Colleen McFarland Rademaker is head archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Kansas. Previously, she was director of archives and records management for the Mennonite Church USA in Goshen, Indiana, and head of special collections and university archivist at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. In 2014, she joined SAA’s Publications Board. SAA talks with Rademaker about her growing passion for small shop archives and religious collections and what’s next in publications. SAA: You’ve worked in both university and religious settings. What attracts you to religious archives? CMR: After working in a small liberal arts college archives and a regional state university archives, I felt called to move out of my comfort zone and explore religious archives. Archives have always felt like sacred spaces to me, and so working for and with people who honor the sacred was very appealing. Also, I am drawn towards the countercultural aspects of faith. The religious archives I have worked in contain countless stories of people who rejected cultural norms to live out their faith in an authentic way—people who spoke prophetically, acted with compassion, and stood in solidarity with the marginalized, often at great personal cost. SAA: What is different about archiving within a more niche community? CMR: The primary challenge of working in a small community archives lies in the relative underuse of its materials, both internally and externally. In this setting, there is no steady stream of undergraduate student researchers knocking at my door, and collections remain hidden unless I draw attention to them. As a result, I prioritize outreach and reference work over all else. Outreach right now consists of a dynamic exhibit program that provides monthly profiles of the community’s historic missions and displays treasured artifacts and documents in public areas of the motherhouse, rather than relegating them to the heritage room. Sisters themselves ask most reference questions I receive, but genealogists and those served by Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth ask their fair share of questions, too. Catholic sisters build very strong ties to their communities’ histories through the concept of charism. Charism may be defined as the unique, God-given gifts possessed by a community’s foundress and carried on by her community. The community’s charism provides the North Star that guides the community’s actions in an ever-changing world. In my exhibit work, I deliberately reference the community’s charism to engage sisters spiritually and emotionally in the lives of past sisters whom they may have never known. SAA: Describe your day-to-day. Any recent projects or new challenges? CMR: As indicated above, I spend most of my time developing exhibits and answering reference questions. But I also devote time to developing policies, procedures, and work flows that will provide improved intellectual and physical control over the collections. Currently, I am working on implementing PastPerfect, which will be used to catalog photographs and artifacts in the collection. The digital archivist and I are also evaluating content management systems for archival material and look forward to choosing a system later this year. Some of my work is on behalf of the Charity Federation Archivists, a new consortium of archivists serving the thirteen women’s religious communities of the Sisters of Charity Federation. We provide historical community information for exhibits at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and at Sisters of Charity Federation Gatherings. We also seek common technological solutions to address common problems. For example, the Charity Federation Archivists will be testing Archive-It as a consortial tool for harvesting and preserving our communities’ websites. I look forward to more developments in this direction, perhaps including common content management systems and descriptive practices in the future. SAA: What’s your favorite story you’ve discovered in the Sisters of Charity archives? CMR: The story of Sister Mary Magdalene Rumpff (1838–1918) fascinates me. She joined the community in 1867, several years after receiving notice that her Confederate soldier husband had died at the Battle of Bakers Creek in 1863. After living in and serving the community for more than twenty years, Sister Mary Magdalene made a shocking discovery one day while waiting for a Leavenworth streetcar. At the platform, she saw her husband—alive! Evidently he had survived the war and now resided in the new veterans’ hospital located across the road from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth motherhouse. According to community lore, they recognized each other immediately on the platform. Sister Mary Magdalene’s husband wanted to reclaim her as his wife. Sister Mary Magdalene, however, preferred to remain a Catholic sister. In consultation with the bishop and other clergy, the community leaders and the mother superior tried to discern the best course of action. Ultimately, Sister Mary Magdalene’s husband was convinced to abandon his claim on her, for he was in poor health and not able to support her financially. Sister Mary Magdalene continued to live and work in the community until her death. SAA: What do you find valuable about being on the SAA Publications Board? What’s coming up that you’re most excited about? CMR: SAA provides an incredibly important service to all archivists through its book publishing enterprise. Professional communication doesn’t always fit into an article-length package, and recent SAA books on subjects ranging from personal digital collections to diversity in the profession to social justice have enlivened and enriched our professional discourse. And as a career small-shop archivist, I know the importance of having the knowledge of experts at my fingertips in the wide variety of manuals and “how-to” books published by SAA. While I am looking forward to the publication of the entire Archives Fundamental Series III, I am very excited about Elizabeth Joffrion’s and Michèle Cloonan’s Advancing Preservation. This volume promises to provide a theoretical and practical framework for preservation to be used alongside existing preservation manuals. It will address the larger issues surrounding archival preservation that archivists must take into consideration, including environmental ethics and the right to preserve when working with underdocumented communities.
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