Notre Dame Archives Report

Marvels of Microfilm Shine Light on Catholic History


When people hear that we still have microfilm in the archives, they often express surprise. Haven’t we digitized everything by now? I resort to my facetious motto, “19th-century technology applied to the problems of today.” But seriously, sometimes 19th-century technology can prove superior to the latest thing.

By keeping microfilm in a location far removed from the original documents, archives can provide some insurance against disaster. In the light of current interest in digitizing archives, we can see another advantage of microfilm: it can be sent out for digitizing without risk to the unique original documents.

In fact, we have digitized much of our microfilm, but the digital version does not replace the film. For purposes of preservation, microfilm has several advantages. In fact, one kind of microfilm, Computer Output Microfilm, exists as a preservation medium for digital data. Microfilm lasts for hundreds of years with no need to migrate data or reformat files to keep up with developing technology. After those hundreds of years, anyone with a light and a lens will be able to read the documents.

In 1851, James Glaisher made the case for micro-photography as a way to preserve documents. Nevertheless, libraries and archives did not undertake large-scale microfilming projects until the middle of the 20th century. At Notre Dame, starting in 1951, Father Thomas McAvoy, C.S.C., went to Europe to find Catholic historical documents pertinent to the Church in the United States. He soon launched several projects, some of them to microfilm collections in the Notre Dame Archives and some to microfilm other Catholic archives in Europe and North America.

In 1965, a few of the collections in the Notre Dame Archives had appeal broad enough to merit grant funds for microfilming from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). These became microfilm publications acquired by many libraries: Records of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, the William Tecumseh Sherman Papers, the Thomas Ewing Papers, and the Orestes A. Brownson Papers. We have digitized the first two of these collections and have made them available via our website. This year we intend to digitize the others and make them available as well.

We also sell microfilm of early sports periodicals, including some 19th-century Sports Newspapers, The Sporting News, and The Sporting Life. Most of our microfilm collections, however, exist as research resources in the archives rather than as publications for sale.

On February 18, 1954, Notre Dame issued a press release describing plans to create archival microfilm:

Thousands of documents on the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, formerly inaccessible to historians in America, soon will be available in microfilm to scholars in the University of Notre Dame Archives, it was announced today by Reverend Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., university archivist and head of the history department. These documents include letters from American Catholic bishops and missionaries of the nineteenth century to European mission societies which supported them in their work in this country.

Since most of these letters were written precisely to tell the societies about conditions in American missions, they form an indispensable source of the history of the Church in America, Father McAvoy explained.

Today, inventories of these mission-society archives can be found on the Notre Dame Archives website: the Leopoldine Society (Austrian), the Ludwigs-Verein (German), and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (French). Samuel F. B. Morse, famous nativist, portrait painter, and inventor of the telegraph, wrote a book about the Leopoldine Society called Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1836).

As these microfilming plans came to fruition, Notre Dame issued more enthusiastic press releases concerning additional triumphs. A press release dated December 7, 1961 announced an astounding achievement: microfilm of the United States documents in the archives of the Vatican office in charge of the propagation of the faith in mission territory, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.

The University of Notre Dame has acquired microfilm copies of Vatican documents chronicling the first two-and-a-half centuries of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, according to an announcement today by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., University president.

Letters and reports sent by American prelates and priests to the Vatican between 1622 and 1861 have been copied in the archives of the Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith with the permission of its prefect, His Eminence Gregorio Pietro XV Cardinal Agagianian. They will be housed in the $8,000,000 Notre Dame Memorial Library now under construction.

Rev. Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., Notre Dame archivist, who supervised the mammoth microfilming project, said the collection includes many previously unused documents of American Catholic history. Of particular interest to historians, he said, are letters and reports of American bishops whose archives were lost in fires “or destroyed by overscrupulous administrators.”

Access to archives, on paper or on microfilm, depends on finding aids. Father McAvoy developed finding aids for most of the microfilm collections he established, but for the Propaganda Fide microfilm he supported the efforts of the Academy of American Franciscan History to produce United States Documents in the Propaganda Fide Archives, a calendar in twelve volumes covering 1673 to 1892.

Thanks to Father McAvoy, we also have archival microfilm representing American dioceses, their prelates and clergy, including Baltimore, Bardstown- Louisville, Vincennes, Saint Louis, and Richmond; and religious orders such as the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, the Sisters of Loretto, the Vincentians, the Josephite Fathers, and the Congregation of Holy Cross. Other large collections of microfilm include records of the Texas Knights of Columbus Historical Commission, the Catholic Central Verein, and a collection of Catholic parish and institutional records.

We also have large collections of personal papers on microfilm, including papers of Father David Bowman, S.J., documenting his ecumenical efforts with the National Council of the Churches of Christ and his participation in the Catholic peace movement, with special attention to the troubles in Northern Ireland; Father Albert J. Nevins, a Maryknoll missionary who served as editor of Maryknoll Magazine and Our Sunday Visitor; Howard A. Glickstein, staff director and general counsel of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in the 1960s and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil Rights, 1973–1975; and famous sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. We have Gilbert Cardenas’ Mexican-American collection, the Minnesota Historical Society’s microfilm edition of the papers of Archbishop John Ireland, and papers of Louis Auguste Blanqui, a French socialist and architect of secret societies who participated in the revolutions of 1830, 1839, 1848, and 1871.

We have smaller collections of microfilm from many other dioceses, religious congregations, Catholic organizations, and individuals. We also have many Catholic newspapers on microfilm.

The largest collection of microfilm from Notre Dame itself preserves library card catalogs from the 20th century. The largest personal collection documents Father Hesburgh’s contribution to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. We are presently digitizing the Hesburgh microfilm. Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., figures prominently in many of the announcements concerning achievements of the Notre Dame Archives. During his long administration as President of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh supported efforts to build collections fostering research in Catholic history. Following his example, all who hope to preserve the Catholic character of Notre Dame will, I pray, continue to support these efforts.

 Wm. Kevin Cawley

 Senior Archivist & Curator of Manuscripts

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