“Archival Theory and Religious Thought:” A Review of SAA 2012

Aug 16, 2012

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

Coordinating with the theme “Beyond Borders,” the 2012 conference of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) featured two sessions exploring the intersections and barriers between religious thought and archival theory. Presenters offered original research and frank personal reflection on how religion and spirituality have influenced and continue to influence the professional practice of archivists. These discussions inform my work as I continue to process and present the rich history of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI).

Presenters at both sessions recognized the Seattle Municipal Archives’ City Archivist, Scott Cline, for his open discussion of spirituality and its effects on a profession that holds objectivity as one of its core values. In his 2009 paper, “‘To the Limit of Our Integrity’: Reflections on Archival Being,” Cline calls on archivists to strive towards achievement of “archival being,” a concept consisting of four tenants: faith, radical self-understanding, intention and integrity. Cline’s use of religious terminology reflects overlaps between two fields of thought that are almost always strictly segregated.

Hillel Arnold stated in the session he chaired, “‘Let a Record Be Kept Among You’: Archival Theory and Religious Thought,” that archives, like religion, work to help us cope with loss, sustain shared histories and strive towards a greater human understanding of our universe. Following this idea, Tamar Zeffren of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee drew comparisons between the Jewish religious enterprise and the archival encounter. She said that both work against themes of exile and alienation, towards return and restoration.

John W. Chapman of OCLC offered a history of the transmission and preservation of the Buddhist canon—from oral to written—and the idea of “silent transmission” of the Dharma from Buddha to his disciples to illustrate exclusions from the written record. Chapman emphasized the presence of failure and futility in the Buddha’s teachings—familiar concepts for archivists tasked with preserving decomposing materials and inventorying an incomprehensive historical record.

In the lightning session “Beyond Borders of Belief: Spirituality and the Archival Enterprise,” fourteen presenters shared their experiences with spirituality and archival work. Jennifer R. O’Neal described the National Museum of the American Indian’s practice of providing space for Native American smudging rituals, which involve the spreading of burnt materials, before Native researchers view sacred artifacts. Kathy Hertel-Baker of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth offered her experiences accessioning a scrapbook kept by a nun who worked as a missionary in India for many years. The uniqueness of the item endowed it with a sacredness that warranted different standards in terms of handling and storage. Similarly, Wesley Wilson of DePauw University presented the “Order for the Disposal of Deteriorating Bibles” as a guide for repositories that encounter the problem of deaccessioning Holy Scripture.

The Archivists of Religious Collections section of SAA also met during the conference, featuring a presentation on “Preparing and Presenting Effective Sessions at Professional Conferences,” a good sign that more discussion is to come in 2013 and beyond. As Archivist at SCI, I look forward to engaging in more conversations about how the spiritual fabric of the institutions we serve affect the way we approach our archives.