Tag Archives: History

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.

The Messy Truth about Foreign Missions

Foreign missions.  It's a pretty unpopular concept these days.  Missionaries are associated with all the damage wrought by the project of subjugation, exploitation, displacement, and genocide of native peoples and cultures across the world.  The criticisms are well-founded.

Retrospect is a tricky thing though.  History is often tainted by a touch of arrogance and a total lack of appreciation for how complex, messy, and nuanced real people and situations actually are.  We have a tendency to think that people were ignorant "back then."  We "know better now."  This is an idea that we like because it feeds our whole complex about "progress"… it makes us feel like we are better and smarter than those naïve people who preceded us (but wait, that’s an idea of Western imperialism…woops!). 

One of the best cures for the claims of revisionist history is a consultation with the archives.  While working with the Missionary Research Library Archives at Burke Library I processed MRL12: Personnel Policies of Foreign Mission Boards Records, a collection of 500 completed questionnaires that had been distributed in 1950 to former missionaries. 

Information they collected includes:
-personal data (age, gender, field location, years of service, missionary task)
-how they came to the decision to enter missionary service
-what (if any) training they received before entering the field
-whether their provisions, salaries, and living arrangements were sufficient
-whether the support they got from their board was adequate
-what effect the experience had on their Christian faith and their belief in missionary work
-their reasons for leaving

Missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries: Who were they?
So who were the foreign missionaries from the 19th and 20th century, and how did they understand the work they were doing?  Were they really the offensively ignorant, racist, arrogant, and condescending bunch that we often imagine them to be?  Or were they actually in many cases humble, compassionate, self-aware, and even critical of foreign missions boards and those in power? 

The answer is, of course, both.  I certainly came across some questionnaires that included absurdly myopic statements about "heathens." Some of them actually made me cringe.  But most of the missionaries sounded basically the same as people today: conflicted, confused, frustrated with the shortcomings of their relationships and the limitations of the situations they found themselves in, but still hopeful, generally well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they knew how to achieve positive outcomes. Shocking, I know.

Looking through these survey questionnaires, I was really interested to discover that the most common concerns expressed by missionaries were imperialism, top-down policies, outmoded paradigms, bigotry, and paternalism. While these concerns obviously serve as evidence to substantiate the criticisms of foreign missions, they also reveal how many individuals were fully aware of, and attempting to work around, the problems posed by imperialism.  The voices of these missionaries serve as some of the most arresting indictments of missionary work.  Ironically, it seems that the original postcolonial critics were colonizers themselves. 

In Their Own Words
“Christianity must be de-Westernized,” insisted one respondent. “We must serve people of other lands as Christ served those around him.  We must divest ourselves of Western materialism.”  Another wrote emphatically, “Many missionaries are the worst type of colonial.  We should learn to live Christianity before we shove it down somebody else’s throat.” 

 

One missionary in South Africa from 1919-1947 was convinced that “without Christian schools and churches the African would have been dominated by whites much more than they are.” 

 

“With better understanding and appreciation of other religions,” wrote one man, “I am still convinced that Christianity is the ultimate answer to all the hopes and aspirations of the best in every faith.  My concept of ‘heathen’ and ‘non-Christian’ has changed to that of ‘friend’ and ‘seeker after truth’.”
 

Foreign Missionary Record #1600. Credit to MRL12: Personnel Policies of Foreign Mission Boards Records, box 5, folder 6, The Burke Library Archives (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

More favorite quotes:

 “Imperialism has gone out of style and was always contrary to the Gospel.  Our task is to transmit the Gospel unfettered and cluttered with our culture.  The task of the church is not to crossfertilize cultures.  We carry too much baggage with us.  Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.  Professionalism has killed all creativity in missions.” –former missionary in Mexico 1951-1953.  Record #0757

“Foreign missionaries usually have negative attitude toward other religions, typically bigoted and intolerant.  As I learned to appreciate Indian cultures and Indian religions I saw that the whole philosophy of the missionary movement is alien to my understanding of Christ’s teachings.”  –former missionary in India 1923-1941.  Record #1225

“Too many missionaries are paternalistic.  Too many equate Christianity with Americanism.  Too few are really identified as Jesus was with the common people as one of them.  There is too little appreciation for the fact that missionaries can receive as well as give.  I went with the idea I was to help poor heathens.  China had a culture that was old before America was born.  I learned that after I lived there.  From the beginning, I resented along with my students foreign gunboats and other imperialistic demonstrations of foreign powers, including my own country.” –former missionary in China 1921-1938.  Record #1383

Why the Library is Actually the Most Exciting Place in the World

I’ll admit that prior to getting my job in archives at the Burke Library, the extent of my familiarity with archives was based on some combination of the following: Obi Wan Kenobi’s search for the mysterious planet Kamino in the Jedi Archives in Star Wars Episode II, Tom Hank’s struggle to get into the Vatican Archives in Angels and Demons, and my brother’s strange obsession with using archival materials to dig up our family genealogy records.   Yet despite my overall ignorance, somehow nothing in the world sounded more exciting than spending hours at a time holed up in a dusty library tower, sifting through boxes of materials that time (almost) forgot. 

I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a librarian.  What can I say?  I’m book-ish.  I’m also admittedly a vintage kind of girl; I like reclaiming the old for the new.  On top of that one of the major things that attracted me to coming to Union Theological Seminary for my master’s degree was that it boasted of having the “largest theological library in the Western hemisphere,” with holdings of over 700,000 items, including extensive collections of rare archives and special materials.  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.  But it sure sounded cool.

On my first day at work I was shown to my desk, introduced to the others in the tower, and given a tour of the archive storage facilities.  All of that was pretty much what I expected.  But then I was handed several academic articles on archival theory and told to spend the next couple of days reading and familiarizing myself with the material.  A crash course in library and information sciences: not what I was expecting.  I had always wondered what a degree in library studies could possibly entail.  Having always been a pretty organized person, all my life it had seemed to me that the proper place for anything was basically self-evident.  But of course, real truth is always a moving target, and what is self-evident to me at one moment may be in no way evident to someone else in some other moment.   “Facts” are never as secure as we want them to be.  Information is always being framed and re-framed by the motivations and assumptions that give it context, and context is made up of a thousand silent and invisible factors that create the paradigms that give facts meaning and make information matter.  

Organizing information is complicated.

During that same semester I was also taking a class that covered roughly a thousand years of church history.  Union’s world-renowned history department prides itself on teaching seminarians to read history not as students but as scholars, meaning that we are never given a history textbook to tell us “what happened.”  Instead, we kept reading from, and hearing about the importance of, primary documents and sources. 

Primary documents are original historical documents, and they are incredibly empowering.  By consulting primary documents you are consulting history itself on your own terms and with your own questions.  You don’t have to settle for some other scholar’s version of the story (and for women, you don’t have to settle for what is so often his-story).   You can draw your own conclusions, make your own connections and interpretations, solve your own mysteries, draw up your own report.  This is what makes the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary so important.  This is why people travel from all over the world every day to come here and look through our records, to lay their eyes on those primary sources and sleuth out their own facts, asking their own questions, writing their own stories. 

Through this work, I have had the opportunity to collect my own information and begin writing my own stories about a variety of subjects, most of which are vital to the writing and the work that I hope to do as an ecumenical Christian.  Maybe it is just the artist in me that possesses such a deep appreciation for tactility, but being able to see and handle primary documents for myself has led to some truly profound insights.  It is one thing to read a .pdf article or a published book containing transcriptions of text that someone wrote 200 years ago; it is quite another thing to hold in your own hands the fragile, slightly crumbling sheets of paper that the 200-year-old author actually scrawled his or her ink upon.  

One major shift in my perspective happened early on while working on my second collection.  I found two letters from 1901 written by Badi’u’llah and Muhammed Ali to the newly-established  Baha’i faith communities in the United States.  The language and style was so reminiscent of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian churches of the first century.  This somehow gave clarity, potency, and incarnate form to the way I thought about those ancient texts.  The words are now translated into hundreds of languages, printed and bound in hundreds of editions of what we’ve now come to call the sacred “New Testament,” the Word of God.  But at one point, they were just letters.  Real letters.  Could it be possible that such a worthy fate would befall any of these documents I am currently now holding in my hands? 

It was then that the somewhat obscure, behind-the-scenes work of library archivists throughout time began to take on huge significance for me.  I realized that this is not just a quirky part-time work-study job of organizing boxes, books, and folders.  This job is about shaping history.  It is about empowering the people of the present and the future to write their own stories about what they believe happened in history, and why.  And as it turns out, nothing in the world is more exciting after all. 

What is MRL and WAB?

You may be asking yourself, why should I care about the Missionary Research Library and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library?

History:

The Missionary Research Library (MRL) was created by John R. Mott in 1914 after the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. It was created in response to the need for a central resource to provide information for the development and preparation of missionaries, as well as a documentary source for the history of mission work.  Mott stated that his intention was to create “the most complete and serviceable missionary library and archives in the world,” one that would be interdenominational, ecumenical, international, and rich in source material. He was the chairman of the Library Committee of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, which sponsored the project, and he secured the financial support of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Two administrators were chosen to develop the library. Charles H. Fahs became curator and Miss Hollis W. Hering became librarian.

Active missionaries consulted the library’s materials while on furlough and missionary boards, organizations, and individuals regularly donated materials.  By 1929, the library contained more than 70,000 books and pamphlets, including many scarce materials. Originally located at the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Foreign Missionary Conference of North America, MRL moved to Union Theological Seminary’s Brown Tower in 1929.

Financial difficulties, which plagued MRL for years, continued until 1967 when it was fully integrated with the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary. The Burke Library became part of the Columbia University Library System in 2004.


The William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library was established in 1944 by vote of the directors of Union Theological Seminary as a memorial to Dr. Brown, who had been Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology at UTS. The ecumenical movement was a new interest in his later years, and the nucleus of the memorial collection came from Brown's working office library. The Ecumenical Library officially opened on March 13, 1945. As it did then, WAB serves as a source for the documentation and study of modern ecumenism.


The Collections:

MRL contains over 160 unique collections from missionaries and missionary organizations from six continents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with special strength in early 20th century China, Japan, and Korea. This collection contains a broad range of field reports, demographic surveys, and other analytical data. As a result, the MRL Archives document the cultural and social realities of indigenous populations in substantive detail, and will amply serve scholars of religion, historians, anthropologists, economists, and medical researchers, among others.

WAB contains over 30 collections, including records of local (NYC), national, and international ecumenical organizations and communities, as well as records from ecumenical conferences (Protestant and Catholic dialogue) that have shaped global Christianity.