ArchI’ve Opened: How the Jesuits in Britain Archives are striving to be more accessible

POST BY MAllen

Since 2015, the Jesuits in Britain Archives have held an annual open day in November for the Jesuit community and staff to coincide with the Explore Your Archive launch week. Explore Your Archive is an Archives and Records Association tool for public and private organisations across the UK and Ireland to showcase hidden gems stored in their collections. Over the years we have put on displays focussing on various themes, such as ArchI’ve Explored, which aimed to introduce the wide range of documents, books, photographs and objects held in the Archives, and ArchI’ve Discovered, which showcased some of the wonderful items we unearthed while relocating the collections after our new repository was built. In 2018 we focussed on the themed hashtags provided by the campaign, such as #HairyArchives and #Animal Archives – see the blog post written by our work experience student, Sophie, to find out what we came up with for these!

This year, of course, things are quite different. Thanks to Coronavirus, our team of Archivists, as well as the rest of the Jesuits in Britain Curia staff, has been mostly working from home, so putting on a physical exhibition will not be possible. Although the past few months have been challenging, perhaps the most important thing that we have learnt from the pandemic is that the Archives need to be more accessible by offering more material digitally. So, while the Archives remain closed for now, we are exploring ways in which we can be more open and accessible in the future.

A useful exercise born out of lockdown was the creation of a survey asking our users for feedback on engagement with the service in order to see where we were doing well and where we could improve. When asked what future activities users would like to see offered, the most popular response with 48% of the vote was to see more material made available online. Over the past year, the Archives have been fortunate to have had two major digitisation projects carried out: the entire printed collection of Chaplains’ Weekly, a weekly newsletter which was begun in the First World War to maintain communication with British Jesuit chaplains, and our collection of approximately 14,500 negatives which include images of Jesuits, buildings, and occasions dating largely to the 1960s and 1970s. Prior conservation projects, which include the flattening, conserving and repackaging of over 1,000 oversized plans, and the Holy Name project, in which 286 plans of the Holy Name Church, Manchester, were conserved as part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, have also provided us with a substantial amount of digitised images. In addition to this, we are currently having preserved and digitised John Morris SJ’s ‘Notes and Letters on Relics of the English Martyrs’ (ref. MSB/83), which is crucial to the history and provenance of the Province’s collection of English and Welsh Martyr relics. We have recently purchased an overhead scanner so that we can carry out digitisation projects inhouse as well as fulfil copy requests from users more easily. With researchers unable to visit the Archives at present, scanning material to be accessed from home has been our priority on the days that we have been working in the Archives. We are currently investigating ways to make our digitised material available online, and thus opening our collections up to a much wider audience.

Digitised double page spread from The Chaplains' Weekly, Easter 1916

When we asked in our engagement survey our users’ preferred way to access the Archives, the top response, along with consulting material online, was to be informed of archives news through blog posts, social media, and publications etc., with 26% of the vote. Although we contribute blog posts to the Jesuits in Britain website every two weeks, we have for some time thought about creating our own social media presence, and lockdown was just the impetus we needed. In October, we created a Twitter account, @JesuitArchives, where we share announcements, information about what goes on behind the scenes, and hope to engage with other archives, academics or anyone interested in our collections. In doing this we hope to showcase our diverse collections in a more informal and accessible way, and to hopefully engage with a wider audience. So far we have gained nearly 200 followers and sent over a 100 tweets.

This year, 25 October marked the 50th anniversary of the Canonisation of the 40 English and Welsh Martyrs. To commemorate the occasion, the Jesuits in Britain Archives were to hold an exhibition, jointly with Stonyhurst College, of martyr relics owned by the Province. As the seriousness of the pandemic became more apparent, it became clear that a physical exhibition would not be possible, and we began to explore ways to move it online. Thanks to the hard work of our website developers and Jan Graffius, Curator at Stonyhurst, who has been cleaning the relics and producing the images and text, the exhibition How Bleedeth Burning Love will be launching in December 2020. The positive outcome of the exhibition moving online has been that we have been able to make it more accessible by creating audio captions, and it will be available to all and not limited to those able to visit in person. We hope that this will be the first of many exhibitions and you can keep up with updates and teasers on our Twitter feed.

If you are interested in the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives or have an enquiry, please contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk.

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist