For the past year, I have been reading the stacks at the Burke Library. Not reading every book, but reading the collection: how it is organized, what subjects have more texts, what sections see more traffic.
Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, “Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress.” by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).
Since December 2016, I have been playing the vibrations between student and Library Circulation Assistant. The library is where I work in a double sense. But over the course of my time at Union, the two roles have collapsed into one another, and I can honestly say that my education at Union would have been very different had I not gained extensive familiarity with Burke’s collection. My knowledge of Burke’s holdings has grown through sharing in the curiosity and creativity of countless patrons. Helping researchers find books has been an education in and of itself, taking me to aisles and titles I would likely never otherwise explore. But apart from assisting patrons, my familiarity has grown most through shelf-reading.
Shelf-reading, a crucial part of library maintenance, is one of the responsibilities that comes with being a Circulation assistant. It consists of going through the stacks, book by book, to make sure the collection is shelved correctly. It helps us find books that were mis-shelved and marked “lost,” pull books in need of repair, and return books to other Columbia libraries that wound up in the Burke stacks. With a total of over 700,000 onsite books in 5 levels of stacks spanning 24,580 square feet, it is rather easy for a book to find its way onto some distant shelf, far from where it should be. While shelf-reading is an essential task for ensuring that patrons can locate resources, the task of shelf-reading sounds tedious. But my not-so-secret secret is that I love it.
It is one thing to understand that libraries organize knowledge. It is an entirely different thing to tangibly experience the assumptions that go into their organization. Burke has two different collections with distinct classification systems: the Union stacks and the Library of Congress (LC) stacks. The periodical section is shelved alphabetically. None are “neutral.”
The Burke is one of the few remaining theological libraries that still circulates books shelved according to the Union classification system, originally designed for the Seminary’s holdings. Julia Pettee developed and implemented the cataloguing system over fifteen years, beginning in 1909. The acting librarian at the time, William Walker Rockwell, recorded in the preface to the published classification: “It is a principle of this classification to look upon Christianity as the central theme reaching out in all directions; and wherever a Christian topic touches a field of interest to make a place for it within that field.” (Check out former librarian Elizabeth Call’s piece on Julia Pettee published on this blog in 2014 here.)
Reviewing the breakdown of the Union stacks, I realized how drastically today’s collection has changed in character with the continually-growing LC stacks, just as the population at Union has evolved over the years. The latest incoming class is reportedly the most religiously diverse, including the largest population of unaffiliated students Union has ever welcomed. Looking back on the ideals, assumptions, and goals that went into the organization of the Union stacks, it became clear to me how much the collection is a relic of the Seminary’s past character. So much so that it seems to describe a different Seminary entirely from the one I have come to call my home. Because of its date of production, the Union classification has no designation for Liberation or Feminist or Womanist or Queer Theologies. No space within its categories for the theological voices that have been so formative and foundation for me and for many of my peers. No space for the ways of doing theology that have since emerged largely within Union’s walls.
Shelf-reading the collection today, I find that the sections most out of order best reflect the evolving character of the Union community. While I recognize the necessity for our books to be organized, I revel in the disordering that happens. Reading the stacks reveals a latent sense of Burke’s community of readers. The disordering archives a challenge to its organization, a manifestation of the fact that new works are being produced, works that might give cause for reorganizing the collection, works that will push the boundaries. The books on the shelves change constantly, and the bits of information, communicated through the collection itself, speak volumes with a moment of pause and a little attentiveness. I find in the disorder a remnant of the community I will soon leave after graduation.
Two weeks ago, we lost Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Since Cone’s passing, the section where his books are housed has thinned quite a bit. I know that folks are returning to his words, continuing to hear his voice through his writings. It reminds me of something I noticed in the library while taking Prof. Cone’s course, Foundations in Christian Theology, the last time Dr. Cone taught this course, the course with the infamous 20-page syllabus.
I saw Dr. Cone’s impact through the changes in the stacks. Cone repeatedly encouraged: “You have to find your theological vooooooice.” Over the course of the semester, the BT section, the LC classification for “Theology,” swelled and compressed, mirroring the theological turns we traced every Tuesday morning under Dr. Cone’s passionate and meticulous guidance. We were pulling books to find our voices.
I graduate in eight days. We have almost completed shelf-reading the LC stacks. They are reset for another round of disordering, and I wonder how the stacks will bear the remnants of its community in the years to come. As I close this chapter of Circ assisting and graduate study, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read the stacks and to see through them the reflections of the Union Seminary I have known and been a part.
-Brandon Harrington, UTS Class of ’18
 Julia Pettee, Classification of the Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, ed. Ruth C. Eisenhart (New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1967), iii.