Author Archives: Elizabeth Miraglia

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!

What do armadillos, leprosy and Ebola have in common?

The world runs on strange coincidences, which have been cropping up a lot around here. For me, leprosy has been one of those coincidences.  I was cataloging a DVD on a Catholic priest who worked on a leper colony in Hawaii in the early 19th Century (both the island and the DVD are called Molokai, if you’re interested). While searching for some information about the island I stumbled upon some more general information about leprosy, including three facts I found really interesting: leprosy can be transmitted to humans by armadillos; armadillos fall into the Levitical category of ritually unclean; and 95% of the population is naturally immune to the bacteria that causes the disease.

"Facts about lepers," 1880; Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1412, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

“Facts about lepers,” 1880; Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1412, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

I posted these facts to Facebook, which inevitably led to a coworker mentioning that we’d had an unusual number of requests for pamphlets on missionary work with lepers lately from the special collections. Of course we had, why wouldn’t the week that I work with some random movie about Christian missions in leper colonies also be the week that two separate researchers ask for materials on the same exact thing? This inspired me to write a blog post about leprosy and some of my immediate thoughts and reactions to the requests for these materials.

I am thoroughly fascinated by Leviticus, and like many scholars, am often dumbfounded by the seemingly prescient food prohibitions in chapter 11. Many of the animals prohibited by YHWH turn out to be dangerous when cooked improperly, notably pigs and shellfish. The discovery that armadillos also fall into this category (which is translated as both “detestable” and an “abomination”) was now coupled with the fact that they cause leprosy, a disease that Leviticus 14 discusses at great length (seriously: how to deal with this kind of leper, with that kind of leper, what to do if your house looks like it has leprosy…). There is always a danger in ascribing too much foresight into the minds of ancient people, and the numerous attempts to find focused cohesion among all of the Levitical prohibitions have always fallen flat. In addition, it should be noted that as far as I can tell there were no armadillos in the Ancient Near East.  However, I also think that there is danger in ascribing too little comprehension to ancient people. It’s reasonable to assume that they realized that eating certain types of animals made people sick sometimes and that generic categories were created to avoid eating as many dangerous animals as possible. The categories weren’t created in the same way that we would today; for most of us the requirement that an animal have cloven hooves and chew its cud in order to be edible, or the prohibition against “anything that creeps,”  seems like a strange line to draw. It is also important to remember that Leviticus is, at it’s core, a text dedicated to sorting out ritual purity from impurity, dedicated to creating categories and boxes in order to sort out the various roles and responsibilities of the various parties involved.  YHWH, who had just freed the Israelites from Egypt; the priestly community among the Israelites, who were now responsible for maintaining positive relations with a deity who had already proven quick to anger; and the lay Israelites, who stood a good chance of ruining everything for everyone. This is perhaps part of why the book spends so much excruciating detail covering leprosy and leprosy-like diseases. They were physically-manifested aberrations that cropped up in a world that mapped cosmological ramifications onto the physical world, that had no apparent method of containment other than exile from the community, and that could therefore only be manifestations of some spiritual defect.

"Information please," 1954: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1347, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

“Information please,” 1954: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1347, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Concerns about and treatment of leprosy within ministry continues to this day.  Burke Library is home to many materials about this  topics, most notably in our Missionary Research Library (MRL) pamphlet collection and periodical collection.

 

"How to rid a country of leprosy," 1926: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, 1346, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

“How to rid a country of leprosy,” 1926: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, 1346, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

HowToRid-21346

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"It might have been you," 1950: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1344, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University Libraries in the City of New York.

“It might have been you,” 1950: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1344, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University Libraries in the City of New York.

Burke has materials dating from the early-19th Century to present-day that deal with ministry to lepers and information about the transmission of the disease.  It struck me that we were getting requests for these types of materials in the middle of the most recent Ebola hysteria. The images below are just selections from our impressive amount of materials on the subject (over 200 individual titles), some of which eerily echo the current attempts to frame the discussion about Ebola and its transmission in its larger global context. Both create(d) hysteria and fear in populations where little was known about how it spread, how contagious it actually was, or even what the disease itself actually was.

 

"Akeva: the story of missions in Africa," 1954: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1345, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University Libraries.

“Akeva: the story of missions in Africa,” 1954: Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection, #1345, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University Libraries.

They also created similar hysteria in populations with widely available information about the disease, hence the need for pamphlets reassuring people that they are unlikely to catch leprosy themselves (see below). The drastic difference in the availability of effective treatment and even cultural and institutional circumstances create(d) a painfully visible dichotomy between those who are/were affected and those who are/were not. The massive disparity in occurrences between the developed and developing world also contributes(d) to stigmatization and stereotyping of affected populations, both by those demonizing the victims and by those trying to help.  The legacy of Christian missions in foreign lands is always a difficult one, one where undeniable good is often born out of a conversion/”saving the heathen” mindset that many of us find uncomfortable today.  The materials in our MRL pamphlet collection continuously straddle that line, and therefore continue to be relevant for scholars looking to examine various aspects of history, secular or otherwise, for these kinds of strange coincidences that sometimes power our universe.

If you are interested in viewing anything from our Missionary Research Library Pamphlet Collection you can make an appointment here.