High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, provided the venue for the recent annual meeting of the Catholic Archives Society. This was to be my first conference, as a soon-to-be qualified archivist looking forward to taking up a position as archivist for a Catholic religious Order in June 2010.
The programme was set out with seven session from guest speakers, a trip to either the Essex or Hertfordshire Record Offices for those who wished to learn more about the functioning of a local archives service, time for an annual general meeting and an open forum for the airing of issues of general interest. In between all this of course there were many opportunities for more information discussion and, especially valuable for someone just beginning their professional career in this area, a chance to make individual future contacts. It is a small world after all!
The guest speakers discussed an interesting and useful range of topics. Dr Kate Thompson of Downing College, Cambridge, addresses the question “What is an archivist?” by highlighting legislative and professional duties of access and preservation in the context of shrinking budgets. We also heard some amusing anecdotes and stereotypes of archivists that are no doubt familiar to all: “has a cat” or “bad dress sense” being typical examples!
The first day ended with a presentation by Dr James Kelly from Queen Mary, University of London, who, from an academic perspective, discussed the use of archives in the project, “Who were the nuns?” The difficulties created by the scattered nature of convents and issues of access were acknowledged; yet generally Dr Kelly saw a keenness to encourage interest in the convent sources, which should result from the project.
The second day brought a talk by Fr David Lannon on the Salford Diocesan Archive’s Pamphlet Collection, highlighting the important of pamphlets in reflecting the place of Catholic communities in their historical context.
This was followed by a discussion of appraisal from Susan Flood (Hertfordshire Record Office), Tamara Thornhill (Archdiocese of Westminster/Bishops’ Conference) and Annaig Boyer (Medical Mission Sisters). As is often the situation of archivists nationwide, issues of space (or lack of it!) were apparent as a major concern amongst those responsible for Catholic archives. We were reminded of the importance of appraisal policies for provided a consistent framework of collection and to help fill gaps. The need to build flexibility into an appraisal scheme was also raised, drawing upon the archivist as decision maker.
At the Open Forum on the third day, a paper from the Catholic History Society on their revived ‘Index to Nuns’ project was read and discussed; many of the members present had contributed data to the original. There was also a progress report on the CAS survey of archives of lay societies. The response rate to this had been good and, after discussions on them with the Religious Archives Group and the National Archives, it has been decided to do some further work together. Staff involved with the National Archives Religious Archives survey highlighten its importance for assessing the state of Catholic archives. It was clear that many attendees were either in the process or had completed this survey. We await the results.
The final session of the conference was the paper read by Rt. Rev. Mgr. Gordon Read, a consultor to the Murphy ommission, entitled ‘Access to archives in civil and canon law.’ This promised much for resolving at least some of the personal concerns a new professional in the Catholic archives domain might have about possible conflict in this area. Although some tension was acknowledged – while the state allows the majority of records to become public after a set period of time – I did come away feeling reassured. Church Law is seem to be urging a collaborative approach and an attitude of openess as far as ppossible. Catholic archivists are encouraged to consider F[reedom]O[f]I[nformation] as useful for setting out reasonable parameters.
The conference motivated me about my new role within the unique and dynamic sector of Catholic archives. The variety of topics discussed and the people I met more informally during the Conference left me in no doubt that there is a wealth of good and progressive work being done by a myriad of people within the sector. I very much look forward to keeping up with issues and events through the Society’s newsletters and bulletins, and to next year’s Conference where I hope to contribute from my own experience of Catholic archives.