What are Archives and why do we keep them?

Archives are the accumulated records of an individual or institution which merit preservation because of their possible subsequent value to the originating source for legal, administrative or personal reasons.

Archives are also preserved for cultural and historical reasons. Their use as source material allows researchers to document fully and preserve the character and identity of an individual or organisation.

Archival records come in many media, shapes, sizes and formats including; individual letters, paper files, handwritten bound volumes, scrap books, press cuttings, printed constitutions, spiritual and devotional literature, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, oral histories recordings, microfilm, floppy discs, CDs, film reels, videos and DVDs.

Archives are the annals of a community, the acts of chapter, the registers of profession, the minutes of meetings, the account books, the annual school inspection reports, the correspondence with dioceses, the documentation of interaction with ecclesiastical and civil authorities, the title deeds to property, the personal papers of individual sisters, the constitutions, the prayer leaflets, the photographs of community life, the videos and cassette recordings of jubilees, professions and special occasions.

Archival material need not be very old to be important. The value of archival material lies in its usefulness to the creator or custodian. Once it is no longer of pressing use for administrative reasons it may become of great value to researchers.

Why keep archives and what should we keep?

It is not uncommon to hear the comment that archives are a waste of time, money and resources. We live in the present and plan for the future. Why dwell in the past?

Firstly we are required by Canon Law and church teaching to do so. Pope John Paul II has described archives as places of memory of the Christian community and storehouses of culture for the new evangelisation. He has emphasised that the various religious authorities have a responsibility which they cannot ignore; they should preserve both ancient archives and current records. The Church has a duty to guard and increase these records so as to pass them on to generations to come. To this end the 1983 Code of Canon Law requires that the whole patrimony of a congregation must be faithfully preserved by all. This patrimony is comprised of the intentions of the founders, of all that the competent ecclesiastical authority has approved concerning the nature, purpose spirit and character of an institute and of its sound traditions (Canon 578).

This canon places an obligation on every member of the congregation, but clearly the archivist holds a privileged and responsible position as custodian of the collective memory of the congregation. The church’s increasing commitment to its archives was seen in June 1988 in the establishment by Pope John Paul 11 of the Pontifical Commission for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Heritage. This was later renamed the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. In his address to members of the Commission on 12 October 1995, Pope John Paul 11 defined cultural heritage as including, the artistic wealth of painting, sculpture, architecture, mosaic, and music, placed at the service of the Church’s mission....the wealth of books contained in ecclesiastical libraries and the historical documents preserved in the archives of ecclesiastical communities. In February 1997 the Commission produced a circular entitled The Pastoral Function of Church Archives which elaborates on the value of archives as places of memory and storehouses of culture, celebrates their prophetic evaluative role and outlines a concrete plan of action for their preservation and use.

There are reasons other than Canon Law and church teaching for keeping archives, manifestly practical reasons. Religious congregations are administrative and corporate entities. They are employers, run schools, own property, oversee development projects, raise funds and administer the legal and financial affairs of the institute and its sisters. Archives are integral to the proper functioning of these administrations for the fundamental reason that they serve as a memory. Just as individuals are dysfunctional without a memory; so too are organisations. Without archival recall or the records to facilitate that recall, the religious institute would have no perspective on which to base planning, no example of precedent to prevent the administration from making, repeating, or avoiding mistakes, no expert knowledge other than often inaccurate human memory, no means of proving entitlements or ownership, and no way of defending oneself against, or responding to, allegations of improper actions.

The current controversies regarding industrial schools and magdalen laundries are practical and very painful examples of the need for accurate record keeping and the preservation of archives as well as the financial, legal and psychological damage that can be inflicted through the absence of such records. Records are the factual diaries of events. The absence of such records, their loss through natural attrition, accidental loss or deliberate destruction does a disservice to the congregation's work in a difficult ministry and to the thousands of marginalised women and children to whom the congregation ministered. The hurt felt by many of those who spent part of their lives in care can be compounded by the discovery that no record of that part of their life survives, that their records and by extension, they themselves, were not deemed worthy of preservation. The absence of records can also leave a congregation vulnerable to attack and can add fire to claims of deliberate obfuscation and a refusal to accept responsibility for past actions. The extra research and resources required to reconstruct missing information can be very expensive, if it can be done at all, in terms of finance, morale, honour and reputation. That is why we keep archives.

There is not a bursar, team leader or manager who has not spent fruitless hours searching for records that were known to have existed but cannot be found. This can be annoying, it can be frustrating in terms of time wasted, but it can also have legal and financial implications. We all know of cases where communities could not establish title to a property and thus could not develop it or dispose of it because the records had been locked away in a secure place that no one can remember or burnt in an over-zealous fit of housekeeping. Archives are not just an indulgence; they are an administrative and legal necessity.

Archives also contain information that is of interest not only to the creating institute, but also to researchers from a variety of fields of knowledge. As historians and researchers turn increasingly towards the investigation of social, economic and cultural history, more attention is given to the sociological and cultural aspects of the history of religion. Researchers are interested in the family and social background of religious sisters, the life they led, the work they did at local and diocesan level, the manuals they studied, the difficulties they faced and the prayers they recited. At a time when secular women are largely invisible in history because of the lack of recognition of their role and the absence or records dealing with them, congregations have in their archives, records of women who managed their own finances and exercised authority in hospitals and schools. Often such records contain information gathered originally for a purpose quite different from the uses to which the later researcher will put them. Researchers, for example, have used account books to assess changes in economic status or to trace spiritual development through payments to spiritual directors or to those who conducted retreats.

Archives are also of value to researchers within a congregation and Sisters of Mercy are using archives to an increasing degree to explore aspects of Mercy story and memory as witnessed by the expanding number of recent publications on Mercy history.

Archives are part of the historical identity of the congregation as a whole and of individual houses in particular. One can only understand a society or congregation through an examination of their codes, customs and activities. Archives are the tools of understanding. They provide evidence of the historical development of the congregation, the opening and closing of houses, the evolution of ministry and the contribution to the wider community. Dolores Liptak RSM in an address to the first assembly of American Mercy Archives, Pittsburgh, October 1992, spoke of the need to see both history and archives in their proper perspective: history, as an essential means that should be in the forefront of every process of understanding Mercy as a community; and archives, as the important treasury that safeguards and ensures the future of the missionary call. She emphasised that religious archivists and religious researchers were responsible for keeping alive the sacred story of their community’s journey and that the planners should regularly tap into the congregation's story as the only source for understanding the congregation’s mission. She cited studies of the future of religious life that argued that no community could either maintain its course or project its future goals unless it was willing to recollect its past and test every decision with relation to its tradition.

It is Christ who operates in time and who writes…His story through our papers which are echoes and traces of the passage of the Lord Jesus in the world. Thus, having veneration for these papers, documents, archives means having veneration for Christ;… it means giving to ourselves and those who will come after us the history of this phase of transitus Domini (Pope Paul VI).

Marianne Cosgrave is the Congregational Archivist and works from Herbert Street, Dublin, Ireland.