Archive for the ‘ Libraries ’ Category

Tracing the Tale of Talmage’s Tabernacle

Interior of the Tabernacle

Interior of the Tabernacle. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

Last spring and summer I worked as an intern on Project CHART, a collaborative effort by the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Public Library to digitize and make available online collections of historic photographs of Brooklyn (More about Project CHART here). I worked primarily with the museum’s collection of lantern slides. Many of these were taken by members of the Department of Photography of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the museum’s predecessor, and mostly between 1880 and 1900.

The range of subject matter is broad, but one image appears again and again: Talmage’s Tabernacle. What is interesting about these photographs of the church is not only that there are so many in the collection, but also how the church is shown: in flames, or in ruins after the fire. I was intrigued by these images, and went looking for more information on the church whose destruction was so thoroughly documented. The story I discovered was even more compelling than I had anticipated.

Burning of the Tabernacle and Hotel Regent

Burning of the Tabernacle and Hotel Regent. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

The church in the pictures, which was on Clinton Avenue and Greene Avenue in Clinton Hill, was built by the Reverend Doctor Thomas DeWitt Talmage, a pastor of the Presbyterian Church. One of his contemporaries claimed that “no other man in the world today exercises such an influence as Talmage” (The New York Times, May 28, 1984).

When Talmage began as pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, his congregation had nineteen members. Five years later, this number had swelled to literally thousands of people. He built a church on Schermerhorn Street and what is now Third Avenue to house these worshippers, and even in this new building had to hold three services each Sunday in order to accommodate them all.

On December 22nd, 1872, two years after it was built, the first Tabernacle was destroyed by fire. The church was rebuilt in the same location; this second building suffered the same fate as the first, on October 13th, 1889. After the second fire, Talmage left Schermerhorn Street to build his third Tabernacle, the one in the museum’s photographs. On May 13th, 1894, the third Brooklyn Tabernacle burned to the ground. All three of the fires took place on Sundays, narrowly avoiding the huge crowds that filled the buildings on those days.

Ruins of the Tabernacle

Ruins of the Tabernacle. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

After the third fire, it came out that the Tabernacle on Clinton Avenue had been built using macerated paper stock and straw soaked in resin rather than the standard plaster, making the building, in the words of the New York Times, a “tinder box” and a “veritable death trap” (The New York Times, May 18, 1894). The unusual and imprudent use of this material in the construction of the building is made to seem even stranger by what happened after it was discovered. Talmage wrote a letter to the Times, claiming that he believed the church had burned to “purify” his parishioners “by fire” and to “keep [him] humble” (The New York Times, June 10, 1894). He left New York immediately afterwards, heading to Australia and then to Europe, and never returned to New York.

Tabernacle After the Fire

Tabernacle After the Fire. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

Without Talmage, the enormous congregation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle disbanded practically overnight. The week after the fire, a service was held at the Columbia Theater, but no more than three hundred of the thousands of members of Talmage’s church attended. A telegram from Talmage was read by a Reverend George, who officiated the service in Talmage’s place. His message was as follows: “I send my benediction to the Brooklyn Tabernacle congregation and Sunday school. I love you all more and more every day. May God be with you till we meet again” (The New York Times, May 28, 1894).

According to the Times, the reading of the message was met “with dead silence.” The congregation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle never met again.

I can’t say for certain what actually took place; perhaps there was something dubious about the three fires of Talmage’s Tabernacle, or perhaps it was simply a case of terrible coincidence. But the fascinating story of this uniquely charismatic man, the triple destruction of his church, and both his sudden disappearance and his congregation’s instant dissolution after two decades of mutual devotion blew me away. It serves as a clear reminder of the fact that each of these photographs has a story behind it, and that represented in these images is the rich history of our borough and our city. All we have to do is look for it, and we are lucky to have such rich sources at our disposal.

Note: There is now a Brooklyn Tabernacle on Smith Street, a non-denominational congregation best known for its world-renowned choir. As far as I can tell, there is no connection between this church, led by the Reverend Jim Cymbala, and Talmage’s.

Just Google It

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Yesterday, a friend from college sent me this text: “Think I broke the spirit of the librarian at my internship because he couldn’t find something on the database and I was like can we just Google it and it worked.”

I’ve had a lot of conversations in library school about the relevance of and need for librarians in the age of search engines. Obviously, I think there is still a place for information professionals; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so intent on becoming one. We can and will serve as navigators, evaluators, educators in information literacy, content creators, and more. But I object to the reflexive, slightly desperate way in which some people in the field defend themselves against real or imagined accusations of obsolescence. There is some tendency to over-compensate, to insist that any information that is widely available and easily found has little value, and that the only sources that are really worthwhile are those that require us, the librarians, to act as guides to them. The fact is, though, that there are times when Google is the way to go.

Generally, however, journals and databases are enormously valuable resources. But I have a real issue with them, or at least with their current distribution model, which shuts out people without connections to an institution that can afford the ridiculously expensive subscription fees. Even if money is no object, it is frequently impossible to get an individual subscription. I find it really problematic that so much information—the very information that we as a profession insist is really valuable—is made inaccessible. There are a small number of public institutions (bless you, NYPL) that do offer access to certain subscription-only resources, and a handful of open-access journals and repositories (like Harvard’s DASH), but these aren’t the norm. I feel strongly that these models need to become the standard. Aren’t we the ones who say that information wants to be free? Open access and other solutions to this problem are already being widely discussed. What I haven’t heard anyone mention is the conflict of interest that arises when librarians, who claim to strive for “equitable access” (see the 1st statement of the ALA’s code of ethics), continue to push resources that by nature create an inequality of access.

Image: Knuckles, with design both topical and subcutaneous, of the lovely and talented Jess Versus.

The More Things Change…

The archival collection I’m currently processing consists of the papers of the treasurer of a now-defunct library association. In it I found a clipping from the New York Times, dated October of 1974. The article describes a shift in the focus of libraries, away from books and towards multimedia resources. What cracked me up was the note written in pen in the margin: “Are there any books in this library?” The conversation about the “future” of libraries in the age of the electronic resource has been going on now for thirty-six years.

This reminded me of my boyfriend, who fumed for weeks about the overhaul of the New York Times Magazine…until he discovered this letter to the editor, printed in 1993 following a redesign:

“Now you’ve done it. You have blown away the last vestiges of familiarity in this unstable world by changing the format of the Magazine.” – Patricia Escobar, Los Angeles

As long as there have been times, they have been a-changing. But by all means, go on lamenting.

Is the MLS still relevant? Or, what am I doing here?

(Note: This is a paper I wrote for my Introduction to Information Professions class in my first semester of library school.)

In recent years, the question of whether or not having a master’s degree is still important in the field of librarianship has been widely debated. The MLS degree itself has transformed, adding an “I” to become the MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science), and in some cases losing the “L” all together. The University of Texas at Austin for example, offers an MSIS, or Master of Science of Information Studies. Many degree programs have gone online; of the 62 ALA-accredited programs, 19 offer degrees that can be completed without ever setting foot in a classroom. As the field of librarianship has become the field of information science, fighting to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving information landscape, it makes sense that the professional training for the field would undergo some changes of its own. There are some, though, who would have us do away with the MLS all together.

On her blog “The Librarian of Fortune,” Mary Ellen Bates recounted hearing “the head of a large corporate library…[say] that as she reviews resumes for info pro positions, she counts an M.L.S. degree as a point against an applicant” (Bates). As I understand it, for the woman who made this statement and others like her, the MLS represents two problems: theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge, and a background in outdated traditions and skills at a time when innovation and change is crucial for libraries. These arguments against the degree are not entirely unreasonable, if greatly exaggerated.

It is true that what is taught in MLS programs does not cover everything and must be supplemented with experience. I once explained to a friend that the most important things I was learning in library school were the names of things I would have to learn elsewhere. This wasn’t a complaint, however. It is important to master the vocabulary of the profession and to understand the skills that a career in libraries will demand. A program that requires only twelve courses to complete couldn’t possibly teach mastery of every one of these skills, but if it makes its students aware of what they are, it has already achieved a great deal.

It is also true that the curricula of master’s programs are not in all cases being updated at the same rate that the field is moving forward. Many schools are making a real effort to reflect the progression of the field, as evidenced by the renaming of degrees. But most (Pratt included) do not offer nearly enough courses in digital and web technologies, to name only one area of knowledge that has become crucial to the successful information professional. Again, though, the MLS isn’t really about learning skills. If anything, it is about learning the philosophy that forms the backbone of this profession: to vastly oversimplify, that information is good, and that people should have access to it. It is true that we have reached a point where libraries must innovate and evolve, but that fundamental understanding of why they exist hasn’t changed.

While it is true, then, that the MLS has its limitations, to say that having the degree makes a person less qualified to work as an information professional is absurd. To have a background in and understanding of the long-standing traditions of librarianship—even those that are outdated—does not necessarily indicate that an individual will be resistant to or incapable of breaking with these traditions (though there are certainly some who are). If anything, knowing what exactly we are moving away from makes us better equipped to do so. As the old saying goes, one has to know the rules before one can break them.

In “Protect Professionalism,” an editorial in Library Journal, John Berry explains that the MLS degree has been criticized as being “little more than an indoctrination and orientation to library values, customs, and jargon.” This is actually not an inaccurate description of what these programs offer, but this “orientation” is hardly something to be derided as insignificant. I believe that it is exactly this alignment with the goals, attitude, and ethics, and fluency in the language of librarianship that defines the professional.

A reference librarian who I spoke with recently offered her opinion on the degree, which highlights another thing that these programs offer students: knowledge of themselves. As she sees it, the one or two years spent completing the master’s is more than anything else a time to determine what kind of information professional you want to be. There are so many possibilities, and it is important to assess your own personality in order to choose the right niche. Someone who is excellent at information architecture, for example, may be ill suited to reference service. Before you can become a professional, it is crucial to know certain things about yourself: what excites you, what bores you to tears, what you’re good at, what would best be left to someone else.

Berry also talks in his editorial about whether the MLS is merely “a ‘union card’ to get into a closed shop.” The library administrator who prefers not to hire those with the degree seems to indicate that it isn’t, or that if it once was, it no longer is. There are certainly jobs, such as information technology and highly specialized positions, for which another degree instead of or in addition to the MLS might make a candidate more qualified. There is also a place in the library for people without advanced degrees, though one hopes that administrators are being honest about what that place is and not replacing degreed librarians with paraprofessionals out of purely budgetary concern.

The matter of professionals and paraprofessionals and the MLS versus other advanced degrees points to an important question that we must ask when discussing whether or not the MLS is still relevant: relevant to whom? I have argued that the degree is not just relevant but critical to the next generation of librarians, insofar as it provides them with the fundamentals—the skeleton on which they must build the body of knowledge needed to be successful information professionals. But whether or not the degree is relevant to those making hiring decisions in libraries is not a point that can be argued. In answer to that question, all I can say is: I hope so.

Works cited:

Bates, Mary Ellen. (8 September 2010). “Is an MLS still relevant?” The Librarian of Fortune. Retrieved from: http://www.librarianoffortune.com/librarian_of_fortune/2010/09/is-an-mls-still-relevant.html

Berry, John. (1 November 2003) “Protect Professionalism.” Library Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA329319.html