Alan R Whelan, MSC Archivist
When asked to write an article on work undertaken in the archives during the third lockdown due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the answer that first came to mind was very little. The archives I am responsible for are inconveniently located during pandemic times in Dublin. Travel restrictions upon arrival, questions of necessary or unnecessary journeys, self-isolation within a community house ensure a better to stay at home in the UK response during these unprecedented times. However, much can be done even if one cannot be physically present in the archives.
The congregation closed one of its major houses just before the first lockdown in 2020 and while it was a cause of sadness to many members and lay people, as archivist it also presented an opportunity to celebrate the work of over seventy years as a student and in more recent times as a retreat house. A booklet with personal testimonies of happy and challenging times with lots of photographs was my main focus. Pleading begging letters and emails were sent and surprisingly many individuals were happy to put pen to paper, or less time consuming for the archivist who had to type out handwritten accounts, typed reminisces. Staff in the provincial house, where the archives are housed, generously gave of their time to search for photographs and scan them so I was able to assembly contributions without leaving the comfort of my office here in the UK. Emboldened by the positive reception of the booklet, an anniversary of another student house was celebrated with a similar booklet, with once again a focus on personal stories and photographs. For both these projects the archive proved to be a treasure trove of information long since forgotten. Opening up and advertising what the archives contain was also part of the purpose of the publications, prompting some members to donate relevant photographs and recording memories of a formative time in their lives.
Of limited success was a shout out for confrères to submit their personal experience of lockdowns and its effects on their lives, ministry and communities. Contributions from hospital chaplains, Zoom retreat givers, teachers and retired priests preserved for the next generation the human story of living through a pandemic.
I suspect like most archives limited storage space is an ongoing problem. With a little more time to think about a solution to my storage dilemma I made investigations as to the transfer of some of the material to another house where better and purpose-built storage space will be made available. Budgets and permissions all negotiated by Zoom, how did we live without it!
Of course, there is a downside to not being physically present in the archive. I am told boxes of donations await to be sorted, catalogued or recycled. Requests for information have been deferred and one can only hope that some light dusting is undertaken on an occasional basis.
The learning experience for me to date is that with a little bit of forward planning I can undertake some work while being physically away for the archive. I am blessed that someone in the provincial house is familiar with the cataloguing system and can forward books, articles and photographs as required. Thoughts and further investigation now needs to be undertaken as to making some aspects and resources of the archives easily accessible to confrères. More research and Zoom calls to be made but fortunately in these ‘stay at home’ times from the comfort of my office here in the UK.