Archive Update: Managing the SHCJ European Province Archives during Lockdown

Isabel Keating, SHCJ Archivist

Week Prior to National Lockdown 16th – 20th March 2020

I was informed on 16th March that the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) sisters had decided to close the European Province office and archives located in their house in Oxford, the Cherwell Centre, until the end of April at the earliest. The situation would be reviewed at Easter, in the meantime, staff and the sisters would keep in touch regularly. I had an entire week to plan how I could best utilize this time spent away from the physical archives. I was also able to complete urgent tasks. The caretaker of the convent building kindly agreed to check the archives store for any obvious issues while I was working from home.

The Cherwell Centre, Oxford, home of the SHCJ European Province Archives

Actions Taken

  • Created a list of tasks that could be completed over the coming weeks and gathered both print and online resources for researching the SHCJ. Shared this list with the SHCJ sister who oversees my work and the Province Leader.
  • Reviewed storage areas to ensure that there were no current issues with the building or the collections which might worsen over the period of my absence.
  • Moved object collection from corridor cabinet to archive store where this collection will remain permanently. The immediate reason for the move was to avoid damage if carpets were treated for moths while I was away from the archives. In the long term, the archive store provides a better environment for these objects.
  • Reviewed the status of any ongoing enquiries and arrangements with contractors and suppliers. Emailed archive equipment supplier to request that a recently made order might be delivered on my return to the archives office.
  • Checked that remote access to the server was successfully set up on my laptop and changed my answerphone.
  • Researched and took photographs of archive material for article that was to be put in an April 2020 newsletter.

Working from home during lockdown, 23rd March – 3rd July 2020

Work Practices

  • Maintained a rough ‘work diary’ giving details of what was achieved each week while working from home. This meant I could account for my time and mark my progress with long and short term projects.
  • Kept in close contact with colleagues, contractors and suppliers. This enabled me to update SHCJ sisters, to plan conservation work and to schedule visits from key contractors on my return to the office at the easing of lockdown. 
  • Attempted to answer most enquires within one to two days. I suggested online resources such as the Cornelia Connelly Library and the Villanova Digital Library.
  • Used a flexible approach to the work I had outlined earlier as ‘from home’ tasks. At times I moved on from cataloguing and other continuous tasks to time sensitive work such as producing monthly articles. I also prioritised projects where I was collaborating remotely with others to ensure I contributed in a prompt and meaningful way.
  • Referred back to the plan I had made prior to working from home regularly to ensure I was covering all tasks.

Tasks completed during lockdown

  • Cataloguing – I was able to map out and create entries for the upper levels of the SHCJ European Province archives. I worked on short histories of SHCJ foundations for series level descriptions in the catalogue.
  • Resources – I have created resources for cataloguing and other tasks including a spreadsheet of SHCJ houses and a typed up, edited version of the SHCJ Histories volumes’ timelines. I now have a searchable resource to find dates for SHCJ’s historical events and a better familiarity with SHCJ history.

Outreach – I wrote three articles for the SHCJ European Province newsletter, two improvised from existing digitised material on the network and published sources I had access to. The subjects covered were educating pupils on gardening and agriculture in the European and African Province Holy Child schools (April), the SHCJ sisters’ and pupils’ experiences during WW2 (May for VE day celebrations) and the SHCJ Book of the Order of Studies (June).

Sibyl, José and Mary C., Mayfield School girls gardening with Sr Mary Ignatius, c.1918.
  • Communications – I liaised with the SHCJ sisters and NCS staff to download data from the environmental monitoring system and organised July’s dehumidifier maintenance check without difficulty. Enquirers seemed happy with the assistance I was able to give them and not all of them required direct accessing of the archival collection. Zoom meetings with SHCJ sisters and other colleagues as well as fellow archivists from the Birmingham Diocese worked well and were productive.
  • I had time to engage with collaborative long term projects delayed by the pandemic. This included assisting with preparations for an interprovincial archives workshop moved to 2021. I wrote a resource on defining archives.

Challenges of Home working

  • It was easier than usual to get ‘lost’ in potentially expansive tasks such as carrying out research for articles and reading up on SHCJ houses for the catalogue.
  • There were times when I was unable to answer an enquirer’s question fully or check facts for an article as I had no direct access to the archives.
  • I could not carry out some important preservation related tasks such as sending the humidistat logger to NCS. My SHCJ sister line manager kindly sent the logger. She also assisted me by providing images of a volume of the Book of the Order of Studies.
  • Being on a fixed term contract, I was conscious that the ongoing lockdown slowed completion of direct item based cataloguing and other tasks within the limited time I have.
Title page and annotated passage of ‘the Book of the Order of Studies’, a manual created by the Foundress and her fellow SHCJ teachers to guide teaching in the Society’s schools.

Return to the Archives 6th July 2020

I arranged with the SHCJ sisters at Oxford to return on 6th July 2020 as the situation across the UK began to gradually improve. Procedures were discussed and on my return I was given adequate supplies of hand sanitiser and other PPE. I also had an informal, socially distanced meeting with the Oxford SHCJ sisters in the garden of the building. I enjoyed catching up with them in person; it was a pleasant welcome back.

Actions Taken

  • Confirmed with the sisters the procedures required to maintain safe conditions for myself and others while working. I have PPE available to give to contractors if required. However, all appear to have their own PPE and procedures in place.
  • Checked the archives offices and storage areas for any issues. I found all appeared well.
  • Completed tasks that were overdue because of the extended lockdown conditions such as changing the moth traps and recording moth numbers.
  • Most of the first week was spent planning how the cataloguing and physical arrangement of the archives might progress and making preparations required for conservation work scheduled for textiles in our object collection. It was helpful that some of the arrangements for this were already made.

Conclusion

The first UK lockdown caused an abrupt change in circumstances which forced me to radically alter my work pattern. It raised significant issues as enquiries could not be fully answered and certain tasks became impossible. These problems were overcome by having adequate time – a week preceding the UK government’s full lockdown measures – to plan my tasks and by having support from the SHCJ sisters and contractors with whom I work closely. Colleagues both within the SHCJ and other Catholic archives provided helpful encouragement and advice.

During the UK’s second wave, I continue to have access to the archives store and office where I work alone in a Covid secure manner, entering and using a separate part of the building from the residential side of the convent. I feel lucky that I am able to continue tasks involving physical contact with the collections and to monitor the store in person. Lockdown has had its challenges. Nonetheless, I feel now that the period working from home gave me valuable time to expand my knowledge of the SHCJ and reflect on how its history might best be preserved.

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