From the Archives: making available the archives of the Jesuits in Britain
POST BY MAllen
Monday, September 25, 2017 - 10:55
This year, September 28 will mark the second year of UNESCO’s International Day for the Universal Access to Information (or Access to Information Day). With this in mind, we take a moment to reflect on the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives, and how we play a small part in Access to Information Day every day, by making our records available.
Arguably, there is no point in having an archive – employing the staff to manage it and putting in the financial resources to ensure the material is housed correctly – if it cannot be accessed. Access to archives is what many consider the ultimate goal of archival activity. A major priority in our work is to make sure that our collections are available now and in the future, and can be split into these main activities:
Access to Information Day happens to fall in the month in which the Jesuits in Britain Archives close to visitors in order to concentrate on the vast amount of cataloguing that still needs to be done. A catalogue is not only a useful tool for managing our collections, it also produces a means for external users to search the material. Like many archives, until computers and the internet became prevalent, the collections here were listed on index cards. In our case, this was done thematically or by name. The index cards are invaluable finding aid, but they do have their limitations: they haven’t always been kept up to date, which makes finding a document extremely difficult or impossible to find when this is the case, and they can also be covered in notes, crossings out and corrections, making them difficult to read. If a user would like to know what material we have on a certain topic, we have to scan the index cards, which can be time consuming (there are 45 double-sided index cards for Fr Robert Parsons, for example). The index cards also don’t adhere to the key archival principles of ‘provenance’ and ‘original order’ – that all records of one record creator, for example a particular Jesuit or institution, are catalogued together, and that the organisation of archival records are kept as they were when last used by the creating entity (if known). For the last few years the archives have been working to create a digital catalogue using software called Calm, and the result of this work is a searchable online catalogue, which can be found on the Catholic Heritage website. Though hugely rewarding, cataloguing can be a very time-consuming task, and often we are faced with boxes stuffed full of papers with no explanation as to what they are, who put them there, or whether they are even related, and of course, the dreaded “Miscellaneous” files. Yet since 2014 over 4,000 entries have been created in Calm as a result of our cataloguing work, which include the personal papers of several Jesuits such as Thomas Roberts and Martin D’Arcy, parish, school and community archives, and records relating to Guyana and South Africa. To date, 10% of the collections have been catalogued.
Being an archivist isn’t just about providing access now, it is also about ensuring access in the future, and we do this by taking preventative measures to extend the life of our collections. One step is to make sure they are protected by using appropriate packaging such as acid-free folders and boxes for documents, replacing staples and paperclips with brass paperclips that won’t rust, and putting photographs in inert polyester sleeves. Currently, just over 40% of the material in our main storeroom is packaged in suitable archival boxes. Good handling practices must also be put into place and practised by staff and users alike. To this end we provide book supports, weights and gloves and, of course, ensure that no pens, food or drink are brought anywhere near original documents.
Outreach covers a range of activities to promote and open our collections to new audiences. The Archives contribute a blog post to the Jesuits in Britain website every two weeks based on the content and function of the archive. Recent blog posts have explored Jesuit school records, celebrations for the Feast of St Ignatius, and several on the topic of the First World War. For members of staff we annually exhibit material as part of The National Archives’ Explore your Archive campaign to demonstrate to those who may not have come across archives in their workplace before, what we have and what we do. Past exhibitions have showcased staff favourites, such as a letter to Fr Martin D’Arcy from J R R Tolkein and Fr Freddie Coppleston’s top hat, as well as several items featured in past From the Archives blog posts.
The most direct way that we provide access to our records is through our enquiry service and by allowing visitors into the archives to view the original documents. Visitors range from academics to family historians and the diverse topics of interest have covered biographical details of individual Jesuits to the annual Beaumont-Oratory cricket match. Although we are a private archive and visits are by appointment only, we are nevertheless often busy with visitors, and this year to date we have had 88 visits. Enquiries are a great way for staff to research and familiarise themselves with aspects of the collection they might not have come across before, and this year we have so far had 135. Thanks to our growing team of dedicated archive staff, the number of visits and enquiries have almost doubled since 2014.