Stand at the Door and Knock: Access to Religious Archives
Throughout the day the wider societal value of religious archives and their importance for understanding our history was emphasised. Presentations considered the practicalities of facilitating access to records, explored the challenges of communicating their significance to different audiences and shared the successes of particular projects.
A sense of history was vividly conveyed by the grandeur of the venue and presentations took place in the church-like historic reading room. In opening the conference, Clive Field outlined the significance of the library and its links with Manchester’s tradition of Nonconformity. Established by John Rylands’ wife in his memory, the library opened in 1900.
The first session invited delegates to compare access procedures in a large public archive with those in a small, private repository. Jeff Gerhardt outlined the extent of religious records held at London Metropolitan Archives which includes around 800 parish collections. An Access and Interpretation Policy covers all records and there is a strong emphasis on encouraging their use by people of all backgrounds. Proactive measures are taken to promote educational benefits through interpretation services to schools and community groups and social media and digitisation (e.g. of parish registers) are being used to open up access further.
In contrast, Paul Shaw, Archivist for the Catholic order of Poor Servants, founded in 1872, spoke of the challenges involved in balancing public access to a small archive with his primary responsibility to the Congregation which includes advising on records management. The collections include records of the Sisters’ work in hospitals and ‘poor houses’ and thus have wider social relevance beyond their original purpose. Access to, and promotion of this material has developed over time: today information about the archive is available on the Congregation’s website and access has become formalised into a written policy.
A thoughtful presentation on creating the St Bartholomew’s Day 1662 exhibition at the Rylands was delivered by Gareth Lloyd, followed by an opportunity to tour the exhibition. Known as the Great Ejection, 1662 saw the expulsion of 2000 ministers from the Church of England. Faced with limited public awareness of the event and a lack of archival materials, Gareth overcame these challenges by broadening out the focus to explore the context and significance of the Ejection. The exhibition’s deliberatively provocative title: ‘the triumph of bigotry and birth of toleration’ invites us to compare and contrast ideas of bigotry and toleration in the past with the present. Avoiding a one-dimensional interpretation of events, Gareth emphasised that persecution occurred under both Cromwell and the Crown and argued that gradually over time acts of bigotry shifted to acts of toleration.
Following lunch and the AGM, the afternoon explored a project based approach to access with a focus on digitisation. Carol Burrows from the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC) at the Rylands, shared the staff’s expertise at the centre in undertaking digital projects, demonstrating that they go hand in hand with preservation and a customer centred approach. The CHICC offers a range of consultancy services including options for digitisation onsite or at the centre, scanning of negatives and transparencies, advice on all aspects of collection care, bespoke archival packaging, and condition reports as well as collection surveys.
Paul Dryburgh from the Borthwick Institute, gave a presentation on developing access to the York cause papers which cover over 15,000 cases brought before church courts from 1300-1858. Prior indexing attempts had fallen short of modern standards and improvements were made through a database creation project which allowed many different search terms to be used. This was followed by funding to digitise records spanning a 300 year period and Paul spoke in detail about the workflows used for capturing the images. The project has been so successful that documents from outside the 300 year period have also been digitised. The images are linked to an online catalogue and user feedback is encouraged.
To conclude, John Maiden spoke about the Open University’s innovative Building on History project. Using an ‘history audit’ approach with religious faiths and communities in London, the twin aims are to develop an historicised awareness and widen community engagement. Initially, the project focused on the Anglican Church. A range of seminars and workshops explored the parallels of religious and social history in the 19th and early 20th century with the current context to develop self-understanding and inform the current work and future mission of the contemporary church. Building on this success a similar project is under way working with other faith groups and funding is being sought for a third phase; a broad-based heritage project in North and South London. Suggestions of groups that may be interested in participating are welcome.
Through an interesting range of presentations, the 2012 conference explored access from the perspectives of interpretation and engagement as well as addressing practical issues. It demonstrated the variety of ways in which religious archives can be used and the role that digital technology can play in widening access.
Katrina Harrington, MA student at UCL