Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sisterhood in the archives

Sister archivists from the CSJ Provinces in front of the Charles Willard
Coe Memorial Library on the Chalon Campus.
WE WERE PRIVILEGED on Wednesday to host seven VIPs from our venerable profession – the province archivists of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

The CSJs are facing the same issue as many, if not most, religious orders in the United States: dwindling numbers. The post-World War II years saw a tremendous run-up in vocations to religious life and monasteries and convents bursting at the seams. That phenomenon is now viewed as a "blip," and these days things have returned to something more normal.

This presents a challenge for the current members, though, in the form of large facilities and fewer people to take care of them. (See Carondelet Center, below, home of the Los Angeles Province. There are about 325 CSJ sisters in the province today.)

Many religious orders are consolidating operations in their larger facilities, including archives. Archives are possessed of a couple important features: They're bulky, they cost money to maintain and sustain, and they're irreplaceable.

The archivists of the provinces of Los Angeles, Albany, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Hawaii (a vice-province) are meeting at Carondelet Center this week to discuss the logistics of consolidating their physical archives, a topic that has been front and center for the archivists for the last few years. Already the archives of the Congregation headquarters in St. Louis (what used to be known as the motherhouse) have been consolidated with provincial archives at Avila University in Kansas City, KN. Hawaii is preparing to transfer its archives to Los Angeles.

In a situation like this, the subject of digitizing the CSJ Archives is bound to come up. We can say without exaggeration that the combined collections of the CSJs comprise a historic resource of national importance. Religious sisters were a vital, and often overlooked, resource in the founding of the United States. Their schools and hospitals were frequently the first such facilities in the new territories. The provincial archives hold priceless communications and records that tell these stories, and they don't end with the settlement of the frontier. Scholars will be studying the history of religious orders for decades – centuries – to come.

Digitization offers the promise of broad access, but it comes with a host of problems of its own. It seems like a no-brainer solution on the surface, but digitized archives demand money, stable management and continuity that virtually all institutions will be hard-pressed to provide when one considers the availability of the data in 100 or 200 or 500 years.

It made for some lively conversation among this sisterhood of archivists, the CSJs with their 365-year history and we Mount folks with our 90. We at MSMU have some experience with mass digitization to offer them, and are proud to be asked for our counsel.

Archivists are colleagues in this business of history, but for the Mount Archives, helping to usher the CSJ Archives into the future is a privilege and a solemn responsibility. What better way for us to demonstrate "the Spirit of the Founders," one of the key components of the University's strategic plan? The brains, good cheer and enthusiasm of our sister archivists are beyond inspirational – their mission is our mission.

Once referred to as the House of Studies, Carondelet Center was
built in 1955 to house and educate hundreds of young CSJs. Above to the
right is the Chalon Campus.