Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist
For the past year the Jesuits in Britain Archives team have, for the most part, been working remotely. Most archivists are not used to working from home since processing the collections in our care and making them accessible sit at the core of what we do and requires us to be onsite. However despite the year’s frustrations, many of us will probably be pleasantly surprised at what we have been able to achieve. For us this has been a range of activities that may never have come about without this interruption to normal service.
Many of us will have tasks that we would love to tackle but never find time for in the course of our usual working days. For us this might be checking over volunteer work or creating finding aids. Many of our volunteers and work experience students have contributed to transcribing one of our most treasured holdings: a Jesuit newsletter which began in 1915 called Chaplains’ Weekly. The first 30 or so issues were handwritten, copied, and distributed, but are now terribly faded in parts and, as we possess the only complete run in the Province, we have been transcribing them for preservation and access purposes. Thanks to a recent project to have the newsletters digitised, we were able to check and sign off volunteer transcriptions using the digitised versions from home. Digitisation of other records, such as volumes of bound manuscripts, has meant that we can continue with the often time-consuming task of creating finding aids for them.
One of the real positives to come out of the first lockdown was the instigation of an oral history project, carried out by two Jesuits in formation who spent part of their lockdown at St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre with four older members of the Society. The resulting conversations ranged over 70 years or more of experiences and were similarly wide ranging in themes. The interviewees talked at length about matters from how their days were ordered when they were novices in the 1950s through to profound transformations in Society and the Church and the global pandemic. Again, staff have been able to spend time transcribing these interviews that we may otherwise not have had. Short excerpts of the interviews, which make up ‘Jesuit Memories’, can be listened to on the Jesuits in Britain SoundCloud.
We have also been exploring ways to make the Archives more accessible. In October 2020 we created a Twitter account (@JesuitArchives) where we share announcements, information about what goes on behind the scenes, and showcase our diverse collections in an informal way with the aim of engaging with a wider audience. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to familiarise ourselves with Twitter so that hopefully when we return to the office we will be a well-oiled Twitter machine!
Our most exciting endeavour has been to launch an online exhibition. How Bleedeth Burning Love, a collaboration with Stonyhurst College, showcases relics of the English and Welsh Martyrs of the Reformation and tells the stories of the many men and women whose bravery and resourcefulness helped keep the Catholic faith alive in the 16th and 17th centuries. As this is the first online exhibition we have been involved in it was quite a learning curve, but an incredibly exciting one and we hope it will pave the way for many future online exhibitions.
So while the past year has certainly come with its challenges, it has also come with its opportunities and we have learned that there is an incredible amount of work that we can do even without access to our physical collections – though of course we are looking forward to getting back to them in the hopefully not too distant future!