Elizabeth Snowden Johnson 2017-01-12 12:18:36
For most of the history of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, archival collections were maintained locally in twenty-five regional archives, with varying levels of staffing, resources, and access. In 2011, through the efforts of sister archivists and community leadership, Mercy Heritage Center opened to serve as the national repository for this order of Catholic women religious. Founded in Ireland, the Sisters of Mercy came to the United States in 1843 and created religious communities across North, Central and South America, Guam and the Philippines. Seeking to meet unmet needs in their new cities, the Sisters immediately began founding schools, hospitals, homes for women, orphanages, and other institutions to help those in need. Over time, these ministries grew into larger institutions—universities, health systems, and social service agencies. Membership in the order grew as well, peaking at approximately 14,000 in the mid-twentieth century. Over the years archival material generated by the sisters and their ministries was gathered at various mother houses, provincial headquarters, convents, and ministry offices. This material, though scattered, comprised a unique record reflecting the lives of the community’s members and a variety of organizations and institutions. A Family History The creation of Mercy Heritage Center as a central archives location was intended to allow a single professional staff to provide greater care for and access to the records. The collections gathered at Mercy Heritage Center consist of 5,000 linear feet of paper records, photographs, and audiovisual and digital material from 1843 to approximately 2008. Current records are housed in six regional repositories across the country. During the initial transfer of collections to Mercy Heritage Center from their regional locations, staff had a unique opportunity to understand the perspectives on access held by stakeholders. Sharing their history with the general public was seen as a primary goal, but these collections were more than just corporate or organizational archives. The collections were viewed by many sisters as reflections of their lives—both the history of individuals and a kind of family history. As one sister archivist told the staff about the collections, “You have to remember, it’s not personnel, it’s personal.” Given the need to provide greater access while maintaining a sensitivity to our stakeholders, staff needed a comprehensive policy that would set clear limits to protect the privacy of individuals—both of sisters and of the individuals they served—but also allow for greater access to this rich resource. The primary question became: how do we provide as much access as possible while following necessary legal and ethical guidelines for protecting third-party privacy? As a new facility, collection descriptions were not standardized and staff was just starting to gain expertise in the subject matter. The first task then was to understand what types of records existed in the collections. Categorizing the Records Records could be grouped into two main categories. The first, community records, relate to the Sisters of Mercy as an organization and the records of individual sisters’ lives. This includes finances, property, minutes and papers of leadership groups, reports, forms, and other documentation generated by large organizations. This category also includes documentation of individual lives—a sister’s application to the order, her personal photographs, diplomas, and travel diaries. The second category, ministry records, includes organizational and foundational records of hospitals, universities, parochial schools, orphanages, and agencies created to provide affordable housing, healthcare, and outreach to the economically poor. Records in this category range from blueprints of hospitals to board minutes to surgery ledgers, and from photographs of orphans to school yearbooks. For community records, the clear guidelines for access were the preference of the sisters themselves. After consultation with a network of Mercy archivists and sisters in leadership, broad time-based restrictions were set for administrative material. Material related to individual deceased sisters is carefully screened for privacy concerns prior to access. Living sisters are consulted regarding access to materials: if their personal material resides in the archives, they may decide if they wish to allow research access during their lifetime. Ministry records were a more complicated issue, due to the variety of records found in the collections. A general survey of the collections’ contents showed groups of materials that fit into several categories: education records, including correspondence and transcripts; health records, including surgery logs, admission ledgers and photographs; case files and logs from social service ministries; and thousands of photographs depicting individuals being served by ministries—hospital and leprosarium patients, orphans, students, and others. Setting Guidelines What were our guidelines? In some cases, privacy laws applied; in other instances, there were ethical issues to consider. For student transcripts, FERPA clearly applied and records could be restricted accordingly. Others records, like case files, were obviously private and could be deaccessioned and possibly transferred to an appropriate agency. In other cases, best practice or respectful intentions seemed more applicable. As an entity not covered by HIPAA, we chose to respect the spirit of the law and restrict records for long periods and redact records when requested for research purposes. For photographs of third parties, we chose to limit publication options to those showing individuals in a respectful light—for example, hospital patients who were clearly aware that a photo was being taken. In addition to administrative and personal materials, staff soon found that a third category of records was needed—that of sensitive records. These records do not meet any legal requirements for restrictions, but may reflect a painful or difficult moment in the life of the religious community. In these situations, staff compiles a packet containing contextual information and an access recommendation to the sisters’ main governing body, who make a final decision on the level of access. This method of internal review is intended to function as a communication tool between staff and sisters, allowing staff to present reasons for access and allowing the religious community to retain agency over a past that is at once a larger organizational history and an extremely personal story. Once the areas of concern had been established and proposals for access and restrictions had been outlined for subject areas, our next step was to have the policy reviewed by a lawyer. Since Mercy Heritage Center is the archives of a Catholic religious community, it made sense to work with a lawyer who practiced both canon and civil law. Once the policy had been submitted for legal review, it was then submitted to the Sisters of Mercy leadership for approval. Putting the Plan into Action Although we now have a reviewed and approved access and restrictions policy in hand, work in this area is just beginning. Our next steps will focus on the processes necessary for implementation, beginning with more clearly identifying material that fits into various access categories. This will include broader collection assessment and processes for marking, removing, or otherwise managing restricted records, and, of course, adapting and updating the policy as the details of the records more clearly unfold.
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