Author Archives: Matthew Baker

About Matthew Baker

Collection Services Librarian

The Seth Kasten Memorial Exhibit Case

Recent visitors to the Burke may have noticed something new on the first floor. This week, thanks to the generosity of the friends and family of Seth E. Kasten, a new exhibit case has been installed on the first floor, just opposite the circulation desk. Seth was a librarian at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary from 1973 to 2011 and this case will stand as a testimony to his many years of dedicated service to the Burke’s communities and collections. Seth helped countless individuals from near and far in their research and study and led choral groups at Union and at the annual conference of the American Theological Library Association.

We are deeply grateful to the Seth’s friends and family for this gift to the Burke Library in his memory. We are planning an opening event for the spring and an exhibit that will pay tribute to Seth’s passion for music — stay tuned!

Interview with Betty Bolden

The following is taken from interviews with Betty Bolden by Meredith Levin, the Burke Library’s interim Head from 2016-17. Betty will be retiring in December 2017 and will be greatly missed by her many colleagues and friends!


After nearly 50 years at the Burke Library, Betty Bolden, one of Union Theological Seminary’s most beloved community members, is ready to begin her much-deserved retirement at the end of 2017. I  had the privilege of working with Betty last year in my role as the Interim Head of the Burke and I’m so grateful that I was able to learn from her. Recently, I had the chance to sit down with her one more time and ask about her many experiences in various roles at the Burke. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

What’s the strangest library request you’ve ever received?

Years ago, probably in the 1970s, UTS offered (possibly for the first time) a class on sexuality and there were 2 copies of a book, “The Playbook,” that were placed on reserve for students in the course. This book detailed male and female bodies, positions, and featured a lot of graphic content. Whenever students needed to borrow the book for class, they would often hide it under piles of their other books so nobody could see what they were checking out. This was in the early years when there were battles against pornography and everybody was talking about decency. It was a big deal for this course to cover some of these issues and questions. And both copies of “The Playbook” were stolen before the end of the semester so I guess people were really, really interested in learning more…

It’s been nearly 5 decades since you first walked through the doors of the Burke. How has the library changed?

There are more people than ever in the main reading room. In the last 3 years in particular I’ve noticed that the library is really full again. I think people still like books. I certainly still buy books myself.

We’re coming up on a big anniversary in this neighborhood. Spring 1968 saw sit-ins at Columbia (and at Union), protests over civil rights issues, the Vietnam War, and students vocally opposing academic administration in unprecedented numbers. What do you remember about those events?

I remember that when the Union sit-in began I couldn’t get into work because the building was totally locked down. I had a friend, a 1st year student at the seminary, who let me in and I just wandered the building all day long taking everything in. Later in the afternoon some reporters arrived and began interviewing professors out on Claremont Avenue. Some members of the old guard, like Daniel Day Williams, were very upset by these events because it meant that seminaries were really changing. UTS students were also in close contact with Columbia students. What was happening on the Columbia campus resonated with Union students and vice versa. It was really an exciting time- students everywhere were invested in activism and social justice issues, particularly around the Vietnam War.

How many different Burke Library directors have you worked with (and outlasted)?

8 directors! One who stands out was Father Molloy- he was very nice and taught me a lot. I remember him wearing the fanciest, tailor-made clothes and driving a Mercedes. He was quite a character. He later went on to work at the Smithsonian and I think at SMU.

So, it’s been a while, but how did you get your first job at the Burke?

I had never heard of Union. I was living in Brooklyn at the time looking for jobs and I had gotten an offer for an agency in the South Bronx. My brother told me not to take that job because he said it was too dangerous so I kept looking. I had a friend who worked at General Theological Seminary and when we met for lunch one day her boss who offered to introduce me to the HR person up at Union. I came to Union for my interview and there were two open jobs: 1 in an office and 1 in the library. I decided I would prefer the library job so I took it and I first worked as a circulation assistant. In those days, Burke had a large staff and I remember the big card catalog drawers that could open on both ends so staff members and patrons could access the cards if they needed to. The Missionary Library had its own separate staff of 4-5 people and the Religious Education Library was up on the 5th floor. The Sacred Music Library was also located in the two rooms behind the main reading room on the 3rd floor.

What will you miss most about working at the Burke?

Daily contact with the students and interacting with special collections readers from all over the world.

Do you have a favorite archival collection or rare book

Carter Heyward Papers

Beverly Harrison Papers

The Re-Imagining Community Papers

The Harry Emerson Fosdick Papers and the Near East Relief Committee Records are some of the most heavily used collections, along with those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other major theologians.

Some collections I’ve recently become interested in are the East Harlem Protestant Parish Records and the Student Interracial Ministry Records from the 1960s.

What advice would you give the person who takes on this job after you?

This is very physical work- heavy boxes are no joke! But this job enables you to work with so many different people and you’ll learn a lot from folks around the world. Once you start to know the collections better you’ll be able to refer people to other materials and that makes your interactions with readers even more special.

Any big plans for retirement?

I’ll be back at Union in February for the Trailblazers event honoring Professor Delores Williams and the 25th anniversary of the publication of her groundbreaking book, “Sisters in the Wilderness.”

In March 2018, I’m going to South Africa for 3 weeks. It’ll be my 3rd time in S. Africa but my first trip just as a tourist! The first time I went was in 1996 on a Plowshares trip and I went again in 2001 for a UN conference in Durban on homophobia/xenophobia.

Then I’m planning on taking a writing class, learning how to sketch and paint, and I’d like to volunteer in my community in the Bronx with formerly incarcerated people.

If you could go back to 1968 and give newly hired Betty some advice about working at the Burke, what would it be?

I wouldn’t warn her against anything. I was innocent when I started working here and I’m glad I came in with an open mind. I’d say to expect the unexpected and you’ll have fun.

Thank you, Betty, for your wisdom, kindness and mentorship to countless students and researchers who have visited the Burke. We wish you all the best and will miss you!

-Meredith Levin


Ethiopian Holdings at the Burke

The Thompson Collection — 77 printed works as well as 9 manuscripts acquired in 1923 as a gift from philanthropist Mary Clark Thompson — comprises a small but important section of the Burke Library’s special collections, containing several of its most celebrated printed Bibles. These include the 1611 King James Version, the 1661 Algonguian Bible (sometimes called the “Eliot Indian Bible”), and the Hebrew and Greek testaments owned and annotated by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Mary Clark Thompson (1835-1923), from the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park

The Thompson Collection includes a copy of the first book printed in the Ethiopic: the Psalterium Aethiopicum(The work is also known as the Psalterium David et cantica aliqua in lingua Chaldea, reflecting the erroneous belief on the part of its sponsor and publisher that Ge’ez — ancient Ethiopic, now used primarily as a liturgical language — was related to the near eastern language Chaldean.) In order to print the work, the Ge’ez type had to be designed and cut, an important moment in the history of printing technology. King’s College London has digitized their copy of this work as an online exhibit well worth further exploration.

Psalm 1 in the Burke Library’s copy of the Psalterium Aethiopicum (Thompson CB46 .4 1513)

The Burke Library also holds 5 Ethiopic manuscripts, dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Ethiopic Manuscript 5 was partially digitized, showing here both an illumination of Christ as the Lamb of God as well as its maḫdär, a leather satchel used for transport.

A passage from the 2005 Columbia University Libraries exhibition of which it was a part provides further some context:

This collection of Ethiopian magical prayers includes those that can be used against demons for each day of the week, and prayers for overcoming enemies. It also includes “images,” an “image” being a hymn in honor of a saint in which the different members of his or her body are addressed in successive stages. The book is bound in wooden boards covered in reddish tooled leather in which crosses have been worked. The leather carrying case was used to facilitate easy and safe transport. The manuscript’s elegant script is enhanced by two kinds of decoration: abstract, linear motifs that highlight textual transitions and figural representations. This is a fine example of an African-Christian culture to which the African-American community has, from earliest days, looked as a source and model.

A Word on Edward Robinson

Though perhaps less well-known today than some of Union Seminary’s recent faculty, Edward Robinson (1794-1863), whose papers have recently been processed by Rebecca Nieto, played several important roles in the early life of Union and in the broader world of biblical scholarship.

Edward Robinson — Source: Wikimedia Commons

A founding member of the faculty, Robinson was Union’s first Professor of Biblical Literature and served as librarian during the seminary’s uncertain first decade. Near Eastern archaeologist J.B. Pritchard — whose Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) will be familiar to contemporary seminarians — lauded his contributions to “Palestinology” in his landmark works, Biblical Researches in Palestine, and Adjacent Regions and Physical Geography of the Holy Land.

Robinson was also responsible for coordinating the acquisition of the approximately 14,000 works that comprised the original Union library. In 1838, while on a major trip to the Holy Land, he arranged for the seminary to purchase a large collection of books from biblical scholar and erstwhile Benedictine monk Leander van Ess. Today, that Burke Library collection remains a unique and important resource for scholars of fifteenth and sixteenth continental Europe, and contains many beautiful medieval manuscripts.

One of the most ancient sections of the present Temple Mount in Jerusalem is named for his work there. “Robinson’s Arch” is the remnant of a first-century structure located at the southwestern corner of that historic edifice and would have been a major point of entry to the upper temple complex. Over the past decade it has sometimes been used as a controversial alternative site of worship to the traditional Western Wall.

Robinson’s Arch from the west — Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Of making many books…”

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, the Burke Library hosted a workshop, organized by Columbia Libraries’ Conservation Department, for New York City curators and conservators on the study of the provenance of historic bookbindings.

Dr. Nicholas Pickwoad, Director of Ligatus Research Centre at the University of the Arts London, led an all-day session featuring more than 70 books from the Burke Library’s celebrated van Ess Collection.

Matthew  blog post image 1The van Ess Collection is ideal for such study and is noted for its many well-preserved contemporary bindings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Because many of the books in the van Ess Collection were never “updated” — as was frequently the case when later owners or repositories would rebind or repair in ways that removed or obscured important earlier evidence of the books’ manufacture and use — important features revealing how they were constructed have been preserved, which in turn provides many insights into the technical, artistic, social, and economic spheres in  which bookmaking played such an important role.


Matthew blog post image 2Features preserved in the van Ess bindings offer important evidence concerning their provenance and date (where and when they were bound), showing varieties of regional and local practices and patterns. Dr. Pickwoad led the group through a careful exploration of van Ess volumes, examining features such as sewing styles, board material, and board covering to infer where and when particular bindings might have been made. Researchers utilizing printed books in their research — in many cases the most abundant type of evidence available to scholars — will find in the van Ess collection a rich body of evidence for study of the early modern world.

The Ligatus Centre has created a new resource for the description of historic bookbindings: The Language of Bindings (LoB) Thesarus. This important tool will be a standard resource for scholars, librarians, and others who work with rare books.

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Libraries and Our True Interests

palfreyLibrarians of all stripes are regularly asked about the prospects for the library in the 21st century, often some version of “won’t libraries go away now that everything is available online?” It is a reasonable question given the extent to which our lives are increasingly characterized and shaped by the use of digital tools. What will the library become (presuming it survives) in the coming decades, when screens will have replaced printed books?

John Palfrey’s recent work on the future of libraries, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, attempts a full answer to that and related questions. In doing so he is cautiously optimistic that, provided they work to keep pace in providing the kinds of services and collections patrons desire, libraries can continue to be a vital places of research, discovery, and diversion. He posits a “digital plus” future for libraries, where some more traditional functions (such as inspiring study spaces and special collections) continue to exist alongside emerging offerings (such as data management and advocacy on privacy and copyright issues).

Among the many salient issues Palfrey discusses, he repeatedly reminds readers of the importance of libraries as a non-commercial, non-competitive space in a world increasingly dominated by market models of access to information:

The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read is enormous. The great beauty of the rich, diverse library system that has developed over the past century and a half has been the role of librarians in selecting and making available a range of materials for people to consult and enjoy. No one pressing ideology can co-opt the system; no single commercial entity can do an end run around the library system in the interest of profit. Scholars can rely on major research libraries to collection broadly and evenly across disciplines. Towns, cities, and states can rely on historical societies and archives to maintain records of the past. And every community can rely on its public library to offer a culturally relevant, broad-based collection of materials that can be consulted for free. [1]

In a context when “value” most often seems to mean “economic value,” libraries can be welcoming places where everyone is free , as publisher John Shively Knight put it, “to bestir the people to an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.” [2]


Student and library staff member Ian White takes full advantage of library resources in pursuing his true interests.

[1] Palfrey, J. (2015). Biblio tech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. (New York: Basic Books), p. 90.

[2] ibid., p. 179.

Puritans and Radicals

In 1588-89 a series of seven tracts [1] were published in England on a secret, mobile printing press, aggressively and colorfully attacking the hierarchy of the established church of England in favor of the more minimal, localized Presbyterian form of church government; the first of these, often referred to simply as the Epistle, contains, according the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the first recorded occurrence of the word “fucker.”[2]

(1) The Protestatyon Of Martin Mar-prelat_Burke_McAlpin 1589 M38_3



Think of it as an early modern instance of theological praxis. These polemical writings — generally referred to, because of their author’s nom de guerre, as the Martin Marprelate tracts — proved to be both popular and influential, occasioning from establishment voices a number of defenses and counter-attacks and triggering “one of the great manhunts of the English Renaissance” in search of their source.[3] Most of these now famous short works, included six of the seven of the Marprelate tracts, are held by the Burke Library.

Historically, they represent an important skirmish in long war of ideas, words, and human lives (1) The Protestatyon Of Martin Mar-prelat_Burke_McAlpin 1589 M38_3conducted across 16th and 17th century Europe. Their literary style anticipates many of the great works of the next century with, as Marprelate scholar Joseph Black recently put it, their “wittily irreverent and conversational prose, ironic modes of argument, fluid shifts among narrative voices, swashbuckling persona, playful experiments with conventions of print controversy, and willingness to name names and tell unflattering stories about his opponents.”[4] Intimations of Swift, Carlyle, and Borges, among many others, with a large dollop of cable talk show bombast thrown in for spice.

Their playfulness can be seen at the most fundamental level, several claiming on the title page to have been printed “in Europe, not far from some of the Bouncing [i.e., loudmouthed, pretentious, etc.] Priests.” The very quality of the printing seems to testify to a cause on the run, with different types often crowding together into sometimes wobbly lines of type, set by printers working quickly with limited resources (see accompanying images).

(2) The Protestatyon Of Martin Mar-prelat_Burke_McAlpin 1589 M38_5Technologically, they are attempts to harness a relatively new communication tool to disseminate disruptive ideas and influence society, a kind of Protestant samizdat, comparable in many ways to the typed, mimeographed leaflets and zines of the 20th century and the TOR-encrypted messages and tweets of the 21st.  As Black points out, the Marprelate tracts helped shape an English “proto-public sphere of debate” and to “create a tradition of oppositional writing.”[5]

They also underscore how material objects can illuminate other people and times in ways not possible via digital images. Most of us take for granted the dizzying pace of technological change. We may overlook how the physical format (article, book, text message, scribbled note, screenshot, clear versus unclear scanned image) can impact our understanding of something’s “content.” As artists have always noted, content can’t be separated from form. In many ways, these pamphlets represent in and through their physical format — portable, hurried, immediate — the “gloves-off” and urgent nature (at least from the author’s point of view) of what they contain.


[1] Links to the library’s online catalog records of Martin Marprelate Tracts held at the Burke Library:
[2] Joseph Black, The Martin Marprelate Tracts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 211.

[3] Ibid., xxxiv.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ibid., xvii.

“One small step” for the study of religions

The Burke Library’s special collections include hundreds of thousands of rare books, pamphlets, and manuscripts. Many of these works pertain to the Bible (its many versions and editions, their languages and interpretation), church history (especially the Reformation period and following), and theological scholarship and controversy (including incunabula, sixteenth-century English and continental pamphlets, and 19th century American tracts and sermons). The Burke’s collections also include a number of important works of natural history, philosophy, travel, and comparative religion. Included among this last group is an edition of the renowned Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World) by Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard.

Matthew blog_7Cérémonies was pioneering in its attempt to portray the rituals and practices of the world’s religions and peoples in comparative perspective. By the standards of its day, the work was remarkably broad and even-handed in its attempt to describe religions both within and outside Europe, including Islam and religions of the “new world.” Picart engraved the hundreds of illustrations found throughout its pages and which were in large part responsible for its popularity and relative commercial success. These attempted to portray not only religious rites, but the physical structures, geographical settings, attire, equipment, and other accoutrements characteristic of the various groups included. For its contributions to a broader, more nuanced approach to world cultures, one recent work has dubbed it “The Book That Changed Europe,” while another has credited it with fostering “The First Global Vision of Religion.”

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The illustrations included in volume 6 of Cérémonies are noteworthy as a moment of imperfect (e.g., the bowler-like hats and other Western garb in the images of the marriage ceremony, as well as the unfortunate ubiquity of sauvages throughout the text) but nevertheless genuine attempt to document and understand to the rich and diverse societies of the American continents’ indigenous peoples.


While at times painfully inaccurate or speculative, partly Matthew blog_3because their understanding was based largely on the reports of others, for its time the work does constitute a real attempt to understand and portray a range of cultures and religious practices, and is often characterized by a descriptive approach that would in the twentieth century develop into the study of the history of religions and inter-religious dialogue.

Burke’s French edition of Cérémonies (1723-1743) is comprised of 9 folio volumes that together make a striking impression as evidence of the eighteenth-century Europe’s encyclopedic labors.

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In particular, Picart’s engravings remain bold and clear; despite the corrections and updates that can be made in terms of their accuracy, they are the work of a gifted and imaginative craftsman. The physical volumes can be consulted in the Burke Library’s Special Collections Reading Room, and UCLA’s library (in collaboration with the Huntington Library, the Getty Institute, and Utrecht University) has provided electronic access to the work’s several editions.

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If you would like to consult the volumes at the Burke, you can request a visit here.

Please note that all images in this post are from the Burke’s copy of Volume 6 of Ceremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde / représentées par des figures dessinées de la main de Bernard Picard; avec une explication historique, & quelques dissertations curieuses. Amsterdam: Chez J. F. Bernard, 1723-1743.

St. Leander

There are several obvious candidates for "patron saint" of the Burke Library, and one of them would certainly be Leander van Ess (1772-1847). Van Ess, erstwhile Benedictine and translator of an immensely popular German New Testament, amassed what would become the Library's first, core collection. Edward T. Robinson, a member of Union Theological Seminary's founding faculty, arranged for the purchase in 1838 of a portion of Van Ess's collection, including scores of medieval and early modern manuscripts, as well as thousands of early printed books and Reformation-era pamphlets (flugschriften). The Van Ess Collection remains a tremendously rich resource for the study of the material culture of the West, and of book history in particular. Among the collection's strengths are its many well-preserved contemporary bindings. The collection bearing his name, which is the result of Van Ess's life and work as a scholar and teacher, is the proverbial "cornerstone" of the Burke Library's renowned holdings. The above portrait includes the Johannine exhortation to scrutamini scripturas (5:39). In Van Ess's hand is inscribed a brief passage from 1 John 4:16: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."

The Burke Library Welcomes Faculty for NEH Summer Seminar

On July 2, the Burke Library participated in the Researching Early Modern Manuscripts and Printed Books NEH Summer Seminar. The four-week seminar was sponsored by the CUNY Graduate Center and provided an opportunity for 16 scholars to develop their skills in the area of bibliography (the study of books as material and cultural objects) and book history. In addition to instructional sessions addressing subjects such as codicology, provenance, and analytical bibliography, the seminar included visits to New York City libraries with distinguished special collections relevant to the study of the early modern era. The goal of these visits was to allow participants to learn about the many collections in the city and in particular to gain hands-on experience working with manuscripts and early printed books.

The seminar's visit to the Burke Library focused on the McAlpin Collection of British History and Theology. The McAlpin Collection is among the most significant of its kind, covering the years 1501-1700 and comprised of more than 19,000 items addressing the many theological, political, ecclesiastical, and philosophical controversies of the period. The collection was funded by David H. McAlpin and his family, and was developed early on by Ezra Hall Gillett, Charles Augustus Briggs, and Charles Ripley Gillett. Initially focusing on late 17th century Deism, the collection was soon expanded to include books, pamphlets, and broadsides from the English Reformation, Civil Wars, Commonwealth, and Restoration. The collection is remarkable for its depth and breadth, and researchers are able to examine important works in multiple editions, as well as multiple works by a particular author or pertaining to a particular issue or debate. Included in the collection are a number of very rare works, including an almost complete set of publications from the celebrated Marprelate controversy of 1588-89.

At the workshop, insights into the binding structures and conservation histories of items from the McAlpin Collection were offered by Alexis Hagadorn (Head of Conservation, Columbia University Libraries) and Jennifer Jarvis (Mellon Conservator for Special Collections, Columbia University Libraries). Several other volumes — including an incunabular Bible printed by Anton Koberger, a first edition of Foxe's Actes and Monuments, and several Luther pamphlets — were on display to allow participants an opportunity to explore the wide of range of bibliographical and historical evidence found in the Burke Library's special collections.