San Francisco Zen Center project turns five

First there was the challenge of inventorying 6,000 audio ‘Dharma Talk’ tapes by teachers and distinguished visitors to the San Francisco Zen Center; now students play a game with the community called “name that monk” to figure out who is whom among the more than 1600 photos taken from the 1960’s onward. It all serves to further learning and preserve history.

For the past five summers, a group of iSchool master of library and information science students spend four weeks applying what they’ve learned about cataloging and archiving to a real situation amidst the chaos of the Center’s historical artifacts. While there, they also meditate with and become part of a community that is one of the largest Buddhist sanghas outside Asia. 

This year's crop of students, the largest class to date, included Amanda Demeter, Kate Emery, Elizabeth Farrell, Nicole Gustavsen, Erica Hemmen, Azusa Higashigawa, Leizel Jackson, Han Li, Chaz Rollins, and Jesse Stanley.

“When we first started, everyone at the Zen Center knew we had a problem with space. Every closet was full of paper records,” recalls Associate Professor Joseph T. Tennis, a practicing Zen Buddhist who established the project and serves as faculty for the annual seminar. “Now it is a relatively well-oiled machine and we manage the process. I get emails all the time from the community about our work.”

This summer, the students had a new purpose beyond continuing the work of their peers. In April, the Center concluded a Deed of Gift with the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley to move the entire 50-year accumulation of papers, tapes, digital records and other artifacts, to the Bancroft’s Western Americana collection. 

“The whole idea that we could tell the story of how Zen came to the west through this particular collection was very exciting for the Bancroft. Further, our students now get to apprentice under the curator and the archivists in one of the worlds’ best special collections,” notes Tennis of the Bancroft.

Included in the Center collection are historic photos of visits from celebrated Buddhist teachers such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the installation ceremony of the first woman abbess of the Center. Among the audio tapes are talks by notable practitioners Allen Ginsberg, Lama Anagarika Govina and Philip Whalen.

Theresa Salazar, curator of the Western Americana collection says, “At the Bancroft Library we document important political, social, and cultural activities in the Bay Area and California. The San Francisco Zen Center records not only document an important spiritual movement in the west but also relate to our many literary and other cultural collections. The Library holds the papers of Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and other poets for whom Buddhism played an important role.”

The Center is also establishing an online practice center which will be enriched by the newly digitized photos and audio assets. The Center will use the work of the students to reach out to former residents and visitors, reestablish a connection and broaden the community beyond their physical location in San Francisco.

As Tennis reflects on the most recent experience that is so close to his heart both professionally and personally he says “the deep appreciation that the resident community has for the students is magnificent.”

“There’s this powerful admiration and sense of community that evolves over the course of four-weeks and the students’ didn’t want it to end.”

Watch a video about the project.