Archives of Seamen’s Church Institute Relocate to Queens College

FLUSHING, NY, March 23, 2012 – Professional matchmakers couldn’t have done better.  The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), a long-standing advocate for merchant mariners’ rights, was seeking a more accessible home for its 178-year-old collection of archival materials  because most of its operations were relocating to Port Newark in New Jersey. When SCI approached Queens College, the attraction was mutual.

Twelve thousand items, representing about 5 percent of the entire collection, have been digitized so far. All 300 linear feet of materials are now at Queens, and they include documents from SCI’s history of promoting sailors’ legal rights and professional and spiritual  assistance. There are also journals, photographs, letters, scrap- books, reports, and flyers recording not only mariners’ sometimes violent and tense labor struggles, but also such events as the sinking of the Titanic, Admiral  Byrd’s expedition to the Arctic, and letters from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a board member of the SCI.

The fit with QC’s archives is “wonderful” from both an intellectual and historical point of view, says Benjamin Alexander, head of Special Collections and Archives and director of archival studies in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies.

“We’re internationally known for our civil rights material. Given that the SCI archives include substantial material about part of New York City’s labor his- tory, this donation expands the American narrative that we are preserving here.

Archival students will be working with SCI archives from day one.” Alexander also anticipates that students from different departments and disciplines will take advantage of the rich content of the SCI materials.

Serendipity played a role in bringing the archives to QC, too. It turns out that SCI’s associate archivist, Jonathan Thayer, who is responsible for maintaining and supervising the archives here, is a graduate of QC’s library and information studies program, where he served as a fellow.

“I’m excited about being in the library,” says Thayer. “We wanted to get out of the isolated model, so being on campus  is great. We want to integrate into the curriculum.”

For Thayer, one of the significant aspects of the collection is the glimpses of human  connections. SCI was affiliated with the Episcopalian Church, so besides offering religious services on its floating chapels, the SCI also took care of sailors in need. When surviving sailors from the Titanic landed in New York, the SCI pro- vided clothing.  It also performed similar relief work for survivors of the Andrea Doria shipwreck, as well as for survivors of WWII torpedo sinkings, which Thayer says is “an untold story of WWII.” Even the women’s auxiliary stepped up during wartime to knit caps that could be worn under helmets.

“I know how rich the collection is,” says Alexander. “I’m very excited that this will be a point of discovery for faculty and students.”

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Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services