Updated: Jun 24
Working from home is tricky for archivists. The archive is shut, the material we work with is inaccessible. We can't bring a couple of boxes of old documents home, or a volume of 18th century bound letters, and get on with cataloguing them from our kitchen tables. There are no researchers visiting the archive at the moment, so we have no research questions to answer and in reply to most of the email enquiries we have to say that we cannot help until we are back in the archive ourselves.
So what are we up to? Some of it is very prosaic. I have spent time going through spreadsheets I had created recently as part of the cataloguing process, and cleaning the data I had inputted. Embarrassingly, there was more cleaning to do than I had expected. This is a worthwhile exercise because it means we can get our catalogue entries uploaded and available for searching sooner, making more of our archival material accessible to any member of the public.
I have also been preparing for future projects in the archives. Cataloguing the Jesuit antiquarian book collection is to be one of my primary tasks for the next year, and I have been teaching myself more about rare book cataloguing. I have read some rather daunting works on Special Collection cataloguing, and thanks to social media, particularly Twitter, have found specialists in early printed books who have been incredibly generous with their advice.
Lockdown has given me the chance to practice transcribing oral histories, an archival activity I had not done before. Recently, as part of collecting new material for the Jesuit in Britain Archive, the Archivist has conducted or arranged a series of interviews with older Jesuits about their experiences of life in the Society. We have a number of these recordings, mainly in MP3 format, and we need to make accurate transcriptions of them, exact to every colloquialism and repetition. I am about half way through my first transcript, and although time consuming it is enjoyable and fascinating. The interview was conducted by a current Jesuit Novice, so his questions highlight the way that Jesuit training has changed over the last 60 years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Novices had to speak Latin all the time, except when taking exercise in the form of a walk or a game of football, when English was allowed. They had to learn Latin words for everyday things including 'soup spoon' (coclear maxima) and teaspoon (coclear min.) because they had to do household chores while speaking Latin, including laying the table. The incredulity of the Novice when listening to the older Jesuit tell this story was as interesting and as valid historically as the story itself.
There are layers of technology which both help and hinder archivists' work. Obviously, we cannot bring originals home, but some documents have been scanned or copied, so we can work from these surrogates instead. Our Deputy Archivist sent me a PDF of a microfilm that was made in the 1960s of a volume of 18th and 19th century documents. I was to list and summarise the contents, creating a finding aid for researchers. The PDF contains 622 images of sheets of paper or parchment, and the images are black and white. It is not easy to tell which images relate to different parts of the same document, or even which ones show documents written on both sides of one sheet of paper, problems which would not occur when handling the originals. Many of the images are small, and look blotchy due to the ink which has leached through from the other side of the original document. The text is hard to read, and not always in English. My home laptop, usually only used for emails and browsing and now a decade old, could not provide a good enough image, so I invested in a new tablet, which means I can enlarge individual words and hard to read phrases. This can make them easier to read than if I were working from the original document, when I would use a magnifying glass.
The documents in the PDF are arranged in roughly chronological order, from the mid eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, and I am still working on the earlier ones. The eighteenth century was a difficult era for the Jesuits in England, and is perhaps the period I know least about. At the beginning of the century the fortune of the Jesuits in this country was linked with the waning Stuart monarchs and their Pretender successors, followed by the Suppression of the order in 1773. Many of the letters in the collection are written in the run up to the Suppression, and immediately after it, and were sent between Jesuits in England and the English Jesuit bases on the continent, variously at St Omers, Douai, Liege and Bruges, as well as Rome. Some of the writers of the letters were aware that their letters might be read by others who were hostile to the Society of Jesus, and couched their news ambiguously, if not in code.
I felt like I was swimming through the combined soups of difficult to read documents, only accessible at several technological removes, the guarded way the Jesuits exchanged their news, and my own lack of knowledge. I needed to learn more about Jesuit eighteenth century history. Like everyone else, I can't access libraries at the moment, but luckily some of the books I needed are available cheaply second hand from online bookshops, and others I could access remotely, especially since many libraries and academic journals have made content available for free during Lockdown, and I have made good use of these. This helped enormously, and was an example of what I already knew, that the more background you have about a historical document the easier it is to understand and the fewer mistakes you will make when you try to read it.
Some of the most useful things I learned were simple. Knowing in advance the names of most of the prominent Jesuits and their correspondents made it easier to decipher a scrawled signature, or to make an educated guess when letters were signed with initials. Learning that there was not one but two eighteenth century Jesuits named Plowden made sense of a series of letters between the two. They were brothers, Charles and Robert, who started their letters 'Dear Bro', and very often didn't sign them. By reading them carefully I could work out which letter was from which brother, and soon came to recognise the distinctive but scrawling handwriting of Charles, and his epistolary style, which was expansive, full of news and gossip, but always starting with a few lines where he scolded Robert for being so slow to write back to him.
Though I do not imagine that you can have as much Epistolary matter in your Retirement as I may find here, yet I think I have reason to expect a line from you now and then; otherwise I find no Encouragement to fill sheets, unless I know they are agreeable, to whom I send them: mean time I shall fling together here what little I have heard that may be worth writing and quietly wait an answer from you...
As I became more familiar with eighteenth century Jesuit history, and deciphering the documents became easier, I realised that this was a situation which went hand in hand with working from home. Back in March, when lockdown happened fast and we suddenly found ourselves shut out of the archive, separated from our colleagues and work environments we struggled to find ways to work productively. Now, after several weeks of working like this, most of us have become not only more competent and comfortable about attending or holding a meeting on zoom, but can even see some advantages. (Isn't it great that everyone's names are displayed so we need never struggle for a name in a meeting again?) The technology which allows me to enlarge hard to read writing is probably better than a magnifying glass, and is not something I would have had access to when working in the archive. The original bewilderment and trying to make sense out of a difficult work situation has now settled down into a doable and sometimes enjoyable routine, just as the dauntingly opaque images of the 18th century documents have with a bit of effort and familiarity become clearer.
Working from home has brought unexpected benefits. For the Jesuits in Britain Archive it has allowed time to be spent on work which often gets sidelined, such as the oral history and calendaring projects. Personally, the situation has enabled me to learn new archival skills, rethink some old ones and prepare for future projects. There are one or two other advantages to working from home, including having a window to look out of while I work. But I can't wait to get back into the archive, to work alongside my fellow archivists, to get on with the normal archival tasks of cataloguing and answering enquiries, and above all to reconnect with the letters, diaries and other documents contained there. The physical material is the reason I wanted to become an archivist, continues to be the major attraction and is what is so lacking when working from home.
If you would like to get in touch with the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.