A look inside the work of the archives

While readers of The Pilot may already be acquainted with the historical columns published by the Archives Department of the Archdiocese of Boston, this month, we'll take a closer look at the archive itself. October, designated as American Archives Month, aims to highlight the significance of archival work, and extend an invitation to the public to explore how archives operate. In that spirit, we wanted to share a little bit about who we are and the work we do.

First and foremost, let's demystify the concept of an archive, which often conjures images of bearded men wearing monocles in dusty basements. An archive is an organization dedicated to preserving the documentary heritage of a particular group, such as a governmental body, business, organization, university, or community. For the Archdiocese of Boston, the mission of the archive department is to preserve and provide access to the records of parishes, schools, organizations, and administration of the archdiocese. We assist researchers in their scholarly, genealogical, and other work in addition to cultivating a better understanding and appreciation of the history of the Archdiocese and the Boston Catholic Community.

Although the mission and definition presented above may seem broad, archival work is integral to the functioning of governments and organizations. On a basic organizational level, individuals and organizations create mass amounts of information in the course of their daily work. Through the creation of specific record retention schedules, archivists and records managers work to ensure the records of lasting value created in day-to-day work are preserved for future use and accessible for all those who may need the information. Records retention schedules follow legal requirements in addition to ensuring that culturally significant records are kept and preserved. Often, these retention plans also establish specific amounts of time temporary documents and information need to be kept before they can be safely and securely discarded. The record-keeping aspect of archival work ensures governmental and organizational accountability in addition to storing reliable information that may be necessary in the future, even after the record itself is considered "active" or "in use."

The recordkeeping duty of an archive is integral to the continued functionality of the institution that the archive serves, but the historic preservation of culturally significant materials is also a core tenet of the purpose of archival institutions. This means that things that are not necessarily needed for functional purposes but that may still have value pertaining to the identity of the community represented in the record are brought to the archive as records of enduring value. Our archive collections are a tapestry, preserving the rights, identity, and stories of countless individuals featured in the records.

These two aspects of archival work, records retention and preserving culturally significant history, are very present in the Archdiocese of Boston Archives. In 2019, the department created a records retention schedule, outlining different types of documents created in the functional activities of departments within the Archdiocese of Boston and stating how long those records must be kept, based on legal requirements.

The preservation of historic materials would be incomplete without also making these records available to the public. Providing access to the Archdiocesan Archive benefits genealogists, academic researchers exploring Catholic history, and is required for those who need to obtain sacramental certificates for use within the Church. Since many people interested in the records here at the archive are unable to come to the physical space itself, providing access digitally is of paramount importance. Plus, digitization efforts help reduce wear and tear that develops from frequent handling of records, especially as they age and become more fragile with time.

The Archdiocese of Boston Archives Department has vastly improved digital access to records in the past few years. A digital catalog has been implemented, allowing researchers to search within the archival collection and explore collection guides, and a vast array of materials, from sacramental records to cassette tapes, have been digitized and made available online. For example, with the help of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, sacramental records spanning 1789-1920 are available online through the American Ancestors database, enabling anyone to search for the records they are looking for.

We often get asked, "Why don't you just digitize everything." The amount of time it would take to properly digitize records, add detailed descriptions, and safely store a digital file is unfeasible in most archives. Additionally, we prefer some formats such as paper, which are much easier to preserve and more stable over time than a digital file; you do not need to upgrade software to continue reading a paper document over time.

In some instances, however, it is appropriate. For instance, we are currently working on digitizing audio cassettes, reel to reel film, open reel audio, and other obsolete formats that are difficult to preserve in their original format and for which we do not have the proper equipment to safely access their contents. For each item, it might require repairing the original format, cleaning it, safely creating a digital master copy and a compressed access copy, and backing up both in several locations to ensure their long-term integrity. In the future, we will have to be vigilant about updating the file formats so they can continue to be accessed, and we also continue to preserve the originals in case technology allows us to capture a higher-quality copy in the future.

If you have an archive question, please feel free to submit it through the form on our website at www.bostoncatholic.org/archives. For a behind-the-scenes look at our collections and to explore the history of the archdiocese, we invite you to follow us on Instagram or Facebook, @bostoncatholicarchive.


- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.