BY CLIFFORD B. ANDERSON
Thomas F. Torrance (1913–2007) was among the most significant theologians of the twentieth century. He was a major interpreter of Karl Barth to the English-speaking world, a promoter of the ecumenical movement, and a persistent advocate of the dialogue between theology and the sciences, for which advocacy he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1978. He was also the father of Iain R. Torrance, current president of Princeton Seminary.
I will always remember the hours I spent some years ago with T.F. Torrance’s eldest son Thomas and several colleagues as we packed up the senior Torrance’s second floor study in Edinburgh, Scotland. For two days, we filled box after box with correspondence, typescripts, photographs, ephemera, and books, and then loaded the boxes into a shipping container bound for Princeton.
The container arrived on schedule at Luce Library, but the work of making the collection available to researchers had just begun. Processing a large archival collection is a labor intensive and time-consuming process. Tasks run from the trivial, such as removing rusting paper clips and staples and refoldering documents in acid-free enclosures, to the complex, such as arranging materials in logical series of related materials. As much as possible, archivists seek to retain the original order; how a person maintains his papers frequently provides an interpretive key to why he wrote about certain subjects.
The next step is to provide a concise guide to the collection. A manuscript guide (or “finding aid”) does not exhaustively list every document, but provides an index to its primary parts. A guide may not list every item of correspondence, for example, but it will show how to find correspondence from particular years and sometimes also about major subjects. Sarah A. Seraphin, our former manuscript librarian, wrote the manuscript guide to the collection. Her guide runs to more than 250 pages. Fortunately, there is a searchable version online at http://digital.library.ptsem.edu/ead/.
Modern collections present special challenges related to digital media. In later years, Torrance used a computer to create manuscripts and correspondence. The collection contained old 5.25" floppy disks, for which our Information Technology Department jerry-rigged a special disk drive. Robert B. Golon, the project archivist for this collection, continues to print electronic files on acid-free paper and add them to the manuscript guide.
T.F. Torrance’s library of antiquarian books on Scottish theology contributed significantly to our rare books collections. The books are currently being cataloged, but researchers are already making discoveries. Recently, Robert J. Milevski, preservation librarian at Princeton University, examined the volumes for rare and unusual binders’ tickets (small labels usually affixed inside the back covers of books by their binders). Milevski, who is compiling an inventory of binders’ tickets, discovered twenty-five signed bindings in the collection, including eight kinds of ticket that he had never before seen. He will include these tickets in a forthcoming study.
After several years of processing the materials, my staff and I are pleased that the contents of T.F. Torrance’s study in Edinburgh have been made accessible to researchers. Scholars are already traveling to Princeton to study his hundreds of unpublished sermons and to pore through correspondence from noted philosophers, theologians, and scientists.
While the future of libraries is frequently discussed, few pause to reflect on the future of archives. The task of preserving the “raw material” of history for future generations is essential to our understanding of the past—and not a process destined to be replaced by automation. We are grateful for the support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for funding the processing of The T.F. Torrance Collection. We invite you to peruse the manuscript guide online and to consult the collection in person when you are in Princeton.
Clifford B. Anderson is the curator of Special Collections.