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Archives, In America and the Catholic Church

As an institutional archivist, I have the privilege of managing records for their entire lifecycle.

Wait, do records have a lifecycle?

Yep, just like people, records have a lifecycle. Records are created, actively used, retired and then selected or destroyed.   

Archive Door – Ovideo Cathedral
Archive Door – Santiago De Compostela

Unlike my colleagues who work in Special Collections (think University Library) or Information Governance (think day-to-day business records of corporate America), I work within my organization (the Catholic Church in North Florida) to take care of our day-to-day records. The goal is to avoid an accident of Darwinian records survival. Understanding the legacy of our previous bishop is far easier using a complete collection of his important records. It is preferred to have to guess using whatever paper happens to remain because no one is paying attention. Honestly, I’d rather have his decrees than his laundry lists.

In America, my profession is seen as having two competing activities: Records and Information Management (RIM, active records) and Archives (historical, permanent records).

The need for a national permanent records (archives) program was initially acknowledged by the U.S. government in the first decades of the 20th century. Upset about the “dispersion” of George Washington’s papers and a series of massive government building fires that destroyed unique historical material (including the Treasury Office fire in 1800, the War Office fire in 1877, and the New York Capitol fire in 1911 which destroyed most of the N.Y. State Archives), historians called on Congress to establish the National Historical Publications Commission (1895) and the Public Archives Commission (1899). By 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Archives Act (1934) creating an independent agency to manage government records. Within a year, a national professional society for archivists was also chartered (the Society of American Archivists https://www2.archivists.org/).

About the time our nation was thinking about how to care for its permanent legacy, American business tycoons were applying Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principals of Scientific Management (1911) office filing and management. Day-to-day transactions increased with each war until, post-World War II, government offices were flooded with so much paper that the Hoover Administration was forced to create a commission to study the issue (1948)! The Federal Records Act was born in 1950 and continues to regulate government records. Within five years of the government act, a professional records administrators association was also established. ARMA International (formerly the Association of Records Managers and Administrators), promotes and advocates for the information management profession.

However, in Europe (and its former colonies), archives are generally understood as one holistic activity, managing records from their point of creation until their final disposition. While there is early evidence of ancient civilizations keeping rudimentary archives (Ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica), they didn’t take today’s shape until the Medieval period.  Early archives were understood as “public places in which legal documents are deposited” (loci publici in quibus instrumenta deponuntur). The first accumulated document collections date to the 14th century with the development of regional and local municipal repositories, like that held in the Kingdom of Aragon, Spain (1346). The first treatise on archival management appeared in 1632 (by Baldassare Bonifacio) and was proceeded by others in Italy, France, Spain and Germany. To oversimplify a long, complex European history (you’re welcome), modern archives administration is still generally understood as one activity, rather than two.

For the Catholic Church, the mandate for an archive is WRITTEN INTO our governance documents! Most recently promulgated in 1983 (though sections have been updated), the Code of Canon Law requires, “All documents which regard the diocese or parishes [to] be protected with the greatest care” (CIC 486 § 1). Unlike in other institutions, the establishment of my office does not require justification with a business case. The archives and records program exists because the Holy See says it should (thank you Pope St. John Paul II!).

We also see the European idea of holistic archives manifested in directives from the Code of Canon Law. Regulations acknowledge the necessity of a General Records Management Program (CIC 486), and Historical Archives (CIC 491). They also recognize the need for some items to remain private, accessible to only select members of the administration. Canon Law 489 refers to this records cache as Archivium Secretum. Loosely translated, Secret Archives. The idea of selecting privately held material by non-government entities is not a foreign one. However, Pope Francis recognized negative associations with the word, Secretum. In October 2019, he changed its name to Archivum Apostolicum (or Apostolic Archives). Called the Apostolic Archives before the 16th century, Pope Francis stated that returning to a previous designation reflects its, “service to the church and the world of culture.” (Apostolic Letter, 10/10/2019) Do I need to point out that his apostolic letter was issued during American Archives month? Probably a coincidence, but I appreciate the synergy!

Extending Pope Francis’ idea, the public collections in our Diocesan Archives are meant to be of service to the local church and world culture. In the words of our current pope, “The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now,” is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth.” (Amoris Laetitia, 3/19/2016). So, I take my mandate from Canon Law, and the profession, very seriously.

An Afterward.

Do you want to learn more about the history of archives? The articles below were referenced for this post:

Brichford, Maynard. “The Relationship of Records Management Activities to the Field of Business History,” The Business History Review. Vol 46, No. 2 (Summer, 1972): 220-232.

Cox, Richard. “American Archival History: Its Development, Needs, and Opportunities,” The American Archivist, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 31-41.

Duchein, Michel. “The History of European Archives and the Development of the Archival Profession in Europe,” The American Archivist, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 14-25.

Pope Francis. Amoris Laetitia. Encyclical. March 19, 2016. https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf

Pope Francis. For the Change of the Name of the Vatican Secret Archive to the Vatican Apostolic Archive. Apostolic Letter. October 22, 2019. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20191022_archivio-apostolico-vaticano.html.

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