Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 8, 1998
Archivist Preserves Local Catholic History
BY ERIKA ANDERSON
ATLANTA--As Tony Dees flips through the scrapbook of Atlanta's first bishop, Bishop Francis E. Hyland, his hands are gentle and his smile is bright, a testimony to the love and care that he puts into preserving each document and artifact in the archdiocesan archive collection.
Dees was hired as the archdiocesan archivist in 1992, but first worked as a consultant in 1990, when the archdiocese asked him to make recommendations for the organization of the archives, which at that time were stored in boxes in a room off the Catholic Center's parking garage.
Now Dees works quietly and diligently in his three-room office and archives on the first floor of the Catholic Center. He acquired the space in January 1995, and that is when he could finally achieve some organization, he said.
In college, Dees thought he might like to study medicine, but when he started working in the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn extra money, he knew he had found his niche. He went on to receive a master's degree in library science.
He began his career as a librarian at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., and then at the University of Georgia, where he later became the director of the Georgia Room and curator of manuscripts. He also worked as director of the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah and came to Atlanta as the director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History.
He has enjoyed the challenge of organizing the archdiocesan archives.
"I've worked all these years at old institutions, but this has been my first opportunity to actually develop a system," he said. "It's been challenging and a lot of fun."
Dees began the task by going through the boxes and making card files on each item. He said that he did throw some things away, but since one never knows what will have historical value later, he was very conservative in what he discarded. He started placing the documents and artifacts in acid-free boxes and folders, which help to preserve the original state of the items.
Today there are 250 linear feet of manuscripts, 157 artifacts, 80 audio-visual items, 243 sets of architectural drawings and 60 framed large documents, paintings and portraits.
The oldest document, a parish register from the Church of the Purification in Locust Grove, dates back to 1822. The next oldest is a 1902 letter from Mrs. Joel Chandler Harris, wife of the author of the Uncle Remus stories, asking Bishop Benjamin Keiley for a church in the West End. In reply, the bishop assessed the area and St. Anthony of Padua Church was built.
"Because we are a fairly young diocese, we don't have ancient records," Dees said.
Recently the archdiocese participated in the Georgia Archives and Manuscripts Automated Access Project (GAMMA), which allows researchers to activate some of the archdiocese's more important records through an on-line computer system. Over 240 records have been entered into the system. Dees is pleased with the way technology has helped his work.
"It's exciting what is happening with information and how it is used," he said.
But, he said, he worries that with technology such as e-mail improving daily, rare documents, such as the ones he handles, will become obsolete.
Each document, Dees said, is unique, but he is particularly fond of Bishop Hyland's scrapbook and the documents from the erection of the Diocese of Atlanta and its later elevation to an archdiocese.
"Everything we have is priceless as a piece of the mosaic of the church of Atlanta," he said.
Dees often receives calls from researchers, such as college students and people trying to find information on their family history.
"Genealogy is America's biggest hobby right now," Dees said. "We may be able to narrow it down and tell (researchers) what parish they are looking for."
Since the beginning of 1997, the archives has received over 145 reference inquiries. Dees said that this enhances his work.
"I love dealing with records, organizing and arranging them," he said. "But I also love dealing with the people who create or use the records."
Since 1995 Dees' office has added 10-15 linear feet of manuscripts each year. Dees said it is detailed work, and "one has to have a feel, respect and love for history and the documents that make history" in order to work with archives.
Working with the history of the Archdiocese of Atlanta has shown Dees the hard work and dedication of the parishes and people of the archdiocese.
"The amount of work and devotion of the church of Atlanta and its people throughout the years has been amazing," he said.