Tag Archives: Union Theological Serminary

Reading the Stacks: Remnants of Community in the Circulating Collection — by Brandon Harrington

For the past year, I have been reading the stacks at the Burke Library. Not reading every book, but reading the collection: how it is organized, what subjects have more texts, what sections see more traffic.

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, "Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress." by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, “Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress.” by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

 

Since December 2016, I have been playing the vibrations between student and Library Circulation Assistant. The library is where I work in a double sense. But over the course of my time at Union, the two roles have collapsed into one another, and I can honestly say that my education at Union would have been very different had I not gained extensive familiarity with Burke’s collection. My knowledge of Burke’s holdings has grown through sharing in the curiosity and creativity of countless patrons. Helping researchers find books has been an education in and of itself, taking me to aisles and titles I would likely never otherwise explore. But apart from assisting patrons, my familiarity has grown most through shelf-reading.

 

Shelf-reading, a crucial part of library maintenance, is one of the responsibilities that comes with being a Circulation assistant. It consists of going through the stacks, book by book, to make sure the collection is shelved correctly. It helps us find books that were mis-shelved and marked “lost,” pull books in need of repair, and return books to other Columbia libraries that wound up in the Burke stacks. With a total of over 700,000 onsite books in 5 levels of stacks spanning 24,580 square feet, it is rather easy for a book to find its way onto some distant shelf, far from where it should be. While shelf-reading is an essential task for ensuring that patrons can locate resources, the task of shelf-reading sounds tedious. But my not-so-secret secret is that I love it.

 

It is one thing to understand that libraries organize knowledge. It is an entirely different thing to tangibly experience the assumptions that go into their organization. Burke has two different collections with distinct classification systems: the Union stacks and the Library of Congress (LC) stacks. The periodical section is shelved alphabetically. None are “neutral.”

 

The Burke is one of the few remaining theological libraries that still circulates books shelved according to the Union classification system, originally designed for the Seminary’s holdings. Julia Pettee developed and implemented the cataloguing system over fifteen years, beginning in 1909. The acting librarian at the time, William Walker Rockwell, recorded in the preface to the published classification: “It is a principle of this classification to look upon Christianity as the central theme reaching out in all directions; and wherever a Christian topic touches a field of interest to make a place for it within that field.”[1] (Check out former librarian Elizabeth Call’s piece on Julia Pettee published on this blog in 2014 here.)

 

Reviewing the breakdown of the Union stacks, I realized how drastically today’s collection has changed in character with the continually-growing LC stacks, just as the population at Union has evolved over the years. The latest incoming class is reportedly the most religiously diverse, including the largest population of unaffiliated students Union has ever welcomed. Looking back on the ideals, assumptions, and goals that went into the organization of the Union stacks, it became clear to me how much the collection is a relic of the Seminary’s past character. So much so that it seems to describe a different Seminary entirely from the one I have come to call my home. Because of its date of production, the Union classification has no designation for Liberation or Feminist or Womanist or Queer Theologies. No space within its categories for the theological voices that have been so formative and foundation for me and for many of my peers. No space for the ways of doing theology that have since emerged largely within Union’s walls.

 

Shelf-reading the collection today, I find that the sections most out of order best reflect the evolving character of the Union community. While I recognize the necessity for our books to be organized, I revel in the disordering that happens. Reading the stacks reveals a latent sense of Burke’s community of readers. The disordering archives a challenge to its organization, a manifestation of the fact that new works are being produced, works that might give cause for reorganizing the collection, works that will push the boundaries. The books on the shelves change constantly, and the bits of information, communicated through the collection itself, speak volumes with a moment of pause and a little attentiveness. I find in the disorder a remnant of the community I will soon leave after graduation.

 

Two weeks ago, we lost Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Since Cone’s passing, the section where his books are housed has thinned quite a bit. I know that folks are returning to his words, continuing to hear his voice through his writings. It reminds me of something I noticed in the library while taking Prof. Cone’s course, Foundations in Christian Theology, the last time Dr. Cone taught this course, the course with the infamous 20-page syllabus.

 

I saw Dr. Cone’s impact through the changes in the stacks. Cone repeatedly encouraged: “You have to find your theological vooooooice.” Over the course of the semester, the BT section, the LC classification for “Theology,” swelled and compressed, mirroring the theological turns we traced every Tuesday morning under Dr. Cone’s passionate and meticulous guidance. We were pulling books to find our voices.

 

I graduate in eight days. We have almost completed shelf-reading the LC stacks. They are reset for another round of disordering, and I wonder how the stacks will bear the remnants of its community in the years to come. As I close this chapter of Circ assisting and graduate study, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read the stacks and to see through them the reflections of the Union Seminary I have known and been a part.

 

                       -Brandon Harrington, UTS Class of ’18

 

[1] Julia Pettee, Classification of the Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, ed. Ruth C. Eisenhart (New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1967), iii.

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.

Happy Camper at Burke

It has been over a month since I began making the trip to the Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary twice a week for my archival internship. Under the guidance of Brigette Kamsler I have learned an immense amount about the art of archiving. My fears from the first day (see 1st Day – New Internship) have been assuaged and allayed. Surrounded by acid free boxes both full and empty, surprises and variety abound.


Most people seem to think the work an archivist does is stuffy and boring – let’s face it – most people have no clue what an archivist does! And I probably did not have much of one either prior to starting at Burke either. Over the course of the past six weeks I have begun to learn and really appreciate the tasks of an archivist: accessing, processing and organizing documents and ephemera into cohesive usable research aids; creating documentation of a collection’s organization and order; providing access to research materials (frequently primary sources) to library patrons through finding aids. Often, a collection is donated by an individual and the precise order in which the collection was donated is in fact part of the archival nature of the materials. Other times the material in a collection may have been amassed over a longer period of time by more than one individual or institution and so the archivist gets to embark on the task of creating order and imposing an organization schema on the materials.


During my time at Burke I have had the opportunity to work on a sizeable collection – the Kagawa Toyohiko Papers. Kagawa was an early 20th century Japanese Evangelical preacher who traveled to the United States on speaking tours four times between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. The collection has undergone numerous rounds of processing and continues to grow as new materials are donated and further materials keep popping up in the Missionary Research Library collection. The most recent additions included correspondence with an American preacher Stanley Armstrong Hunter which were donated by a descendant of Mr. Hunter as well as extensive correspondences regarding Kagawa’s 1954 tour of the United States. The latter set of materials was unearthed in the unprocessed papers of the Missionary Research Library.


While the nature of the material may seem dry or bizarre to many, the fact there was a world famous Japanese Evangelical preacher whose American National Committee headquarters were in Brooklyn, NY has been one of my most exciting factoids for the summer of 2013. Part of the job of an archivist is, as I mentioned earlier, to draft a collection finding aid. This finding aid lists not only what is in the collection box by box and folder by folder but provides background material on the subject matter, individual or organization the collection focuses on. Reading about Kagawa I found myself going down a highly enjoyable rabbit hole – I have read numerous slightly varied accounts of his childhood, his adolescence, his introduction to Christianity, his early years preaching in the slums of Japan. I have also been able to ever so slightly glean an idea of Kagawa’s changing beliefs and doctrine. The man lived in heady times not only in Japanese history but world history – he witnessed both World War’s, Japanese colonialism and the rise of Communism. His particular brand of Christianity took much of these events going on in the world into account. I have also found collections relating to Kagawa in other archives around the world. There is an archive and research center dedicated to the man in Tokyo, Japan. There are other small collections of papers of his followers in places like the archives at Southern Illinois University. For an individual who has always been curious about just about anything you put in front of her, the opportunity to chase down information and learn about an obscure former nominee for a Nobel Prize in Literature has been fascinating and dare I say exciting.


Another project the interns working under Brigette Kamsler have been working on this summer is the extensive Missionary Research Library project. We are all taking bits and pieces of this large seemingly unwieldy collection of papers and beginning to create order and sense out of it. Brigette runs an incredibly well oiled machine with interns working collectively and individually on the massive MRL collection. Currently I am separating MRL administrative papers from the larger collection of archival materials and housing these in archival acid free boxes. While perhaps not the most exciting sounding task, I know my efforts are part of a larger project and I enjoy my work knowing it is part of a larger effort. Once the Missionary Research Library papers are completely available to the public, I will know I had a small part to play in that project.