The Ohio State University at Lima

Fellowship lets Emily Preston dive into an old hymnal filled with mysteries

Undergrad with strong organizational skills and healthy curiosity unwraps a hymnal full of history.

July 19, 2018

Emily Preston and Tina Schneider in the Lima Campus Library

Her curiosity brought her to the Lima Campus Library her freshman year with questions about library science. When she completed an independent study working in the campus archives, her curiosity helped her decipher dozens of codes written on hundreds of slides. Her work prompted the campus library director to encourage her to apply for a prestigious Undergraduate Research Library Fellowship.

That urge to discover bubbled over when she jumped into a simple Presbyterian hymnal that just happened to have more than 4,000 signatures collected over decades by minister Stanley Armstrong Hunter.

The fellowship research experience has cemented her interest in library science and given the history major more confidence going forward.

“I feel very blessed to have done this. I feel a lot stronger now academically,” said Preston, a junior from Huntsville. “When I go back to classes in the fall, it’s like ‘Yes, I know so much more about how to study and research now than I did before.’ ”

The end product of her research fellowship will be a database that will be a springboard for other researchers’ curiosity and scholarship. The database includes the name of the person who signed the book and any accompanying data such as dates, quotes, drawings, time spent as a missionary, and Bible verses noted.

“This is what librarians do. We organize information in a way that makes it useful to historians, hymnologists, sociologists and others. And make it shareable so the information is meaningful in any number of research fields,” said Tina Schneider, director of the Lima Campus Library and Preston’s mentor for the fellowship. “The database that Emily developed will add a level of nuance to what we understand about the religious views of those who signed the hymnal and how those views may have affected their public work.”

Dr. Stanley Armstrong Hunter was a well known Presbyterian minister based in Berkeley, California, during the time span he collected the signatures in his hymnal, 1933-1959. The 4,200 signatures represent domestic and international public figures, missionaries, and religious leadership from a variety of faiths. His favorite question “Have you a favorite hymn?” is the working title for Preston’s paper.

“Whenever he went somewhere, he would ask people to sign the hymnal. He met a lot of people. They are all throughout the hymnal. There are quite a few hymns that were very popular,” Preston said. “He was very interested in what people thought about hymns and their favorite hymns.”

Preston spent three weeks going through the pages of the hymnal to identify the names. The signatures reflect the heavy hitters of the times – think Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles -- along with missionaries and as yet unknowns. The time was punctuated by aha moments of discovery and many examples of Hunter’s lifelong interest in interfaith and interdenominational understanding. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham’s signature and several signatures from rabbis were especially notable finds in the hymnal.

“This was a whole new world for me. I didn’t really know much about hymnody and never really studied pacifism or the ecumenical movement. These were all new to me,” Preston said. “The process of working with this kind of artifact, I’d never done anything like that before. It was interesting and fun and definitely a learning process.”

The fellowship is designed to provide students hands-on involvement in the communication and dissemination of the scholarship carried out by academic research libraries. Preston is one of four in the Ohio State system who received a 2018 summer fellowship. She had 10 weeks over the summer to research and develop her project and then will present it at the 2018 Fall Undergraduate Research Day. She also plans to apply for the 2019 Denman Undergraduate Research Forum.

The 1895 Presbyterian Hymnal that Preston has been studying is part of Ohio State Lima’s hymnal collection, which includes more than 1,000 items. Hunter’s hymnal was donated to the collection by his daughter-in-law.

Photo top: Emily Preston (left) talks with Library Director Tina Schneider in the Special Collections Room at the Lima Campus Library.

Photo above: Emily Preston on her way into work and samples of hymnal pages.