years of tense relations with the community in Lynn before Whiton was forced to leave his post.

Was Whiton ousted because members of his community found his conservative attitude over-the-top? Did he feel alienated as the strict schoolmaster, and as minister in the town where he sought the assistance of Anthony Comstock—an unpopular figure even in his own time—in cleaning up the post office and ridding his citizens’ mail of lewd materials through search-and-seizure, to the point of being forced to resign from his position as minister? These documents paint a picture of a strict moral leader, hardworking and dedicated, whose efforts nevertheless led to alienating himself from his religious communities to the point of rejection. Further understanding of Whiton’s archives and research into his life and work may likely yield new insights into this complicated character.

But what a find for a new student staff member, incoming Seminary student, and early-career librarian in her first month at the Burke! The Comstock Laws have always held a particular fascination for me. Comstock clashed with Margaret Sanger and civil liberties groups because of his radical position on sending “lewd” materials through the post, including information about contraception and family planning. It would be interesting to read more of Whiton’s and Comstock’s correspondence to get further insight into Whiton’s theological position on these issues, and the theological position of the Lynn community who rejected the pastor partly for his too-strict enforcement of his conservative ethics. (Perhaps a Union student could conduct an investigation of the role of the pastor in terms of theological engagement and civic action vis-à-vis the U.S. Postal Service in the 19th century?) I’m more excited than ever to continue my studies here at Union and dig deeper into the Burke Library’s special collections in my academic endeavors.

Day One – Here We Go!

I am thrilled to be working as an archives student assistant at the Burke Library.  I find it auspicious to be starting a new job, at my new school, in my new city, on my 31st birthday.  What will this year hold for me? I am excited to find out!

This begins my 9th year of working in libraries.  I started as a student assistant in circulation while getting my undergraduate degree in Studio Art at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.  To be honest, I thought it would be a great place to be able to work on my homework as I trudged through my three minors in Art History, Italian, and German.  Yet at that circulation desk I found a sort of second home where work was never a chore and I enjoyed helping people.  I liked working there enough that I came back as a part-time supervisor after I graduated, which lead to a full time staff position at NC State University. There I worked in first the Design and then the Natural Resources branch libraries. So here we are, 9 years and 3 libraries later. I have enjoyed getting to know all the different tasks that each position has entailed and look forward to honing my skills for archiving.

But I have to admit that my love for libraries started with my grandmother.  Every afternoon together we would do something “special,” be that go for a swim, share an éclair from our favorite café, or walk in the park.  My favorite days were when we would go to the library and she would let me pick out as many books as my little arms could carry. Then we would go to her house and I would spread them all out on the cool, tiled floor. I could look at the pictures for hours and would ask her to read to me when she could.

It is such memories that make me excited to be working in the archives section of the library.  The materials here hold stories.  Not only of what is on the page but of the journey it took to get here.

Art Deco Design in a Cardboard Box

Despite being a lifelong patron and admirer of libraries, my own academic and professional background was not in the library field. Originally focused on working in the Arts, I earned an bachelors in art history and continued working as an artist myself, recently turning my attention to creating digital art. Additionally, I spent many years working on event planning and catering management. While food and libraries don’t usually mix well, I’ve learned years of managing menus and events lends itself well to managing information. As I completed the first semester of my Library & Information Science degree at Pratt, it came time to get some library experience outside of the classroom setting. Based on a friendly recommendation, and my own interest in religious studies, I applied to intern here at the Burke Library and was thankfully accepted.

While spending the summer at the Burke Library, I’ve been working with Collection Services librarian Matthew Baker on all aspects involved in managing an academic library’s collections, including dealing with an unexpected leak in the main Reading Room during a summer rain shower. The collection is essentially the heart of an academic library consisting of not just books, but also periodicals and serials (both physical and electronic). My first project was revamping and expanding the Faculty Publication shelves in the first floor circulation area. Ideally this section holds a copy of every book published by any current Union Theological Seminary faculty member held at Burke and includes a few highlights from emeritus professors. This will hopefully serve as a great resource for UTS students who can quickly browse through their professors’ publications.

We have also been filtering through boxes of newly acquired materials to determine whether they are suitable for the collection here at Burke. This involves not only checking Columbia’s holdings through CLIO, but also searching Worldcat to see what other libraries, if any, hold the particular edition we are questioning. One particular series of pamphlets keep popping up through the many boxes of books– The “‘Talks’ New Series” (some of which can be found in CLIO here).

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These are all instructional pamphlets offering guidance for missionary work with young people, particularly focused on working in Asia. Published in the 1930s, the pamphlets stand out not only because they are written solely by female authors, but also their dynamic cover art. The covers are printed with two colored inks that can function as positive or negative space, a simple and cost-effective design choice that contributes to a bold, graphic style. Limiting the color not only saves money on printing but works within the Art Deco movement which was extremely popular at the time and prevalent in poster advertisement design. The “Talks on the New Way…” cover really expresses the Art Deco aesthetic with its strong geometrical shapes and play on color and negative space. They also use popular font characteristics of the day; fat, san-serif lettering that is a stark contrast to the whimsical Art Nouveau designs popular with the previous generation. All of which is akin to poster art of the 20s and 30s more so than typically book covers. So that even among boxes of dusty, well-worn materials, there is still some great graphic design to be found.