Preserving the History of Catholic Women Religious:
New Conversations on Gathering, Conserving, and Presenting the Past
Recap of a Symposium at Marian University, Indianapolis, December 2014
Archivists, sisters, and historians (and some sister-archivist-historians!), convened by Mary Ellen Lennon of Marian’s history department and supported by grants from the Delmas Foundation and the Indiana Humanities Council, gathered to focus especially on the archiving and presentation problems faced by smaller orders of women religious with fewer resources. In her opening remarks, Lennon noted that the archives of small orders are in grave danger of simply disappearing, taking along with them the history of the order and its members. In this context, she said, “archivism is activism.”
Several archivists and scholars with experience in digitizing small collections spoke about some of the initial challenges of such a task, which is promising yet more difficult than many understand. Lydia Spotts, archivist for Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, noted that “digitization” involves several steps: first, people and records must be organized so that the group knows what exactly it has and what order it should be kept in. “Old-fashioned” inventories, finding aids, and catalogues are necessary, with the physical job of tracking everything down followed by the intellectual job of discerning which items are of historical importance. Archivists can take inventory and recommend sub-series for digitization, but only the order itself (or those whom it deputizes) has “intellectual control” over the collection and what happens to it. After the order and/or its employees decides what it wants to preserve, the second step of funding acquisition can begin, to be followed by the third step of taking action to preserve physical and digital artifacts and connecting these to a larger and sustainable preservation infrastructure. Jenny Johnson, Digital Scholarship Outreach Librarian at IUPUI, recommended seeking out local experts (like university librarians) for help in finding grants, etc. She suggested asking several questions: “Who’s your audience? What’s most important? What’s the condition of the items--are they fragile? How can we use a selected digital portion to get scholars interested in the larger collection?”
For practical assistance, scholars and archivists should consider connecting with a larger group. Louise Grundish, SC, spoke on behalf of the Archivists of Congregations of Women Religious (www.archivistsacwr.org); Kate Feighery, archivist of the Archdiocese of New York, suggested discussing concerns with local university and diocesan archivists; and Jennifer Younger of the Catholic Research Resources Alliance (www.catholicresearch.net) invited interested groups to contact the CRRA to discuss joining and to learn more about the Catholic Portal, which attempts to provide enduring global access to records of unique Catholic resources in libraries and archives. She also mentioned the Catholic Funding Guide. Carrie Schweier, of the Society of Indiana Archivists, suggested seeking out local secular groups like the Midwest Archives Conference, museums and libraries interested in local history, and so on.
Interested in these issues? Please consider submitting an individual or group proposal to the Triennial Conference!
This recap first appeared in the Spring 2015 American Catholic Studies Newsletter.