The quiet work of an archivist has its own nightmares — fire, flood and changes in technology for records management.
Donn Devine, who has served as the archivist for the Diocese of Wilmington for the last 27 years, hasn’t had to deal very much with floods or fire.
But since he took over archivist duties in 1989 from John Prentzel, a retired diocesan comptroller who became the first diocesan archivist, Devine has overseen handwritten and typed parish sacramental and diocesan records, microfilmed information, digital records online and, lately, the switch from microfilmed to scanned documents.
“Platforms change all the time,” Devine told The Dialog recently. “I think these new chips are better
than optical disks but I wouldn’t depend on them for more than 20 to 50 years.”
The records may be permanent, but like information platforms, archivists change too. Devine, who turns 87 at the end of March, is stepping down from his Tuesday duties at the Archives, work he took on after his “first retirements” from Wilmington City Planning and from the National Guard. He was also a member of the first Delaware Law School class and practiced in the mental health field when he had the opportunity between his other jobs.
“Donn’s contribution to the diocese as archivist for so many years is remarkable, said Robert G. Krebs, the diocese’s chancellor, whose office oversees the archives. “His humble service is an inspiration to us all. He is a perfect example of a Catholic gentleman. He will be missed by his diocesan family, and we wish him many wonderful years of happy and healthy retirement.”
Devine recalled that his predecessor Prentzel had written a book, “View from the Archives: Diocese of Wilmington 1868-1968” and also assembled the papers of the earlier bishops of Wilmington, plus the records of the Chancery office. Prentzel also started “a mircrofilming program of sacramental records.”
Those records on microfilm were of interest to Devine.
“I was doing genealogy at the time and I saw that they had these things but … they were for security purposes only, not reference, Devine recalled.
“There was some stuff I was interested in, so I asked about availability for reference and it was about the time John [Prentzel] was trying to find a successor.”
Devine’s interest in history and familiarity with the archives became his qualifications for the job.
“I had the good fortune that the diocese sent me to a weeklong introductory course for religious archivists held in a large convent in Springfield, Mass. Now they prefer the term archivists of religious collections but most archivists then were retired religious. In class I was the only male. There were 18 nuns and a young woman who had gotten a job as the Salvation Army’s archivist.”
The retired sisters were “retired executives,” Devine recalled, “a university president, a head of 13 hospitals in the South Pacific, a superintendent of schools — all relegated in old age to be an archivist.”
Devine’s instructors in the course on archives were Jim O’Toole, now at Boston College, and Elizabeth Yakel, who worked with IBM to develop a digital database for the Vatican and is now at the University of Michigan.
When Devine started at the diocesan archives, his office was at the Raskob Foundation in Wilmington. Many records were in the basement of the diocesan chancery building on Delaware Avenue, where Devine discovered some rolls of microfilmed records were unusable because high humidity had damaged them.
“We’ve always been a low-budget operation,” Devine said. “Money for microfilming wasn’t available. But I knew the Mormons would do it for free, if we let them circulate the films for use for researchers.”
The Mormons — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints — have a worldwide project compiling family history records.
Bishop Robert E. Mulvee agreed with Devine’s recommendation to let the Mormons microfilm sacramental records, with the proviso that baptisms less that 72 years old would not be available for public inspection. Seventy-two years is the same amount of time the U.S. Census Bureau keeps its records private.
A major Archives achievement during Devine’s tenure was putting an index online of baptism and marriage records of the Diocese of Wilmington up through 1900.
For instance, baptisms in the diocese’s index can be searched by last name of the person baptized or by the names of the parents or sponsors.
The index is at www.lalley.com.
“That was done by volunteers here,” Devine said. “That’s on a private website with the webmaster in Ireland.”
The Mormons’ microfilms of diocesan records can be researched at the Wilmington Delaware Family History Center. Call (302) 654-1911 for information.
The Family History Centers have a system now on their microfilms of records from around the world, “if you find a film you want to see, you can order it online, pay for it to be sent to the family history center and they’ll call you when it comes in,” Devine said.
Because of online sites, a lot of the Archives work now centers on canonical research, such as people trying to find out where they were baptized, Devine said.
“People will be halfway through an RCIA program working toward being baptized and someone tells them, ‘Oh, you were baptized as a Catholic when you were a baby,’” Devine said. “So they come and say, ‘the family lived in Wilmington, but we don’t know where the baptism took place.’
“The last one I had was really a problem,” Devine said. “The address was in St. Elizabeth’s Parish; St. Elizabeth’s didn’t have anything. … The story was the family didn’t approve of the mixed marriage and the grandmother took the child to be baptized and they didn’t know where. Turned out she had taken the baby from Wilmington down to Newark. We found the baptism in St. John-Holy Angels’ register.”
Devine said projects remain for his successor in the job. [See ad on page 8.]
The first challenge is records management, Devine said. “If that doesn’t work, the Archives doesn’t have anything to work with.”
The next task is saving digital records. “The problem is every time a new operating system comes out, it obsoletes everything that was done before.”
Devine is glad a contract was signed recently with the Mormons “who have made a financial commitment that whenever there’s a change in platform, they will pay to advance the entire scanned [diocesan] collection to the new platform.”
Devine and his wife Betty live in St. Ann’s Parish in Wilmington. They have two grown children and four grandchildren. Their first child Edward died at 18 months. Their son Martin lives in Wilmington and their daughter Mary Elizabeth lives at home.