Category Archives: Union Theological Seminary History

Cartoonists, Dramaturgs and Old Testament Feminists: An Archivist’s First Months at the Burke

Hello Burke world! I joined Union’s library staff this February, filling a vacant Project Archivist position whose previous occupant guided the successful processing of the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives, the Missionary Research Library collection, and more with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation and other grant-funding organizations and individuals. I’m originally from New Mexico (a place with an aridity that I’m sorely missing during my first summer on this swampy island), and recently completed my M.L.I.S. in Archival Studies from McGill University in Montreal. Coming into this community has been in many ways a rigorous crash course in ecumenical studies, but happily a smooth process of folding into and keeping step with the everyday work of a small academic archive situated in an expansive research university. The learning curve I’ve ridden this spring has been notable given my status as a new archival professional with interests both in academic librarianship, special collections and rare books and archives. Prior to coming to the Burke, my background in archival practice had been situated in the U.S. and Canada, and primarily saw me leading small survey and processing projects in cultural heritage, art and academic settings with an acronym-riddled arsenal of best practices and archival theory at my disposal.

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Phyllis Trible at work. Trible’s archive consists of text-based, visual materials and realia reflecting Trible’s historic career in Biblical criticism, feminist studies and the Old Testament. Her papers bridge the UTS Archives to the Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, and is an actively growing collection now available for on-site consultation. 

The extent of my religious studies acumen prior to joining the Burke was limited to my middling knowledge of the Presbyterian beginnings of the small Midwestern town where I lived during college, the particular dryness of Eucharistic hosts during my Catholic adolescence, and a fairweather interest in the eternal consequences of my meager mortal actions. I come from a literary studies and critical theory background, and have always been drawn toward the nuanced, less visible ways in which people and communities of people make sense or chalk up their experiences of this life, those experiences of religion and spirituality that respectively become occasions for world-making, diasporas, rituals and art forms that seem endlessly abundant in relief and hope. Part of what compels me toward the humanities, history and narrative has been the particular privilege and work of acknowledging my own ignorance of the world beyond my own, the limits of individual perspective, but also of the ways in which knowledge is produced to bind our subjectivities to one another. In the process of memory-making and historicization, I am equally interested in the erasures and violences that also constitute a part of the ways in which we understand our spiritual and social worlds.  Theology, perhaps more than any field I’ve taken up so far in my life and nascent work, attests to this pervasive knee-jerk desire to balance sense-making with reverence, critical thought with faith, silence with articulation. This process of coming to know, even in silence and subjectivity, is what drew me to library science, and archival practice in particular.

The projects that met me at the Burke did not disappoint. As the Project Archivist responsible for the processing, housing, and long-term preservation of the UTS 1 Archives – an aggregate of archival collections stemming from faculty, alumni, and other Union-affiliated individuals acquired by the library – I have become a sudden steward of a world steeping in interdisciplinary, interdenominational discourse. From my first day in the library, I realized that I had entered a space that, though a slim five-block walk north of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, is unique in its historical and academic context. As one of my colleagues told me on admiring the crucifix-emblazoned doorknobs leading into our on-site archival space, “The divine is in the details”. It’s indeed astonishing to be a custodian of archival collections outside my formal background and to learn so quickly and richly about the haptic space the seminary is situated in, the gargoyles that greet me in the stairwell, the filigreed doorknobs evoking Union’s denominational past, the engraved edifice on the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary (…“And the bush was not consumed”), or the limestone gauntlet of the neighboring Interchurch Center (a.k.a. the God Box).

The variance and allure of the people and spaces I’ve had the privilege of connecting with since arriving at the Burke has been matched only by the archival collections themselves. With the invaluable assistance of library school interns, Columbia and UTS student employees, and the support of my colleagues and mentors, I have been bolstered in processing the papers of people like Phyllis Trible, a beacon of Union’s community and bracing feminist Biblical scholar; Max Coots, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Union graduate whose joint Master’s in religious education in 1953 between Teacher’s College at Columbia and Union was fulfilled with a brilliant full-color cartoon thesis depicting the politics of post-war activism, racism and redemption through the UU tradition; and the papers of Bob Seaver, Union’s beloved late professor of Speech and Drama, whose papers include audiovisual evidence of his singular teaching style as well as his extensive work in religious drama in the ecumenical and theater communities. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Seaver’s papers so far have been his extensive notes used when preparing for his courses in preaching. In these notes, Seaver’s approach to vocal exercise and tuning the human voice become a form of scrawled language poetry. One undated note card reads:

We’ve been dealing with how to release breath
F U L L Y
Breath — The source of sound
Work on the jaw
Tongue, concerns
Throat
How to free the channels
Through which sound travels
Jaw — widens the exit
When some deep emotion
Is the impulse for sound

Tongue — shapes sound 
Articulation
Throat — the main channel
The task — relax the channel

Stimulate the source.

***

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Two frames of Max Alden Coots’ cartoon thesis submitted in fulfillment of his M.Div./M.Ed. in 1953 from Teachers College and UTS. Coots, an artist and Unitarian Universalist Minister, is one exemplar of the visually and conceptually compelling approaches to religious education that Union alumni and faculty have practiced throughout their careers. 

Processing collections coming from individuals like these is not only a privileged sort of intellectual labor, but one that begs to be curated and made accessible to researchers beyond the auspices of Union’s immediate audience. Drawing on the talents of our in-house staff and from the support of our larger organization, I feel confident that new knots of researchers, students, scholars, and armchair theologians will find themselves as intrigued by the gems to be found at the Burke as I have become only six months into this new role through a mix of digital curatorial work, on-site exhibitions, cross-institutional collaborations, and streamlined practices for uploading and curating finding aids.

As I scythe through the work accomplished and the projects that I’ll undertake over the next two years, I am becoming pinchingly aware that I’ve just begun to skim the surface, to scratch the bed of all the intellectual and physical labor that lies ahead. As we approach our goal of 30-35 linear feet of processed archives per month, and as the steamy heat lamp of New York City summer settles in, I could hardly feel more energized to embark on the remaining mountain of collections. Where do you even begin to excavate the history of glory? Flick light, switch on dual monitor. Select Start.

 

Letters between a Prisoner and a Soldier: The Houser-Shinn Correspondence from the Roger L. Shinn Collection

 

“I’ve never had the experience of writing to anyone in the army before. I suppose you’ve never written to anyone in jail before, so I guess we’re even.”  George Houser, July 17, 1941

George Houser and Roger Shinn first met as students at Union Theological Seminary, living across the hall from each other on the fifth floor of the dorms. The two young men, both sons of pastors, bonded in their early years of graduate school, frequently stopping by each other’s rooms for long conversations and playing on the same basketball team. As World War II escalated, they together began to question the role of Christians in matters of war and peace, and co-wrote an editorial in The Union Review about their correspondence with Canon Raven, a British pacifist. They shared admiration for Raven’s expression of his pacifism, and wrote together in the spring of 1940 that “in the ultimate analysis, the Christian must stand for the way of the Cross, and the problem of war is the place for our age to take the stand.”

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Credit: UTS1: Roger L. Shinn Papers, 1920-2010, Series 3D, box 1 folder 1, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Ultimately, however, the two friends took quite different stands. Houser decided that it was his duty as a Christian to reject war and consequently refused, along with seven other students at Union, to register for the draft. He was subsequently arrested and served a year at Danbury Federal Prison instead of completing his degree at Union. Shinn not only registered for the draft, but waived the exemption he could have taken as a theological student. Rather than continue on with his doctoral studies after graduating from Union, he began basic training for the Army. Throughout Houser’s imprisonment and Shinn’s training, the pair maintained a steady correspondence. The conversations that had once taken place in their fifth-floor dorm rooms now occurred in letters as they continued to wrestle with their respective positions. Shinn held onto copies of the letters he typed to Houser, along with Houser’s handwritten responses from prison:

“I’ve been sending out Christmas cards this week. The two-cent stamps which I got at the post office have pictures of big guns on them and the words ‘National Defense.’ It seemed a terrible irony to be putting those stamps on Christmas cards… Reconciliation is so much more wonderful than fighting. I just don’t see how it can be accomplished until some other forces are crushed.”
– Shinn’s letter to Houser, Dec  22, 1940

“In the abstract-that is, in principle-you and I agree pretty much. But the more I think about the world situation, the more I feel that I would have to become a complete defeatist and cynic in order to support one side or the other in the war… The cycle has to be broken somewhere, and I think one of the important points at which to break it is at the point of the method of war.”
– Houser’s reply to Shinn, Dec 26, 1940.

Even as their differing positions took them further and further from each other, Shinn and Houser diligently reminded each other of the shared aspects of their convictions. The tone of their letters remained light even as they disagreed, with friendly banter and frequent apologies for not having the time to write more. As Shinn’s number came up in the draft he wrestled with whether or not he should join the Army or take advantage of his exemption as his mentors, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Sloane Coffin, advised. When he decided that, given his support for the war he felt compelled to serve in it, Houser was one of the first people he told. Houser wrote back disagreeing with his friend but supporting his decision to accept the consequences of supporting the war.

“To me it is impossible for a person to accept comfort and luxury for himself while others are suffering and deprived. This is an eternal criticism of the faculty of Union Seminary as far as I am concerned. How Reiny [Reinhold Niebuhr] can do it is more than I can see. The danger of his position is just that of not ceasing to compromise. Of course I expect nothing different from Uncle Henry [Henry Sloane Coffin]. So I think from this angle, your choice is right…”
– George Houser, Feb 20, 1940

Neither friend shied from challenging  the other to change his mind. As Shinn prepared to go to war and Houser realized that he would not be able to return to Union, their letters tell their sadness about how their paths, and those of their community at seminary, had diverged. This sadness and the strength of their differing convictions only made their theological and ethical debates more urgent.

“…It is not like a year ago, when we could brush past our differences by simply saying of the other fellow, ‘he’s sincere,’ or ‘he’s a good fellow.’ When you actually believe thoroughly that the other man, if his policies were carried out, would plunge the world into turmoil and chaos, or remove any possibility of historical justice, then the differences cannot be reconciled breezily. Unity, then, must lie in a faith more profound than the church has usually preached.”
– Roger Shinn, July 4, 1941

A letter from the Danbury, Connecticut prison where Houser was incarcerated, notifying Shinn that he is not authorized to correspond with Houser.

A letter from the warden of the Danbury, Connecticut prison where George Houser was incarcerated, notifying Roger Shinn that he is not authorized to correspond with Houser.

After 1941, the correspondence between the two men appears to stop. No more letters to or from Houser appear in the Shinn collection. Their lives continued to head in different, though related, directions. Houser moved to Chicago to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist anti-war organization, and then turned his attention to civil rights issues within the United States. He helped to found the Congress for Racial Equality in 1942 and participated in the original Freedom Ride before devoting the rest of his career to abolishing apartheid and colonial rule in Africa.

Rev. George Houser with fellow CORE member and civil rights fighter at a sit-in in Ohio. Credit: Congress of Racial Equality, the New York Times.

Rev. George Houser with fellow CORE member and civil rights fighter Bayard Rustin at a sit-in in Ohio. Credit: Congress of Racial Equality, the New York Times.

 

 

Shinn, meanwhile, served in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Upon his return, he completed his doctorate at Columbia and enjoyed a long career at Union as a faculty member, dean of instruction and, briefly, acting president. His participation in later political activities at Union is particularly notable in light of his earlier friendship with Houser. When Union students again refused to register for the draft during the Vietnam War, Roger was one of the faculty members who wrote a letter supporting them. He also was among members of the Union community who published a statement regarding apartheid in South Africa in 1967, and worked through the 1980s to divest the Seminary’s endowment of shares in companies profiting from apartheid. Although the former hallmates chose different ways of living into their convictions as Christians, it seems that throughout their lives they continued to “agree pretty much.”

Hanging Out With Ulanov

Since the beginning of 2016, I have been working to finish up some processing projects in the archives. In particular, I have taken over the initial processing of the papers from former Union alumna and Professor Ann Belford Ulanov. These papers start with her work from her student years at Radcliffe College and end as faculty at Union Theological Seminary. A much larger portion of the collection covers Dr. Ulanov’s career within the Psych and Religion Department at Union as well as the manuscripts she produced.

Erin blog post

Although it is always such a wonderful feeling to finish up a project, continuing to process another person’s work can at times be difficult. Sometimes you have an outline of what to expect and others you will just have to dive right in and see for yourself. For this collection, a fair amount has already been processed and what I have been doing is tackling sub-series, piece by piece, to make sure that what it contains does not belong elsewhere. This has been my first collection where I am using my judgment in such a way and it has been very educational.

Of course archivists cannot really read while doing this initial level of processing. I just have to peruse enough to figure out what each piece is and put it with similar items in large folders. Yet still, I love that I get a sense of who a person is by their papers. What kind of correspondence did they keep? What voice did they use with students, peers, and members of the community? What mementos did they keep years later? How did they organize it all?

With the portion Dr. Ulanov’s papers that I have been working through, I have been able to get an interesting portrait of who she was during her time here. It spans decades and I even saw hints of old arguments that are still alive on campus today. As I write this, I am winding down to the last box out of 7 in the last sub-series to be accounted for. There is still quite a ways to go, but I feel getting it all done will leave me with a lovely sense of accomplishment.

#LoveInAction: A reflective essay

That sounds familiar! #LoveInAction_CarolynAs I sifted through the materials in the Burke archives, reading student publications and looking at pictures that were over forty years old, I kept recognizing my classmates in these relics from our predecessors. My project was tracking a series of student-driven movements in the 1960s and 1970s that radically transformed the academic program and governance structure at Union. One of those, the Free University of 1968, began with a late-night call to mobilize seminarians because the police were moving in on protests across the street at Columbia. It was after the end of the semester, and well after midnight, but the students rallied and turned out to support the protestors. That happened my first year at Union, when the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zucotti Park was raided. That night a group of us had settled into the Social Hall with cups of coffee and end-of-semester papers to write. But within fifteen minutes of the first tweets announcing the raid, we were all headed downtown to see how we could help. It happened again in 2014, as the Union community turned out en masse to participate in #BlackLivesMatter protests across New York City.

Back in 1968, after a night of supporting Columbia students in their confrontation with the police Union students came home and looked at their own community. At Columbia, students were protesting major justice issues: links between the university and the institutional apparatus supporting the Vietnam War, as well as the gentrification of Harlem. But Union students recognized that their own institution, too, was complicit in perpetuating injustice. The last week of classes was canceled and replaced by what was called the Free University as the entire campus instead spent the week investigating Union’s problems and making a plan for moving forward. This balance between protesting injustice outside our walls and engaging in serious soul-searching within them is also one I recognize in my classmates. Union in Praxis, activism surrounding the Jackson Mitchell Chair, the Latinx Working Group, #WhoseUnion – all of these belong to the same tradition as the Free University. And like the movements I’ve seen in my time at Union, the Free University was a messy endeavor. Some students were frustrated that activism was interrupting their studies, and considered the Free University a waste of time. There was tension between those whose energies were focused on issues at Union, and those who were pulled toward solidarity with the Columbia protestors.

The Free University ended with the academic year but the issues it raised continued to be addressed, first by a working group called the Union Commission and then by the Union Assembly, a body of faculty, students, and staff that governed the school for five years. Major changes occurred during this time: the switch from an A-F grading scale to our current system, closing the School of Sacred Music, replacing the B.D. with the M.Div. and the Th.D. with a Ph.D., and Union set a goal of recruiting and admitting students and hiring faculty, “so that Black persons will number at least one-third of the total… and so that women (including Black women and those of other minorities) number at least one half the total.” Here, too, I recognize my classmates in the dozens of past students who participated in the necessary, but rarely glamorous, committee work of negotiating and discerning a better path forward for the seminary on first the Union Commission, and then the Union Assembly. Working alongside faculty, administration, alumni/ae, and staff for five years, students contributed to major changes in how Union functions. All of this work – from confrontations with police in the streets to policy changes within Union – is activism. All of it is #LoveInAction.

Carolyn Klaasen, among many things, is a current PhD student at Union Theological Seminary and one of the student curators for the library’s #LoveInAction project. Carolyn’s exhibit is currently on display through to May 16, 2016 on the 1st floor of the Burke Library. Her exhibit is a look into activism in education exploring the archives of the Union Commission and Union Assembly, and the Student Interracial Ministry, both of which were student-driven.  The records of the Union Commission and Union Assembly document the school’s history roughly from 1968 to 1974 and are housed within the Union Theological Records, 1829- held by the Burke.  The Student Interracial Ministry Records, 1960-1968, also held by the Burke, are a testimony to a student-run ministry in which students, congregations and community members from racially diverse backgrounds came together to be part of a radically different and truly immersive hands-on approach to ministry education.

#LoveInAction

 

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I started at the Burke Library a little over a year ago.  Not coming from a theological background, I was a little intimidated. However I quickly saw how my background in public history and public services could help do effective outreach to promote usage of the amazing materials in our special collections by Union students. It was during my first Student Senate meeting where the new senate officers announced that they would be adopting the theme #LoveInAction.

Based off of the infamous words of Union professor, Cornel West, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” #LoveInAction embodies perfectly the activist spirit held by the students, alumni/ae and faculty at Union both today and yesterday.  Seeing an immediate link between Union’s archives and this sentiment, I saw the potential in getting students aware of Union’s history not just through other’s words but through their own research experiences.  With the approval from the Burke Library’s director, Beth Bidlack, I set upon recruiting Union students to curate the library’s display cases that would help begin to tell of Union’s activist history.

Three students were recruited, Benjamin Van Dyne (MDiv, 2017), Carolyn Kaasen (PhD cand.), and Timothy Wotring (MDiv, 2016), to curate a series of three small exhibits in the library’s first floor display cases.  Each student has curated an exhibit that narrates Union’s activist history in one area: Carolyn selected education; Benjamin, activism in action; and Timothy, local community involvement.

Timothy’s exhibit, which is currently on display until September 28, 2015, focuses on the East Harlem Protestant Paris (EHPP).  Created by Union students in 1942 EHPP was an interdenominational ministry that provided leadership in the development of community life as served as an excellent example of an ecumenical ministry in a local, inner-city setting.  For his exhibit, Timothy dug into  the EHPP (1942-2007) records held at the Burke Library.

Love in Action poster_3

Up next will be Benjamin’s exploration of activism in action, and will focus on Union’s archives relating to student-led activism.  Primarily focusing on the time period between 1922 through to 1969, his cases hope to show the major shift in the civil rights narrative that occurred in the mid to late ’60s.  Benjamin’s exhibit will be on view from October 5, 2015 to November 30, 2015.

Carolyn has been researching forms of activism within education and has been sifting through the student driven and led Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) records (1960-1968) and archives relating to the Free University and the Union Commission. Carolyn’s exhibit will be on view in January 206 through to April 4, 2016.

Each exhibit also has a program tied to it.  For the unveiling of Timothy’s display cases, the Burke Library hosted a panel that was organized by the student curator and which brought 3 Union folks together, all of whom are at different points in their activist careers, to discuss the guiding philosophies of the EHPP founders.  Benjamin is working with Burke Library staff and the Union alumni/ae liaison to put together a panel of Union alumni/ae and current Union students to reflect on how their education here at Union is preparing and/or has prepared them for a career in activism.  This panel is to take place in the main reading room of the Burke Library on Friday, October 9th from 2-3:30pm, and is part of the roster of fabulous events planned for Union Days 2015.

If you would like additional, more detailed accounts of this project please check back here as links will be added to articles that are slated for publication shortly!

We are looking to carry on this project for at least another round, and are on the look out for new student curators. If you are interested and are a current Union student please reach out to us by email:

burke@library.columbia.edu

The next round would start in early January 2016 and run through the spring semester.  The time commitment would be at least 3 group meetings during the semester as well as individual research sessions.

Even if you feel you might not have the time to commit to being a student curator you can contribute to the project in other ways.  In order to help students document all of the work they are doing that celebrates the theme #LoveInAction, we have created a website that invites members of the Union community to contribute their personal photos, videos, writings, etc.

What is Past is Prologue: Luce Project Update

“Just as personal identity is anchored in a strong historical sense, so is our professional identity – both come from the ability to experience…continuity. Surely if you have nothing to look backward to, and with pride, you have nothing to look forward to with hope.” Barbara L. Craig, 1992[i]

I have hung up my hat on missionary and ecumenical materials, and have transitioned into processing the papers of the faculty and students from the Union Theological Seminary Archives. Some of the tasks are exactly the same: putting into order the archival material and describing it in a finding aid. Many of the people whose papers I’ve been working on were involved in the same organizations and causes as the missionaries and ecumenists. Some things are very different – I am not a theologian, so while I’ve heard all about Charles Briggs over the years, it wasn’t until this current project that I’ve actually been able to “dig in” to these people and events.

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Me presenting at the Columbia University Libraries Staff Forum, March 2015

This project is another three year project, funded largely by the Henry Luce Foundation. Over three years I will be in charge of making available approximately 141 collections – that’s 1,135 linear feet of papers. This is compared to my last project of over 180 collections totaling nearly 800 linear feet. How can we process over 300 linear feet more than we did the last time, but over the same time frame?

One reason is because these UTS collections are in different (meaning, better) shape than the MRL and WAB collections had been. We have a better idea of what is in the collections, and there is not a huge mountain of unprocessed/disorganized material like with the last grant. There is also less of a learning curve as I have established practices in place and I have been able to “hit the ground running” on this one.

Let’s take a look at what I have been doing, shall we?

You’ve gotten a glimpse into some of the materials processed thanks to my interns this semester – Margaret, Kate and David. A few of the collections I’ve worked on include those of Charles Augustus Briggs, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Sloan Coffin, Robert T. Handy, Charles Cuthbert Hall, and the East Harlem Protestant Parish Records.

Currently in process include the Student Interracial Ministry Records and the commentary on Song of Songs, which was created by Charles Briggs’ children Emilie Grace Briggs and Alanson Tuthill Briggs (although this work was never completed or published).

So far, my team and I have processed over 185 linear feet in 25 collections.

I’ve been enjoying the discovery of funny or interesting things in collections, including this whale picture from the Wilbert White Papers when answering a reference inquiry:

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Whale of a Tale!

this letter from the desk of Martin Luther King Jr. (in SIM):

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From the Student Interracial Ministry Records

and this age-old question:

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Are we?

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Picture from November 2014 when I attended Digital Archives Specialist courses at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.

Apart from processing and making collections available, I’ve continued with my other duties of social media, committee work and task forces, presenting at and attending conferences and meetings, supervising students, appraising and accessioning material, EAD, MARC, being active in professional organizations, continuing education, presenting to the Columbia University community on my last successful project, and assessing the usage of collections, just to name a few.

I also continue to evaluate the work of my last grant, answering questions related to MRL and WAB, and see the impact the project has had on research, teaching and learning. As Shakespeare wrote, “what is past is prologue.”

I am thrilled to be working on such an interesting and important set of archival collections, while still advocating for and making available the materials in my last project. We will see what other surprising and interesting things come to light as processing continues, so stay tuned.

[i] Barbara L. Craig, “Outward Visions, Inward Glance: Archives History and Professional Identity,” Archival Issues 17 (1992), page 121.

Organizing the Divine: Julia Pettee and the Union Classification System

Photograph of Pettee taken by Mary Ellen Pettee, 1965: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Photograph of Pettee taken by Mary Ellen Pettee, 1965: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

The creation of the Union Classification System reads much like a recipe: 1 cup of Dr. Hugo Munsterberg’s classification, ½ cup of Dr. Charles R. Gillett’s classed catalog, mixed together with Charles Ammi Cutter’s classification and folded into 3 cups Alfred Cave’s An Introduction to Theology. But as with any recipe, the most important element is the chef, and the woman who mixed these ideas together was Julia Pettee. All cuteness aside though, Julia Pettee’s story informs the history of the Union Theological Seminary, the history of the library profession, and serves to question the perceived roles of women in early 20th Century America.

Photo of Pettee's autobiographical manuscript, 1962: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Photo of Pettee’s autobiographical manuscript, 1962: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

It is her lively hand-written autobiography, “A Cataloger for more than half a century takes a backward look at her profession and reviews her thirty years as Head Cataloger of the Union Theological Seminary Library…,” that takes center stage in this brief blog post that hopes to inform, but more so, pique the interest of readers to this unique part of Union Theological Seminary’s rich and varied history.

Please note that all citations are from this autobiography, direct quotes are cited with page numbers in parenthesis at end of quote.

Julia Pettee was born in 1872, went to Mount Holyoke at the age of 16 and graduated from the Pratt Library School in 1895. Reflecting on her studies while at Pratt, Julia highlights the newness of the profession — Pratt was only five years old at the time — and how while she was attending the program secretarial skills were stressed. Indeed even Julia questioned the library field, asking in her first published article “Is Librarianship a Profession?” (I have not been able to find the article! ). Even though there was a job shortage, Pettee was able to get a cataloging job at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she stayed for ten years. While working she also studied and received her AB. Julia was approached by the Rochester Theological Seminary to classify their collection. This is where she laid the foundations for what would later become the Union Classification System.

Julia explained that she came to Union “with the understanding that I would be free to carry out my own ideas” (p.5). This will come as no surprise to anyone who if familiar with Union and its liberalist roots. Neither will it come to a surprise to anyone in the library world that the salary offered to a professional with several degrees and 10 years of experience was just $100 a month (the equivalent of making around $30,000/year today).

When Julia got to Union books were organized by a fixed location system, a method commonly used before the Dewey Decimal System and Library of Congress systems. Under this system books were placed on the shelf as they were brought in, rather than being organized by subject or author. Julia also noted that books on the topic of women were put “together with other troublesome topics under the caption minor morals [author’s emphasis], in this order: Profanity, Drunkenness, Lotteries, Women, Dueling, War” (p.11).

In 1910, shortly after Pettee started at Union, the school moved from Park Avenue between 69th and 70th streets to its current location on Broadway and 121st Street (the Park Avenue site was Union’s second location; the school was originally located on University place between 6th and 7th streets). Lucky for Julia she had no problems with her commute, since she managed to find a nice walk-up apartment just down the block (if only we all could be so lucky!). Julia’s memoir conveys how exciting it was for the staff to move into a new and bigger space (although by the time she left Union, the collections were already start to outgrow the library).

Pettee set upon creating a classification system for Union’s library collections to replace the fixed location system.

Cover of typescript, "Classification of the Union Theological Seminary Library New York City..Sections revised and applied to Books in the Reference Room before 1920": Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Cover of typescript, “Classification of the Union Theological Seminary Library New York City..Sections revised and applied to Books in the Reference Room before 1920”: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Inside of typescript "Classification of the Union Theological Seminary Library New York City...Sections revised and applied to Books in the Reference Room before 1920": Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Inside of typescript “Classification of the Union Theological Seminary Library New York City…Sections revised and applied to Books in the Reference Room before 1920”: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

“For the Union scheme I had one fixed idea, a single unified scheme which would bring theological subjects and closely related secular subjects in convenient juxtaposition” (p. 24).

None of the established systems seemed adequate for a theological collection and so she created a new Union Classification System that combined the elements of Dr. Munsterberg’s classification (which he laid out an article in The Atlantic in 1903, “The St. Louis Congress or Arts and Sciences”), Dr. Gillett’s classed catalog, Cutter’s classification, and Alfred Cave’s An Introduction to Theology.

ALA Committee on code for classifiers "A Code for Classifiers: A collection of data compiled for the use of the commitee," by William Stetson Merrill, May 1914 and Julia Pettee's typed reaction to the proposed code, 1914?: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

ALA Committee on code for classifiers “A Code for Classifiers: A collection of data compiled for the use of the commitee,” by William Stetson Merrill, May 1914 and Julia Pettee’s typed reaction to the proposed code, 1914?: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Julia was very involved with the American Library Association – which, like the library profession itself, was still in its infancy – and served on many a cataloging committee. She also took a leave from Union to work at the Library of Congress developing the religion classification scheme.

Reading through her autobiography, Julia made a few side comments concerning the male-dominance of the profession.

Complete list of Code for Classifiers Committee as of May 1914: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Complete list of Code for Classifiers Committee as of May 1914: Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

She wily questioned of the Dewey Decimal Classification Committee which Melvil Dewey chaired why Dewey even needed a committee as, “he was the whole show” (p.23). Even without reading her comments, going through all of the documentation she amassed while actively involved with the American Library Association (ALA) one can see that most reports donned the names of males.

Obituary for Julia Pettee from Lakeville Journal, June 1, 1967 : Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Obituary for Julia Pettee from Lakeville Journal, June 1, 1967 : Union Theological Seminary Archives, Series 2, UTS Records, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

After retiring from Union in 1939, Pettee worked contractually for Yale. While there she wrote The History and Theory of Subject Headings, the first work published on this topic. Julia retired to the Mayflower farm, where she became involved with writing the local history of Salisbury, Connecticut. Julia Pettee passed away at the age of 94 in 1967, five years after penning the autobiography this blog post is largely based off of.

The Union Classification System was in use by the library until the mid-1970’s, after which books were cataloged using the Library of Congress Classification system, which most academic libraries have adopted and use today. Rather than reclassify books cataloged using the Union Classification the library decided to keep the books cataloged with Union. Now the library’s stacks have a level called “Union Stacks” and two levels called “Library of Congress Stacks.”

Image of Union Stacks at the Burke Library taken Nov. 2014.

Image of Union Stacks at the Burke Library.

There have been a few articles and even a book written about Julia Pettee.  Here is a short list of titles:

Butler, Rebecca. “The Rise and Fall of Union Classification.Theological Librarianship 6, no. 1 (2013): 21-28.  http://journal.atla.com/ (accessed November 4, 2014).

Pearson, Lennart. The Life and Work of Julia Pettee, 1872-1967. Durham, N.C.: American Theological Library Association, 1970.

Walker, Christopher H. and Copeland, Ann. “The Eye Prophetic: Julia Pettee.” Libraries & the Cultural Record 44, no. 2 (2009): 162-182. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 4, 2014).

For a list of articles and books written by Julia Pettee click here.

I hope that you enjoyed this very brief post on a tremendous woman! If you are interested in viewing anything from our archival holdings on Pettee, please make an appointment. Continue reading