Tag Archives: Processing

Update from an Intern

As I write my second entry as an intern of the Burke Library, I am struck by the great contrast between this day and my first day in January. In time for a number of faiths’ holidays, New York has at long last emerged from a long winter and spring has arrived. And, thanks to this internship, I can finally say that I have processed some archival collections!

Most recently, I completed work on the papers of Thomas Samuel Hastings (1827-1911), who served Union Theological Seminary as a professor and president for many years following a long career as a pastor, primarily at West Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Working with these papers was brilliant exposure to the kinds of materials prevalent in late-19th-century and early-20th-century archives, such as handwritten and typed correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs and allowed me to practice a wide range of basic preservation techniques while handling and re-housing the collection.

The intellectual content was also absorbing, as the collection contains significant correspondence with John C. Brown, a banker and long-time member of the seminary’s board of directors, that touches upon the Charles Briggs affair.

As president of Union Theological Seminary, Hastings was intimately involved in defining the seminary’s position within the larger theological debate then occurring regarding revision of the Westminster Confession and marshaling support for Briggs during his trial for heresy (described in greater detail by Ruth Tonkiss Cameron in a blog entry last month). Researchers interested in that particular moment in history will find rich material for review, such as the May 31, 1893 letter to Crosby in which Hastings’ strong feelings with respect to whether Briggs should withdraw from the church or merely from the heresy case are conveyed. Hastings avers that “to withdraw from the church would be to desert his [Briggs’] friends, to desert the minority and to give up the whole history of the Presbyterian Church to the despotism which traditionalism and bigotry are now maintaining” [1].

Letter 1

While this excerpt from Hastings’ private correspondence could enrich one’s understanding of an epochal moment in American Presbyterian history, the seminary’s ultimate support of Briggs and his faculty status is well known and related in published sources. One of the special aspects of accessing archival materials, however, is that it enables one to try to shift the vantage point from which one seeks to view past events: to be not just a consumer of an official, third-party history, statements prepared for posterity, or later reminiscences of a participant.

­Viewing this letter within the context of the Thomas Samuel Hastings Papers, one can compare and contrast it with other letters to Crosby regarding board matters and try to develop a sense of the weight that various actions and opinions were given by participants at the time. Working with this particular collection has also given me an appreciation for the value to researchers of the existence of institutional collections like Union Theological Seminary’s archives, as I am beginning to see how individual archives, such as those of Charles Briggs, Thomas Samuel Hastings, and Williams Adams Brown, to name just a few, that arise from the same affiliation can “speak” to each other and form a more complete picture of past events.

I have been enjoying interning at the Burke Library immensely and I am glad that some time remains before the end of the semester. I look forward to continuing to learn something new each week at the library and am hopeful that I can process several more collections over the next month.


 

[1] Letter to John C. Brown, UTS 1: Thomas Samuel Hastings Papers, series 1, box 1, and folder 4, The Burke Library Archives, Columbia University Libraries, at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

Saying Goodbye to Burke…For Now

My last day really snuck up on me. One can really get lost in boxes and boxes of unprocessed archival material, it seems. But all good things must come to an end, and for me, that took place today. After a great 7 month internship at Burke, I closed the lid on my last archival box.

I can’t express to you how great this internship has been! I’ve learned the entire archival process, from acquisition to finding aid promotion. I’ve seen great material that paints a picture of the world the missionaries encountered. And I’ve worked with the amazing staff at the Burke Library. Brigette, the project archivist, was an outstanding teacher and mentor. From the very beginning she made sure I knew what we were working on and why. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the collection, knowing where everything is and how the entire collection is connected. The rest of the staff is stellar as well. They are insanely smart, friendly, welcoming, and passionate about the work they are doing at the library. If you ever get a chance to work with them on a research project, I suggest you do.

Though my internship time is done with the Burke library, my professional and personal relationship will continue. I look forward to my next step, knowing that Burke is the reason I’m taking it at all.

From Finding Aids to Floppy Disks

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d call that a very good day!

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.

Surprises in the Archives: Reflecting on My First Month at the Burke

A month has passed since I started at Burke as a summer intern, and I now find myself reflecting upon the last four weeks. While I came into this internship with previous processing experience, I have found that I am constantly learning something new at Burke, whether it’s learning how to wrap a book in acid-free tissue or to avoid using the word “miscellaneous” in a finding aid. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that the archive holds many surprises that are just waiting to reveal themselves.

For the first half of June, I worked on a collection documenting the 1900 Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions. This conference ran from April 21 to May 1, 1900 and was held at Carnegie Hall and local churches in New York City. It was the largest formal religious event ever held in the United States and the largest international missionary conference ever. It brought together missionaries from around the world to discuss various topics, including evangelism, education, and geographical surveys of missionary work. One of the most fascinating aspects of this collection is the vast amount of documentation related to female missionaries, particularly in regards to “Women’s Work” sectional meetings. Processing the collection was relatively straightforward, as it largely consisted of two types of records: stenographic reports (essentially transcripts of entire meetings or sections of the conference) and conference papers (reports, papers, and addresses presented at the conference). As I began to arrange the collection chronologically, it became apparent that certain dates were not represented in the material. Particularly troubling was the absence of material from April 21, the opening day of the conference. I knew from the conference program that several notable people had given opening addresses on that date, and I was interested to read the addresses given by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt but resigned myself to the fact that these records appeared to be lost.

For the last two weeks I have moved on from the Ecumenical Conference and have been working on the vast array of administrative records from the Missionary Research Library. When I arrived at Burke today I expected to continue with this. However, Brigette informed me when I sat down at my desk that she had found more material related to the Ecumenical Conference. As someone who loves to cross things off to-do lists, having to return to my first project was, as Brigette said when she informed me, “bad news.” However, I quickly came to realize that this surprise was in no way bad. As I sat at my desk reading President William McKinley’s opening address to the Ecumenical Conference, I realized that my previous definition of complete is insufficient to working in an archive. There are always going to be surprises and magically appearing material needed to be dealt with. I am looking forward to seeing what other surprises the Burke Archives have in store for me this summer. The completed finding aid for MRL 12: Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions, NYC, 1900 is now available online.

State Council of Churches and Wrap-Up

I want to put in a quick plug for the collection that I just finished…on my LAST day of my internship here at the Burke Archives.  Then I'll do a little wrap up of my time here and what I learned.

WAB: State Council of Churches Records, 1943 – 1974
Abstract
: Regional ecumenical and interfaith organizations come together under the umbrella of their respective state council of churches.  Rooted in local communities they are able to respond to needs specific to that region.  These councils are agencies of cooperation focused on service and Christian unity. Collection contains bulletins, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, correspondence, annual meeting minutes and reports.

Collection Scope and Content Note: The majority of the collection is comprised of state council bulletins or newsletters and annual state council meetings.  New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and New Jersey form the bulk of the collection.  Of note within the New York collection is a smaller collection pertaining to the New York City Protestant council, which was a large regional council serving the local needs of the city.  The Ohio collection is a large run of the Ohio Christian News dating from 1946 to 1971.  The Massachusetts collection also contains a large run of the state council’s newsletter Christian Outlook and copies of annual reports.  The New Jersey collection contains reports of its annual meetings from 1958 to 1974.  Michigan is contained in block parenthesis because the state was inferred from locale information contained in the annual meeting report. The collection is arranged alphabetically according to state.  Within the state divisions, state councils are organized first with county, regional and city councils following.  Each folder is arranged alphabetically and the materials within those folders are arranged chronologically.  Other state councils in the collection include Alabama, California – Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

Wrap Up!

My final day at the Burke has arrived.  My time here has gone by amazingly fast and I am surprised with the fact that I was able to complete the processing  and DAM on four collections.  Granted one collection contained a single book, but it still feels good to have some experience under my belt.  So did I accomplish what I hoped to accomplish, was the experience all that I had hoped it would be?  Absolutely! This was definitely the place where I could test my theoretical knowledge of archival processing by putting it into practice.  The mundane tasks of sorting, discarding, re-housing and labeling are no longer intimidating mysteries.  Not surprisingly, considering my love of organization, those mundane tasks were some of my favorite activities.  Thankfully, I encountered no bugs and only a little bit of dirt and dust. I was able to shift my focus from item level description to box and folder description and adhere to the “More Product Less Process” standard.  I gradually figured out how to limit my tendency to be verbose in regards to my historical notes and scope and contents notes.  While I’m not perfect and still  have a difficult time using sentence fragments in the abstract, I am much better at it than when I started.  It’s nice to see less and less corrective red from Brigette on them.  I even enjoyed being able to put my long dormant historian training to use while I was researching historical and biographical information regarding the collections. 

Learning how to do archival processing, while important, was not my only goal.  I wanted to learn and experience a way to make internships not only benefit the institutions, but teach students life-long lessons.  My final paper for my Practicum focuses on the need for constructionist and constructivist based learning as a way to engage students more actively in the learning process.  Both methods encourage students to actively interact and create within and with the physical world rather than passively receiving knowledge; however constructionism additionally requires the production of a tangible object in the final outcome.  Learning becomes more than knowledge acquisition and becomes a process of identity formation and empowerment.   Mentors, supervisors, and teachers who use these approaches make it easier for students to see their work not only as personally enriching but also of value to the community they are serving.  As such, new knowledge is not only more effectively embedded in the students mind, but the students become embedded in the community they serve.

I’m only using this high flung academic-speak to illustrate that Brigette uses these approaches to teaching archival practice and processing.  I did not just create finding aids, but I made them available online increasing access, spoke about their relevance in various blog entries, posted information regarding the new collections on Twitter and Facebook, I was even informed one of the collections was given to me because a user had requested the material and the library wanted to accommodate the request in a timely manner.  I did not just learn archival theory or just the do’s and don’ts of archival processing, but I created a tangible object that tied me to a community of archivists and archives users.  Eventually I began to describe myself as an archivist when asked what I do.  I am no longer just a library graduate student, but because of what I was able to accomplish I now identify with being an archivist.  I no longer limit my job searches to special collections or museum libraries. It was great to see this teaching method in action and see the personal affect it had on me.  

If you are still on the fence regarding archives, if you don’t have a clue what to do in an archive, even if you love them I would recommend coming here for an internship and becoming part of the archivist community.  It was a great experience!

The Why

Now that you know a little more about the MRL and WAB collections, as well as the Luce Foundation, I thought it would be useful to explain the reason behind needing this project in the first place.

Most, if not all, archives and libraries have what we call "backlog." Our collections are continually growing: we gather historic documents; professors, alumni, etc… donate their records; people leave material to us in their will; things like that. Unfortunately we don't always have the time (or the funding) to fully process and make available collections as soon as they come into our possession. We give them basic care, security, and the proper environmental conditions and control, but physically arranging and intellectually describing materials can be very time-consuming.

Enter the first reason for this project.

A second major reason for this project and the need to care for MRL and WAB specifically is due to the damage suffered during a major water incursion disaster in the Burke's modern archives stacks in June 2003. Water from a plumbing accident in the Brown Tower (this Brown is not the same as William Adams Brown!), two floors above, saturated materials from the WAB and MRL collections.

The wet papers in disintegrating boxes were quickly removed, relocated, shipped out as an emergency, recovered by vacuum freeze drying, and returned. These collections, which had already experienced a variety of temperature and humidity changes from being used throughout the world by missionaries and ecumenists, became even more fragile and disordered. There was approximately 300 linear feet returned in a state of disarray, with WAB and MRL collections intermixed and much of the original order lost.

The MRL Archives present the special challenge of fragile acidic materials. Various climates combined with being stored for almost a century in acidic boxes in over-heated conditions throughout the history of the actual Missionary Research Library added to their fragile nature. Many unique items are tightly folded and require time, patience and preservation techniques to unfold and care for the items in the long-term.

Throughout the duration of the Luce Project at the Burke Library, which just passed the one-year mark, we will arrange, describe, and provide wide access to a total of 573 linear feet of hidden archives. This project will process the collections so that they are organized and described, with basic preservation treatment through stabilization in acid-free containers, ordered arrangement, and removal of corrosive metals and other materials. This arrangement will enable more advanced preservation treatment and the potential for surrogate copies and selective digitization on those materials which have been stabilized.

For the first time, researchers will have access to many first-hand descriptions of cultural conditions documented by missionaries, physicians, and social workers in Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, Oceania, and South America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This project will also be the first to provide access to the records of some of the most important events and institutions in the history of the worldwide ecumenical movement, with especially rich documentation of the religious and cultural history of New York City.