Pandemic Year, Digital Archives

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Are you aware of the many tasks accomplished by the archivists in the Central Archives Department (CAD) of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM)? If you ever visited the Archives at the Congregational House, you may have seen the archivists searching for documents in boxes in the vault; in the processing room, filing the archival fonds of a sister or of a school; in the researcher’s room, accompanying a student or historian in their research, or planning the next exhibit together.

All of this, of course, was prior to March 2020 when we were hit by the pandemic and all the lay employees of the SNJM General Administration were forced to work from home. But how do you telecommute when you are used to dealing with paper documents kept in the archival vault? It is amazing the different tasks archivists can do at a distance:

  • transcribe chronicles;
  • digitize photographs and SNJM publications;
  • enter the assignments of the sisters into the computer;
  • research information to answer email requests;
  • produce statistics for Rome or for the SNJM Leadership Teams;
  • develop and use procedures for the management of digital archives.

Data entry into the SNJM Central Archives Service is not new.

You might be wondering how it is possible to carry out one’s mission from a remote location? In fact, for a long time the staff of the CAD has been working on computers that are an integral part of a network connected to a server dedicated to the Archives. In the late 1980’s, Sister Claire Laplante, the director of the Archives at the time, purchased a mini computer for her department. Over the years, the Archives Department continued to develop computer tools, in particular databases, to help the archivists know and quickly find specific documents, books and objects kept on the premises. Among other things, a specialized archival program facilitates the detailed description of the archival fonds through a form. Computer entries completed by interns and Sisters (archival assistants) has made possible the creation of a large number of inventories. The largest and most important of these, called Gesboite, lists the contents of the approximately 3,000 boxes held in the vault. By using the information contained in the written registers of all of those who entered the Congregation, the archival assistants were able to build up a database with the family and religious information of the 7,200 professed sisters and the 3,000 candidates and novices who left the Congregation before making profession.

The Central Archives also holds textual and photographic documents produced in digital format by the Sisters and by the SNJM General and Provincial Administrations. These electronic records must be classified and preserved in the same manner as paper records. However, the staff has the responsibility to ensure that all files are migrated to the most current format that will guarantee the long-term preservation of the information.

Despite the technological advances and the use of finding aids that facilitate working from home, the lay archivists did return to the Archives department from time to time last fall, following all the sanitary measures put in place. On the one hand, in order to respond to certain research requests it was necessary to consult the files in the vault, since the majority of these documents, due to their age, format or size, cannot be digitized and therefore are not accessible remotely. On the other hand, it was necessary to continue the classification of the archival fonds received in recent months. The Sisters who work in the Archives and who live at the Congregational House were able to continue their work as usual.

Long before the pandemic, Sister Lucille Potvin and researchers have checked documents in the presence of an archivist.

During this International Archives Week, created to highlight the importance of archives for the preservation of the individual and collective memory, it is essential that we pay tribute to the patient and invaluable contribution of the Archivists and Archival Assistants of the SNJM Central Archives Department. For more than 30 years, these visionary members of the Congregation built up an array of digital tools that allow today’s archivists to continue to enhance the rich heritage of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.