The 2022 Conference took place at Hinsley Hall from Monday 23rd to Wednesday 25th May and was attended by 37 members. The conference followed the established pattern of meeting late in the afternoon of Monday, preceded by a council meeting and finished after lunch on Wednesday.
The first speaker of the conference was Donna Maguire from Scottish Catholic Archives who touched on the papers of the Bishop’s Conference of Scotland, the digitisation programme of Parish Registers and the horrifying story of the rescue of the Scottish Catholic Observer, who ceased trading during lockdown and abandoned their offices and the past publications of the paper. It was noticeable that the archive material you would expect from such an institution – such as readers’ letters, subscription records and photographs, were not present! It was great to hear of the success of all these projects, despite huge challenges, and to hear about plans for the development of the archives, which will be moving soon – watch this space for an update! Donna raised several practical issues and touched on closure periods of records which led to one of many discussion points that was discussed; the need for church archives to release records at the same time or earlier than civil records or the voice of the church will not be given a voice in the first post-release histories of events. Donna also highlighted one of the other aspects of her role, which is the work of the Catholic Heritage Network; a project which aims to bring together numerous organisations across Britain and Ireland, forging partnerships between Diocesan Archives, Bishops’ Conferences, Seminaries, and Religious Orders, in order to provide users with a centralised access point to an online collection of Archive and Library catalogues within the Catholic Church (https://www.catholic-heritage.net/)
The first evening of socialising was a joyous affair and lots of topics were discussed, notwithstanding general catch up on how people had been since we last caught up in 2019, conversations also ranged across archival topics from digitisation to student placements.
Tuesday was packed full of informative and challenging talks. The day began with a fascinating presentation from Danny Michaels and Lawrence Gregory from the National Institute of Newman Studies (NINS), Pittsburgh who talked on the future of catholic digital archives. The presentation acknowledged the financial and staffing constraints of many archives which ultimately leads to limited access to material; and highlighted how the online platform which they have created (known as Rednal) aims to both preserve and protect archives but also, to preserve and project (https://digitalcollections.newmanstudies.org). The Rednal platform aims primarily to facilitate access to the Newman archives of the world, but future plans include expansion to the writings of significant others who were peers and friends of Newman. NINS provides a vital lifeline for damaged archives in these collections, allowing them to continue to be available for research and preserving the originals. The Rednal software was inspired by National and International library digital catalogues such as New York library/ Yale etc. and continues to be developed to build in new functions and search elements, including providing a context manager to place the letters within the contact of the day. The takeaway from the presentation was not if we can afford to use this technology for archives but can we afford not to.
The second talk of the day came from Robert Finnigan, the archivist of Leeds Diocese. Robert highlighted that we’d come full circle as the society had been at Hinsley Hall 6 years ago and he had last spoken to us on the 24th May 2016. Robert talked through the challenges, changes and projects of the last 6 years and explored the many and varied research projects he had been able to assist with. He spoke on ‘The joy of the job is being able to help those who are undertaking their own research and exploring their own interests’ – a sentiment many archivists will share, I’m sure. An interesting point was raised on how Archives often provide access to secondary source material on Catholic history which can’t be found in academic libraries and a lively discussion on this point took place. Robert also showed the conference a couple of items in the collection, including the trowel from the laying of the foundation stone of Hinsley Hall, he then told us that the stone cannot be found, and challenged us to try and find it in the next 24 hours! (Sadly, no one succeeded)
The afternoon sessions were presented by Dr Clare Watson and Richard Shenton from Media Archive for Central England (https://www.macearchive.org). The first half of their presentation gave us an overview of how MACE came to exist, the work they do and how they can assist other archives. It was fascinating to hear that there is no current formal course in film archiving in the UK, most knowledge is learned on the job but Film Archive Association sets a standard for care of collections. We were directed to view a useful documentary: Lost Forever- The art of film preservation, which can be found online at youtube. MACE also told us about community engagement projects they have undertaken, which included community groups making films about their heritage and culture which would be accessible in the archive for future generations. They rounded out the first half of the talk by explaining the constraints and issues of preserving media, from transferring old films onto more stable materials to cleaning mould from old VHS. After a quick coffee break, the second half of the session allowed the attendees to undertake some practical handling of material and best practice.
The afternoon continued with three breakout groups which focused on Cause Papers, Digitisation and Diversity, Inclusion and Contested Heritage. All were well attended and productive conversations took place. Further work and guidance from these groups is being proposed and will hopefully result in some new guidance papers! The afternoon was rounded out by the AGM. Huge thanks go to Eileen Head, our acting treasurer, for her diligent work on the finances in the sudden loss of Jim Hughes. Thanks also go to our society secretary Karen O’Connor, for making sure are minutes and records are kept in order!
After a fabulous three course dinner, members once more retired to the bar for more conversations – including initial planning for next year’s conference!
Our final day concluded with a presentation from Margaret Harcourt Williams who presented her experiences of working with the FCJ Archives. Margaret emphasised the value of researching the history of your archive before you start to work with it and when faced with a time-consuming challenge of re-boxing, sifting and basic cataloguing, an archivist can’t always learn about the content of an archive at the same time – this is where investment in archives and access to researchers is important. Her comment about facing boxes marked ‘miscellaneous’ brought unanimous groans from the archivists present and she also highlighted the challenges of being a remote archivist during the pandemic and how in her instance, it was possible to continue from home and jobs became apparent without really searching from them, something I’m sure many of us could relate to! She concluded with a reminder to us all that archives are the memory of the Church and we are working to preserve them.
The conference was rounded out by the open forum and finally mass which fittingly was on the feast day of one of historical patrons, St Bede and which was celebrated by our Patron, Right Rev. Robert Byrne, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle; who we were delighted to have been able to welcome to the conference this year, along with our lay patron, Dr Carmen Mangion.
As always, our thanks go to our conference organisers Jenny Smith and Karen O’Connor for their diligent work in ensuring that our first meeting, back together in person, was such a resounding success!