Yale Divinity Library digitizing annual reports of missions agencies

By Jared Gilbert ’12 M.Div.*

It will not be long—next spring—before another phase of digitization at the Yale Divinity School Library is completed, making available to researchers around the world thousands of documents in the Library’s core collection of materials chronicling missions history and world Christianity.

Hosptial PhotoThe latest digitization initiative, funded through a 2009 grant from the UK-based Arcadia Foundation, focuses on early annual reports of missions agencies in the Day Missions Library and marks the first time the Library has digitized portions of its own collections.  Once digitized, the documents have searchable text capabilities.

Many of these documents, totaling some 1,500 volumes, are more than 100 years old and in particularly fragile condition. Most date from 1850-1950, a time when the foreign missions enterprise was in its heyday and when tens of thousand of missionaries sailed from North America, Britain, and Europe to Africa, China, and many other distant locales. Taken together, they weave an intricate tapestry of the day-to-day activities of missionaries, not only in relation to their own activities in evangelization, education, and medical work, but also about political unrest, plagues, local customs, and other cultural phenomena.

A report of the Foochow Missionary Hospital, for example, describes a cholera epidemic spreading through Foochow in 1919, and efforts to fight child slavery and child labor. The staff was traumatized when a young father sold his four-year-old daughter assuming he would need money for treatment of an ulcer on his foot, which the missionary hospital ended up treating free of charge. Buried deep in the report is a short mention of “guerilla fighting” in the countryside, the only mention of the social unrest that would usher in the communist revolution.

Another report, from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society at the beginning of World War II, chronicles the struggles of hospitals and schools in the Yenping Conference, under threat of Japanese bombs or Communist raids.  The report gives credit to the churches for instituting reforms against foot binding, child-marriage, concubinage and slavery, as well as moral reforms against drinking and gambling, even as it warns that war may soon shutter the schools and hospitals.

The mission reports, many in high demand by researchers around the world, were chosen in part because of the ongoing risks posed by their fragility and the fact that they are largely unbound and stored in old pamphlet boxes and envelopes.

“The Arcadia project has facilitated the digitization of a small portion of the Divinity Library’s holdings of early mission documentation, and we hope to continue the process of digitizing our holdings via various means,” said Martha Smalley, the library’s special collections librarian and curator of the Day Missions Collection.  The 1,500 volumes in the Arcadia project represent only a fraction of the Library’s annual reports and periodicals missions collection.  However, adding them to 3,000 volumes that were previously microfilmed means that about 20 percent of the collection will have been preserved by the time the Arcadia initiative finishes in spring 2012.

A number of YDS Library digitization initiatives have previously been undertaken using the Library’s Kenneth Scott Latourette Fund.  But, unlike the Arcadia initiative, those projects have involved materials from non-YDS collections, such as the World Student Christian Federation Archives, held by the World Council of Churches.  Under the Latourette bequest, funds must be used to add new materials to the YDS collection, not just to preserve or re-format current holdings.

According to Smalley, the library has applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to digitize an additional 5,000 reports and periodicals and has obtained funding from the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia to digitize portions of their archives that relate to Christian colleges and universities in China.  Other in-house projects are resulting in digital content from the Divinity Library’s manuscript and published holdings being made available via the Ad Hoc Image and Text Database on the History of Christianity.”

The Day Missions Library was established in 1891 by George Edward Day, a professor of Hebrew language and literature at Yale, and his wife, Olivia Hotchkiss Day. In 1932 the collection included 21,484 volumes—some two-thirds of the Divinity Library's original collection. This collection has continued to grow over the years, with support from the Day endowment and, since 1981, with income from the fund established by Latourette, a Yale professor of missions.
The Day Missions Collection today makes up approximately one-third of the Divinity Library's 500,000 volumes, and constitutes the bulk of its manuscript and archival collection. Its scope has enlarged from a fairly narrow focus on training missionaries to become one of the preeminent collections documenting the thought, history, and practice of world Christianity. The Divinity Library's core collection documenting missions history and world Christianity is housed in the Day Missions Reading Room.
Over the years the YDS library has become one of the most important theological libraries in the world.  Its collections now total:

  • More than 500,000 volumes of monographs, serials, and pamphlets
  • More than 260,000 pieces of microforms
  • More than 2,700 videotapes
  • Nearly 4,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival materials

The Arcadia funding is part of a university-wide effort to make the University’s most unique library collections available online.  Other university assets being digitized under the Arcadia Foundation grant include:

  • Djibril Tamsir Niane audiotapes documenting Guinean oral traditions
  • Islamic fundamentalist audiotape collection
  • Joel Sumner Smith: Yale Library's 18-19th century founding collection of books and serials on Slavic Studies
  • Al Cantío de un Gallo radio program audiocassettes

*Gustav Spohn, director of communications and publications, also contributed to this article

Posted: 09/05/2011

Revised: 09/09/2011