Author Archives: Rossy Mendez

About Rossy Mendez

Rossy Mendez is a graduate student at Pratt Institute. She is completing her Masters in Library and Information Science with a specialty in Archives. She holds a B.A in Art History and an M.A in Visual Studies from the University at Buffalo. In addition to her internship at Burke, she works part time in the archives department of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. When she is not working with records or stressing over ambitious school projects she enjoys exploring New York City restaurants, museums and landmarks with random people as well as traveling to as many countries as she can.

A Happy Ending: Last days at Burke

For the last couple of months at the end of every week, I greet the guard, shove my belongings in a locker and head to the archives. Although there are some days that I am exhausted, I enjoy coming to work at the Burke Archives. The fact that every day at the Burke is interesting sounds like a cliché, but it is indeed true. I often find cool things in the archives and daydream about interesting research projects that would reveal the awesomeness of Burke's collections to the world. There are times that I have felt like Indiana Jones like the time I had a chance to see old Bibles with unique calligraphy and a document from the Spanish inquisition. I also pretend to be Sherlock Holmes when I conduct research and put together fragments of someone's life to create a finding aid. At this point my friends are tired of hearing my stories about cool maps, interesting personalities and speeches I come across while working with archival collections. It is quite obvious to them that I enjoy my time here.

This last week at the Burke Library Archives, I reflect back on what I have learned. When I started I did not know anything about ecumenism and I did not imagine that a seminary would have such a diversity of records. I knew little about how academic libraries functioned and had limited practical experience working with archival collections. I leave here with practical experience and an understanding of archival administration.

For most people the idea of observing pest control measures and participating in open access week does not sound relevant to the field but the exposure to these tasks was a valuable opportunity to see how an archive functions within the larger scope of a university and how maintenance of the space in which they are housed affects the collections. My supervisor, Brigette always made sure I understood how every task fitted into the larger goals of the institution and related what I learned to library administration.  These were real issues that library and archive professionals had to face and it was important for me to learn about them.

My experience working here put into perspective the notion of serving users and their information needs. I had a chance to participate in a way finding study and learn how libraries communicate with their patrons. While writing finding aids, I learned about the library’s resources and that helped me create a user friendly document that could serve as a resource for further research. I also received training on EAD, a coding standard that expands the possibilities of access and assists with the preservation of archival information. Other great things I learned was how new acquisitions are transferred and the process it involves, including packaging and delivery. I also attended a workshop on Viewshare, a software used to visualize data which gave me the opportunity to see how visual tools can enhance collections. I even learned smart tips for installing library exhibitions. At Burke I have had the opportunity to wear many hats and apply what I have learned in the classroom. Beyond this, I have learned about the current state of the field and real-world scenarios.

I am very grateful for the Burke staff and the time they have taken to teach me new things. I am particularly grateful for my supervisor, Brigette Kamsler, who, in addition to teaching me about archives took the time to teach me practical skills for my job search. As a soon to be graduate of a library studies program, I look forward to taking what I have learned here and applying it to a future position as an archivist. I am sad that this internship is coming to an end but I am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

All Aboard: A Piece of Maritime History in the Archives

One of my favorite experiences while interning at Burke has been to inventory the MRL unprocessed records. I was working on records pertaining to China when I came across a very interesting letter, written by  woman named Gertrude. Perhaps it was a result of daydreaming about the Titanic or that I had recently seen a video about ships, but for whatever reason the letter captured my attention. The header of the letter read “American President Lines, On board S.S. President Jackson,” the name of the vessel sounded familiar and I was set to determine why. I also noticed that the letter was dated December 1946, not that long after World War II had ended and I was curious to see what was happening in the world after such an event.

I decided to read the full letter and was pleased to find it amusing but also very informative. The author paints a full picture of the characteristics of the ship including the arrangement of the sleeping quarters. She also describes the passengers on board and their customs. I was struck by the detail of the letter and the interesting facts that it revealed. Why was this diverse group of people aboard a troop ship? What was happening with mission work in China during the 1940s?

A quick search on Google revealed the interesting origins of the S.S President Jackson. The American President lines had been providing services since the 1850s. This ship was part of a famous fleet that was built by the American Government when they took over the company during World War II. The ship was a C-3 class vessel, a type of cargo ship that could be converted for naval use. The S.S. President Jackson was used to transport soldiers but also to evacuate passengers from several destroyed ships. Not only was this ship a war ship but it earned several battle awards for its service during World War II and the Korean War. It appears that after the war the ship continued to be used as a regular transport ship, though, no doubt not one of the most luxurious options. As the writer of this letter reveals, this was no luxury vessel; the sleeping quarters were cramped and these conditions contributed to the spread of disease.

Another interesting fact that the letter reveals is that this ship was being used by the Foreign Missions Conference and that there were over 58 different denominations on this ship. A little research revealed that this period of time was an intense period in China for evangelism. The church had grown dramatically as a result of the war, including the birth of many independent denominations. In 1946, when the letter was written, communist forces started to take over China and this resulted in a mass exodus of missionaries. The writer reveals that there were many families on board the ship and that life is China was drastically different from what many missionaries experienced at home. Therefore, the excitement that is conveyed in this letter is one that might have been felt by many as they returned home.

Finding these little bits of history is exciting and is a great part of what makes archiving so rewarding. It is always interesting  to see how someone’s perspective can provide insight into historical events. I am happy that I had a chance to come across such an interesting record before I leave Burke.

To read Gertrude's full letter, please click here.

The finding aid for Burke Library's Foreign Missions Conference of North American collection is available online here.

Sources:
Wikipedia contributors. "American President Lines," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_President_Lines (accessed December 20, 2013).

Overseas Missionary Fellowship International. “History” http://www.omf.org/omf/us/about_omf_international/history/timeline(accessed December 20, 2013).

The Relevance of Reference: A Discovery

People always ask me why I want to become an archivist, and I always respond with some idealized blanket answer that references the preservation of history and provision of access to everyone. My answers are always filled with such good will that I feel as if some heroic composition should be playing as I recite this declaration of my good intentions. Access is one of the top reasons why I am in this field but the other reason, the one that I rarely express, is that I just love handling all the cool old stuff. Looking at the correspondence of the celebrities of a particular institution, handling the old paper and coming across ephemera is like being Indiana Jones on an expedition. Most of the time my search does not result in a victory speech but there are times when what I handle fills me with excitement. This is one of the beauties of archives; we are not only saving what is important to an institution but we are also keeping in mind the potential users of this information and the unique things they might be interested in exploring.

This past week while conducting an inventory of the Missionary Research Library administration records I came across library correspondence with W.E.B Dubois. At first, what caught my attention was the letterhead which read Editorial Rooms of The Crisis. For the past few weeks I have been working on an online exhibition of World War I records and I had used an image from The Crisis magazine. When I saw the name of the magazine, I did not immediately make the connection. The Crisis was an important African American publication in the early part of the twentieth century. W.E.B Dubois was not just the magazine’s editor but one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The influence that DuBois and the NAACP have had on African American rights is monumental. When I saw his signature across the bottom section of the page I was filled with excitement. I needed to know why one of the most important black leaders of his time was writing to the Missionary Research Library.

In the first letter Dubois requested information regarding Edward J. Roye, the fifth president of Liberia. Among the information Dubois sought was the original birthplace of Roye. He stated that that he had already searched several resources and in another letter revealed that he turned to the Missionary Research Library as a result of a recommendation.

The Library responds with enthusiasm over Dubois search and provides a list of resources that he needed. It was nice to see that the Missionary Research Library was performing remote reference way before the era of the virtual librarian. These libraries functioned as authoritative sources of information; sometimes they were the only source of particular information. In Dubois’ case, the lack of assistance from MRL would have resulted in an omission from an important historical record. It was MRL to the rescue!

Working with these records has allowed me to see the sheer volume and range of reference inquiries that the MRL received. The questions range from those about starting missions to bibliography requests concerning a particular country.

Today, the Burke Library also follows in the footsteps of the MRL by providing access to information through its catalog and finding aids. Although the volume of written letters has changed as the result of technology, the Library continues to conduct reference and assist scholars with their searches. The librarian-to-person relationship has changed but the library still takes time to ensure that it presents itself as a people friendly resource. Sometimes the wealth of information becomes overwhelming and information gets drowned out. It is nice to find that my mission as an information professional to shed light on these interesting resources is still relevant.

Note: The Missionary Research Library Administrative Records are currently being processed. Further information on the availability of this collection can be found online at: http://library.columbia.edu/locations/burke/archives/mrl.html.

United We Stand: National Workshop on Christian Unity Records

I just finished processing my first collection at the Burke Library and I am filled with excitement but also with anxiety. While the hard work of describing and arranging is over, the finding aid needs to be evaluated and then made available to the public. The idea that this document will be made public terrifies me but my function as a facilitator of the historical record is an honor. Thus, archivists (or in my case archivist in training) take the job of providing access seriously and perform a lot of steps prior to providing access to a finding aid. After all, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

The collection I have been working on is the National Workshop on Christian Unity records which consists of 8 archival boxes or about 3.75 linear feet. Compared to the size of other collections at the Burke this is a fairly small collection and can be at first glance discounted as one with superficial value. But after spending a few weeks analyzing and arranging its contents I believe that there are many things that we can learn from this series of records. As part of my preliminary processing I was asked to evaluate the collections’ research potential and its value to the Burke Archives. This was a valuable exercise because thinking about what the collection had to offer influenced the care that I took handling, describing and arranging the records. It also provided a good framework with how these records fit into a discourse, in this case, that of ecumenism. What can a varied collection of speeches, financial reports, agendas and minutes tell us about the organization that created them? What do they tell us about the movement?

But more importantly, what do they tell us about the interaction of that movement with the socio-political environment? There are many things that we can learn from this information; primarily we learn that the ecumenical movement is dynamic and is dependent on society. One of the things that I found interesting was the workshops’ origin in the Vatican II council. It was interesting to think of why in the 1960s, the Catholic Church thought it necessary to address Christian unity and promote a more progressive view of Christianity. When we put Vatican II and the National Workshop on Christian Unity in context we realize that the church is affected by its surroundings. The 1960s was a time of revolution, a time of unimaginable discoveries and unprecedented steps. The church was not exempt from this. The National Workshop on Christian Unity records contain, for example, speeches and correspondence addressing issues such as busing, inter-faith relations and interracial relationships.

Another factor I dealt with in processing this collection was the way in which organizations and individual people documented their own history. The collection starts with the first conference in 1964 and extends until 2008. The influence of technology is evident through the introduction of email correspondence in filing materials as well as multi-media including picture and audio cds. Furthermore, some files were contributed by staff that took care in preserving the organizations history.

Overall, the National Workshop on Christian Unity can reveal a lot more than thoughts on ecumenism. As I inventoried the records and assigned an arrangement, I thought about the stories that can found within the lines of the contents list. As one goes through each box one can virtually take a journey across time and space and travel from Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 to Chicago, Illinois in 2008. One also can note the story of people working together in local and national settings, in committees and subcommittees across the country to create an event that promotes collaboration and unity. It is powerful that a single record can say so much about the context in which it was created when it is arranged in a particular order. I have learned a great deal in this first month at the Burke Library and I am looking forward to learning many more lessons.

Archival Jitters- First Day at Burke

There is a lot of information! This is a recurring thought when it comes to the field of archives. There are standards and there are schemas, there are rules and there are processes. Each organization has its own in addition to those endorsed by the SAA. My first day as an intern at Burke was no different. It was all about learning about the rules and regulations as well as the structure of the department and yes, there was a lot of information to remember. As my supervisor Brigette, introduced me to people and walked me through stacks I struggled to absorb all the information I was being given. I knew that there were things I would forget, particularly all the acronyms, but I still struggled to commit them to memory.  

Like every newbie I was filled with excitement but also panic.  I worried about my performance and giving the internship my best effort. I wanted to learn and  make a difference with my work; also there was the matter of leaving an impression so that my work here could serve as a testament of what I could do as a professional. As I received my tour I was struck by the beauty of the building and the way the collections fit within it. I paid attention to the arrangement of the space and the way in which the old worked next to the new.  I was particularly captivated by the spiral staircase; there was nothing remarkable about it except that it represented where the archival field used to be and where it still is in people’s imagination. Working for a traditional archive meant that you were in a position of power and getting access to these collections meant you were in a position of privilege. But yet here I was, a non-ivy league student working uncovering history and current “closed” records to provide access to the masses. It is exciting to be a part of this shift and is even more exciting to be a part of it at a place like Burke where history and tradition are still present in its architecture and its design.

I was also pleased to learn that the internship would be very much hands on. I would not simply be ordering papers for someone else to process but I would be contributing my knowledge and getting my hands dirty. I have to admit the stack of readings seemed intimidating at first but when I realized their relevant nature to what I am going through as a student and as a future archivist I was grateful for them.  I also thought that the idea of a scavenger hunt was pretty cool. Often you work in places that do not encourage you to learn about the institution as a whole and trap you in a department as if you where the demoted planet of pluto. In short, my first day is new and overwhelming but nothing sort of exciting.