The late Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm. (1934-2013) was the Archivist of the Carmelite Order. At the meeting of the Carmelite Librarians’ Association (CLA) held in Rome in January 2011, he gave this paper on Carmelite libraries and archives, in his native Italian. This English translation was produced by Mark Attard , O.Carm.
When speaking about our archives and libraries, which contain a rich “collective memory” of our spiritual life, our progress and other aspects of our Carmelite life, a preliminary precision is needed.
The Nature of the Library and of the Archives
- A library comes into existence to respond to precise cultural needs (the study of specific sciences, distribution, reading, etc.). It contains manuscripts, incunabula or printed material which are classified according to author or to subject matter. Therefore it has a very easy-to-use structure which gives immediate answers to the user who is looking for information on a specific subject. Furthermore, the catalogue card (by author or by subject matter) offers other information, like its call number, publishers, year of publication, and other typographical data.
- Archives come into existence as a consequence of the activity of an entity or an institution, and, in a general sense, represent its organizational and administrative structure. Therefore its primary function is for the entity or the institution itself, since it registers all the phases of its activity. So the archives conserve and catalogue all the documentation produced and received by the entity in its activity. This is done according to a policy which reflects the structure of the entity itself in its historical evolution.
- A simple collection of documents can never be transformed into an archive. On the other hand, documents proper to an archive are bound together by a logical and necessary connection, called an archival connection, which illustrates the relationship that the documents have had amongst themselves from the beginning. In fact, a document separated from its original context loses a great part of its value and is reduced to mere “information”, absolutely insignificant from the archival point of view and only partially useful for a researcher. Only a wider perspective offered by the context which has determined the production of a document and placing it in a proper archival file would allow it to assume its proper significance.
- Sometimes, for a variety of practical reasons, archives contain other documents regarding the entity, but not produced by its activity. However this type of documentation has lost the information of its original archival connection.
There is a profound and substantial distinction between archives and libraries:
- Entities and institutions cannot do without their own archives and libraries.
- But we should not confuse archives and libraries. Even though they have similar tasks in conserving memories in their various aspects, nevertheless they have their own proper and distinct finalities and specific characteristics which are completely different.
- Specifically, libraries and archives:
a) Are different by origin: while archives are necessarily produced by the specific activity of an entity, libraries do not have this derivation and connection.
b) Are different by reason of their primary finality: Archives have the principal finality of being of functional service to the administration of their entity; while libraries and museums have an eminently cultural scope.
c) Are different by reason of their development: The growth of archives is limited proportionately by the greater or lesser activity of the entity. The expansion of libraries and museums on the other hand is unlimited and depends on a variety of causes (for example, space availability, finances, the intentions of those responsible, and researcher requests).
d) Are different by the way they are arranged: Archives are arranged according to the structure, nature and activity of the entity. Libraries on the other hand are arranged according to various systems and organizational exigencies (for example, various catalogue systems, and arranging books by size to gain space in stacks).
- Therefore it is not possible to conceptually approximate archives and libraries. Each has its own proper and specific methodology and this has to be borne in mind applying informatics systems to libraries and archives.
- Nevertheless, libraries and archives complement each other well. In fact they enjoy a common denominator in as much as they both present the value of memory and witness of events and of the cultural production of a territory, of an institution, of an entity, or of a person.
Libraries and Archives in the History and Life of the Order (cf. the articles “Archivio” and “Biblioteca” in ‘Dizionario Carmelitano’ (Roma, 2008)):
- The first known library is that of the convent of Wadi-ein-Siah on Mount Carmel. During the Middle Ages, to conventual libraries were added the personal libraries of the doctors of theology. This phenomenon increased with the arrival of printing. Already from 1680 there was the norm of sending copies of books published by Carmelites to the library of Traspontina. Today the most functional libraries are those associated with study r formation institutions (schools, colleges, student houses, novitiates, etc.) and frequently they contain the books of the deceased brethren of that community.
- In the Middle Ages (already in 1281 and 1294) on a local level, and, from the 14th century on a provincial level, archival documentation, together with money and with “iocalia” (precious objects) were conserved in a “three key safe”. On the other hand, documentation on a General Council level was in the safe-keeping of the Procurator General who lived in the “conventus romanae curiae” (that is, in the various cities where the Pope established himself with his court). The “Liber Ordinis” (which contained the Acts of the General Chapters) was kept in between General Chapters in the place where the future one would be held. Furthermore, according to a custom diffused between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Priors General kept with them special registers. The custom of having specific place for conventual and provincial archives goes back to the 15th century. The General Archive of the Order was born in 1593, as a registration of the activity of the Generalate community and into it were placed all preceding documentary material (for example, pontifical bulls).
Archives and Libraries as “Cultural Goods”
- Nowadays libraries and archives have to be inserted into the context of cultural goods. This is an important fact. Libraries and archives are cultural goods not only because they conserve books and documents, but also because their fruition allows further production and knowledge, and, in a certain sense, they constitute the genetic patrimony of community, in so far as they are “the deposits of the historical memory” of that same community.
- Memory means identity. This does not mean to venerate the past, but rather to seek in the documents and books of the past those values that can enlighten our future choices. It’s important to understand the connection to our roots which are precisely “the memory of what we were and therefore the basis and precondition of what we should be and would like to be. Every day, minute by minute, we move from our roots to establish our new relationship with the world so that we become the artisans who are aware of that every day history in which we live. The knowledge of history is not only a knowledge of our past, but also the knowledge of our present as well as a projected awareness of our future.” These words of a famous living historian (F. Renda). We should also remember an expression of Pope Paul VI: “In ecclesiastical archives are conserved the traces of the transitus Domini in human history.”
- All of this is applicable to our archives and libraries.
Some Further Considerations
What does this general scenario suggest to us? I would like to offer the following considerations, applied especially to archives but without excluding libraries.
1) There has been an increased interest in archives and libraries in recent years, but a great deal remains to be done and there is a backlog to catch up with. There are several initiatives here and there to evaluate archival and library material. But there is also another demonstration of the great importance of the value that archives have achieved in ecclesiastical circles, and this is the circular letter sent out by the Pontifical Commission of the Cultural Goods of the Church, entitled “The Pastoral Function of Archives”. This manifests the great attention given to archives in ecclesiastical circles. Archives have a pastoral function! Who would have ever imagined until a few decades ago that those ancient pieces of paper have a pastoral value? Why is this? Because the transmission of our documentary patrimony is a moment of the tradition of the Church; it is a memory of evangelization; it is the instrument of a pastoral occasion in which those papers constitute a patrimony for the historical culture of the Church. By recuperating the historical memory, we truly have a basis, in faithfulness to the past, for what it means to be Church in the present.
2) Archives and libraries represent a much wider importance than simple utility; they are centres of cultural production and of ample possibilities of evaluation.
3) In the light of the above, it is obvious that archives and libraries are primary cultural goods, which constitute not a “private good” but a “patrimony” which is received and which must be transmitted also with our own contribution. Their material protection, their administration and their appreciation require a true commitment and adequate resources (suitable locales, personnel, financial subsidies, regulations, etc.)
4) The best knowledge of the past is the reason and possibility of understanding the present and also because the motive of a hidden projection of the future. We are responsible for the patrimony which we have received and which we are obliged to transmit to others in an integral way and further enriched by our own present experience.
Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm.