Future Proofing – again (Robin)

Forgive me for coming back to this again but I have just had the Archivist for the Australian province of another religious order visiting Ballarat to discuss the future of their archival collection, given the reducing number of sisters they have in Australia.  I know we have talked about this ourselves in relation to smaller Loreto provinces, but it is interesting that this problem is now so pressing for some other orders.

We discussed various possibilites for the future custody of such collections, given that the order themselves would not have continued resources to house or manage their collection.  The most archivally sound practice would seem to be that the archives of closed houses and provinces should continue in the custody of the superior agency of the same organisation.  This is not usually practical for international orders, given limited resources available to store and manage extra materials, the expense of moving collections off-shore, not to mention the issue of removal of cultural material from the country of origin.

The only option for this particular order seemed to be the splitting of the collection between archdiocese, diocese, interested collecting archives such as university archives and their central archives.   This seemed to be intuitively a very unsatisfactory option as it would mean that researchers would have difficulty accessing the collection over various different institutions and the rather comforting situation of having the related records in the same facility would be lost.  But perhaps I am being too precious about this.  Perhaps if the intellectual control is sufficient and the possibilty of the digitising of vital records is available, the actual physical location of the records is irrelevant.

However, I still think that a better option would be the formation of an umbrella religious collections archives which could funded by contributing orders, perhaps with some sort of trust fund developed for long term financial security.  The Sisters of Mercy, here, have a web design business which offers services generally but particularly for religious orders.  No idea how this works financially but could this be an interesting model to pursue in regard to an archives storage and management service?

By the way, I was not able to give my visitor much help as I really do not know the answer to the problem.  I only know that this is something that we should be facing sooner rather than later.  The gut reaction seems to be to split the collection and I think this risks the loss of keeping our collections authentic, reliable and useable – the three tenets of archival practice.

Just wondering if you have had heard what other religous order might be doing or if anyone has approached you with the question.

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2 thoughts on “Future Proofing – again (Robin)

  1. Hi Robin & Michelle,
    I seem to be always apologising for the delay in replying to your posts, checking the blog is usually a Friday afternoon task, seems a fitting activity for Fridays I think!

    Robin your query is certainly thought provoking, and as you rightly point out something that both the archivists and governing bodies of religious institutions need to consider.

    My instinctive response is that, I am not in favour of the splitting of collections, and that it should really only be considered as an option of last resort. The authenticity and integrity of the collections would surely be compromised by such an action, despite efforts to establish and maintain intellectual control over the material.

    This issue has been informally discussed in archival circles in Ireland, and to date one shared archival repository for religious institutions has been established. The Delgany Archive in Co. Carlow, cares for the collections of the Brigidine Sisters, Presentation Brothers, the RC diocese of Kildare and Leighlin and Carlow College. A single archivist runs the archive. http://www.delanyarchive.ie/index.html

    I’m not quite sure when it was set up, but is a fairly recent development. In the case of this archive, I (think) there is a common link between the religious institutions in the person of Dr Daniel Delany, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin 1747 – 1814; who I am guessing oversaw and encouraged the establishment of the Brigidine Sisters, Patrician Brothers and the Carlow College in the early 19th century.

    Similarly, a number of years ago, one of the third level institutes in Ireland began to engage with religious orders with the hope of establishing a shared archive. One of the proposals I think was, that each order would (continue) to employ their own archivist to manage their collections, so it was just the physical space and related resources that would be shared. I’m not sure how far discussions advanced, but the shared archive didn’t materialise.

    Religious orders in Ireland, partly due to the sequence of scandals that have engulfed the Church and religious orders here and undoubtedly their aging populations, have begun to actively recruit lay professional archivists. Many of them have also provided purpose built archival repositories and exhibition spaces. For the moment I think many of the religious orders here are content to employ their own archivist in a stand-alone archive. I am certain it will emerge as a question for consideration again in the not so distant future.

    Personally I’m in favour of the idea of shared archive, perhaps of religious orders with a similar ethos and mission, (e.g. education and empowerment of people, provision of healthcare etc). Aside from the obvious positive advantages of securing the custodianship of archival collections into the future, I can only imagine that it would be a more cost effective option, and would increase the profile of the archive and thereby the originating body.

  2. Hello All,
    I apologize for the delay in responding to this post. I really wanted to have some dedicated time to sit down and address the issue of “the future of archival collections” – especially as it is one that we are now facing in the Canadian Province.

    Regarding collections that are endangered, and where limited resources exist – I sincerely believe (generally) that the most feasible option to “rescue them” is to move them off-shore to other storage facilities. I know this is a very controversial stance, but when faced with the alternatives of destruction and decay – I think it is the best option. The difficulty lies in making an honest assessment (lack of resources etc.) and initiating the change. I would rather see archival items housed with a larger governing body off-site and accessible than to see them ignored and unused.

    “Splitting the collection” makes me cringe. – as Robin mentioned multi-locality of the collections results in a considerable deterrent to access. Even with the increase in digitization of collection – which does help in a sense with access, preservation etc. – the information inherent in the physical items themselves would be less accessible.

    It was very interesting to look at the link for the “Delany Archive.” I do think that the “Umbrella- Approach” is a good one, considering the circumstances. In Toronto, the St. Joseph Sisters’ Archives have recently moved into a renovated administration building having sold their Mother House. The new building has three spaces, an office, the archives- proper and a space for researchers. The space for researchers is currently being rented to the archives of another dwindling order. In this way, both archivists share the apace. Among the stacks, the other order has been given space to hold their collection. But this is not a permanent solution.

    Beginning as early as 2006 and working with the University of Toronto’s Kelly Library and (initially) 6 Religious Institutes, an expansion of the Library for the purposes of housing religious archives was proposed. What a center of scholarship this could have been! The joint-archives could have focused programming and promotion, and the records could be linked directly to University courses. The institutes would contribute to the cost for building the expansion. The institutes would remain as legal owners and provide archivists to manage the collections respectively. In 2009 the plan was dropped as issues concerning cost, ownership, competing interests and vision did not suit our situation at that time.

    Among the records during the above negotiations I notices mention of the examples of Laurentian University and St. Paul’s University – both institutions that house private collections, including some belonging to Religious. I’ll have to look into this soon.

    As we move forward in the next few years, the Canadian Province Archives is faced with this very same issue.. We have begun discussing the possibilities. Options on the list so far:
    -remain at the Abbey, renting the space from the school board
    -move to the College downtown
    -move to and affiliate with Kelly Library
    -rent space in another archival facility

    Each presents its own pros and cons: now to weigh them and make the best decision.! So much to consider.

    Happy Weekend to my dear friends on distant shores!

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