Author Archives: Elizabeth Willse

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.

Testing a Scavenger Hunt

Today, I tested a scavenger hunt across Columbia’s libraries.

Have I mentioned that this is the best internship ever?

Elizabeth asked me whether I’d be interested in testing a scavenger hunt she’d designed to help incoming UTS graduate students get acquainted with Columbia libraries. Some of the tasks on the hunt meant physically exploring library spaces, others involved navigating websites. I love the idea of using a scavenger hunt to orient them to the libraries locations and what they have to offer!

“I’d love to!!!!” I told her. I’m pretty sure she heard the italics, and the exclamation points in my reply.

I have been working so closely in the archives, and I’m only vaguely familiar with the rest of Columbia’s library holdings. Also, my sense of direction is, shall we say, less than stellar. So, chances are, I made a terrific test subject. If I could find my way through the hunt, the new students would be just fine.

The hunt was designed to be accessible through a web link that students could access from their phones. Taking pictures along the way would help them prove they’d found each item on the hunt.

So, armed with my phone and a map of Columbia Libraries (did I mention my useless sense of direction?), I made note of the time and set off, on a sunny afternoon. My job was to work my way through the hunt and see how long the tasks took, whether the directions were clear enough, and in general, do a user test of the scavenger hunt.

Let me say that again: I did a user test of a scavenger hunt. Best. Internship. Ever.

Last semester, I took a terrific class in Usability Theory and Practice at Pratt (and I highly recommend learning about UX to anyone studying library and information science). So, as I went through the hunt, I was working with some of that mindset: are the directions for each task clear? Are the things I’m supposed to find clearly labeled and easy to see? Does the language of each question match or echo the language I see on signs, maps, and websites?

Working with that mindset made me take notes of a few places where questions needed to be worded differently.

If I had been doing the scavenger hunt as a timed contest against other grad students, I would have run into trouble in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. The hunt task said to find out what the current exhibit was called…. and I couldn’t resist lingering a while, to stare at the exhibits on display, and read the descriptions! Such fun! After I finished the hunt, and typed up my notes, I came back!

I also hit a snag getting to Avery Library. Feeling very pleased with the sunny day and the fun of testing a scavenger hunt, I decided to cut across campus, and enjoy the storied architecture of the academic buildings surrounding me. Never mind the small bit of construction in my way.

This turned out to be a mistake.

Pro tip for Burke students trying to get to Avery: Leave the campus entirely and walk around on Amsterdam Avenue. You will get much less lost than I did.

After I finished the hunt, I put together my notes for Elizabeth, taking it task by task, and making note of where I had encountered problems.

I can’t wait to hear back from her about how the actual students did on the hunt. I assume that they’ll beat my time of about two hours (like I said, I got distracted by lovely rare book exhibits, and then fabulously lost). And I’m sure they’ll have fun.

Field trip to ReCAP Offsite Storage

Image of Book Cart at ReCAP with Columbia University Logo

Columbia’s shelving carts at ReCAP

Today, I joined a busload of other Columbia librarians for a field trip to ReCAP, an offsite storage facility for books and resources shared by Columbia, the New York Public Library and Princeton. ReCAP stands for The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium.

ReCAP houses over 11 million total volumes in giant, massive airport-hangar looking rooms.  (With room to grow into 30 million!) There is also a specially controlled, colder vault to preserve film.

I blogged about the tour in more detail on my personal blog. You can read the full entry, and see a slide show, there.

Millions of Books! Field trip to ReCAP

From Finding Aids to Floppy Disks

I spent yesterday and today getting acquainted with my first archival box. To learn and get experience with writing a finding aid, I’m working with materials that already have a finding aid, “The Chinese Church of Christ in Korea papers 1908-1975.” Some of what needed to be done was basic copy editing and formatting the document.

Korea cover photoBut the fun part was getting to explore the folders in the box. Part of what I was doing was comparing the box content to the descriptions in the finding aid, to make sure that it was accurate, and as detailed as it needed to be.

Exploring documents that ranged from handwritten letters to missionary history to brochures about Korea, I had to remind myself not to read the documents themselves. Processing an archive isn’t about reading the documents. Handing me pages and pages of typewritten and handwritten documents and telling me not to read them takes willpower! I only skimmed. I told myself I was familiarizing myself with the documents, and checking to see if any details jumped out that would improve the level of historical detail in the finding aid, to help researchers (and those searching on the web) find it, with better keywords. Yeah! That’s what I was doing. Not reading! No reading here!

The documents that I absolutely did not read covered the work Chinese missionaries were doing to establish missions and mission schools in Korea, covering a time and place in history I had known absolutely nothing about. And now I’m curious to learn more. (Maybe a stop by the UTS library on the way home!)

After I submitted my work on the finding aid for edits, my next task was to work my way through a box of floppy disks, get the documents onto the hard drive so they could be processed. Some of the disks I handled had one or two files on them, mostly Word documents, sometimes a PowerPoint or PDF. It is a little bit mind boggling to think about the fact that only a few decades ago, our portable media could hold mere kilobytes or megabytes of data. And now, several gigabytes can fit on an even smaller device.

docs and floppiesToday, I worked with, and handled documents that were typed or handwritten in the early 20th century. And floppy disks with documents saved in the early 2000’s.

I’d call that a very good day!

My First Day as an Intern: So Much to Learn!

Today is my first day as an intern at the Burke Library, working with Brigette on the UTS archives. One of the tasks of getting started is to write a blog post about what I hope the internship will teach me. You can see some entries from my predecessors and fellow interns here, here and here.

So, on to what I hope to learn from working as an intern…

The short answer:


I come to this internship having completed most of the requisite number of credits for my Masters in Library Science at Pratt. I’ve studied all kinds of things related to digital libraries and libraries’ use of social media in outreach and research. I’ve learned the basics of metadata and collection development.

However, none of my coursework so far has incorporated more than a cursory study of archives. And I’ve been kicking myself about that since I started talking to Brigette. I had clues that I might be interested in archives: I tend to pore over antique cookbooks and recipe collections, and rummage through bins of vintage photographs at yard sales; and I got positively starry-eyed over maps George Washington had drawn, when I saw them on a school trip to the Library of Congress. And yet, I haven’t taken so much as an introductory archives class. What have I been thinking?

The learning curve of getting started at Burke will include more than just the usual directional and procedure orientation to how things work here. I know I need to develop my understanding of archival theory and procedures from the ground up. I come to this internship with a rudimentary knowledge of how to work with archives: wear gloves for photographs, use pencil to take notes.

I’m sitting at a desk surrounded by shelves of tantalizing gray boxes. As this internship progresses, I look forward to learning my way around the care and documentation of the knowledge contained in these boxes and the rest of the collection, piece by piece. I’ve started reading about archives, so I can begin to fit these mysterious boxes into a larger context of what archiving means.

I’m also looking forward to working on developing ideas and content for the social media at Burke. I’m looking forward to learning more about what works best for archives and libraries on social media and using different platforms to showcase the great resources in the collections here.

What are some of the discoveries you’ve made in the collections here? Tell me about your favorites in the comments!