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A Spotlight on Religious Archives with Rhiannon Allen-Roberts

21 Mar 2024 3:17 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work.

This month we are featuring religious archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with Rhiannon Allen-Roberts, Associate Archivist at Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada Consolidated Archives.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path?

Rhiannon: I completed my Bachelor of Arts with a major in art history at Queen’s University where I had the chance to complete an internship with the National Gallery of Canada at the Canadian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale. I then went on to complete my Master of Library and Information Science degree at Western University where I did an eight-month co-op at Western University’s Archives and Special Collections. While there, my amazing supervisors encouraged me to join professional associations. I joined the Archives Association of Ontario and became Chair of the Student and New Professional Outreach Committee. After I graduated in 2023, I began working with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada Archives as Associate Archivist on a year-long contract, which turned into a permanent position. I have since joined the Society for American Archivists, where I am part of the Archivists of Religious Collections Section Steering Committee, and the Association of Canadian Archivists, where I am part of the Special Interest Section for Archives of Religious Organizations. I am also part of the AtoM New Users Group and the Archives Canada Working Group.

Q: What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice?

Rhiannon: I’ve always been passionate about the human side of history, which is why I studied art history. I loved learning about how entwined in daily life art can be and how every aspect of culture can impact art, especially when given the chance to work with some illuminated manuscripts at W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections for one of my courses. It was from there that I learned about archives and the history within them. I also worked as a historical interpreter at Fort Henry during my time at Queen’s and I really enjoyed being able to connect people with history. Archival studies are the perfect mesh of these interests. I love working with the everyday by-products of life which make up our history and being able to participate in connecting people with said history.

Rhiannon Allen-Roberts

Q: What does an average day look like in religious archives?

Rhiannon: Every day is different! I don’t think there is a single archivist who could say that there are average days. Some days are spent doing arrangement and description, some answering reference inquiries and poring over orphanage registers for genealogists, some digitizing photographs, some going over supplies, some doing training, and some are spent doing all the above! I’ve learned that you need to be flexible as an archivist in your routine and that time management is a critical skill.

Q: What is your favourite thing about working in religious archives? What are some of the challenges that are unique to religious archives?

Rhiannon: One of my favourite things about working in a religious archives is the broad scope of the material. We have such a diverse collection of records: corporate, personal, and everything in-between, as well as artifacts and textiles. The Sisters did a variety of work: they were care workers, nurses, administrators, advocates, homemakers, artists, teachers, authors, academics, and so much more. I also enjoy getting to work directly with the religious community who created the records as it’s such a unique opportunity to gain in-depth understanding of their history. It is a real perk to get the chance to work so closely with the creators of the records. 

I think one of the biggest challenges revolves around privacy. We are making every effort to make our records accessible but have to balance that with protecting the privacy of the Sisters (both living and deceased) and those they’ve worked with. It can a bit of a tightrope to navigate, but having clear policies in place makes it easier. 

Q: Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on lately?

Rhiannon: Our archives is a consolidation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Diocese of London, Hamilton, Pembroke, and Peterborough who amalgamated to form the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada in 2012. Right now, I am arranging and describing a collection of material related to the receptions and professions of Sisters from the London congregation. It is fascinating to learn about the process for becoming a Sister and the deep devotion of these women through their firsthand accounts. 

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