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It’s a matter of record

Presbyterian Historical Society discusses what are important church records and what can be boxed away or recycled — and ways PHS can help

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Kristen Gaydos, at left, and David Staniunas of Presbyterian Historical Society conducted Thursday’s webinar, “Saving your Congregation’s Records.” (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — Helping churches determine what’s an important congregational record and what can be stashed somewhere or even recycled was at the heart of Thursday’s webinar put on by the Presbyterian Historical Society, “Saving your Congregation’s Records.” Watch the webinar here.

David Staniunas, PHS records archivist, led with an example of how not to make the determination between preserving and pitching. A small church called a few years back to tell PHS it was closing after 60 years of ministry and was forwarding the contents of the church office to PHS. Please don’t do that, PHS urged the church. It’s too late, the church replied — the documents, all 1,300 pounds of them, were already en route to the PHS office in Philadelphia.

What must be preserved — and every year PHS helps about 200 historic congregations preserve about 300 feet of material — are session minutes and church registers, Staniunas said. Other records, including the minutes of various boards such as trustees and deacons, can also be retained, but “should occupy a fairly small piece of real estate,” Staniunas said. A rule of thumb is a church of 150 members that’s kept its doors open for 150 years should have just a cubic foot or two of essential records.

There are other records worth preserving, of course, such as commemorative records. One such was a church that had no records of the Girl Scout troop affiliated with the church — just a few vintage 1960s Kodachrome photos. That kind of commemorative record “can elucidate and enlighten us about the social history of the organization,” Staniunas said. “Commemorative records tell us what the whole church has been committed to.”

Commemorative records can also include recordings, slides, video recordings and entire photo albums.

The third category, and it’s the largest, are records of temporary value, which Staniunas said can be set aside to be managed. Those include financial records, which ought to be kept on hand for seven years for auditing purposes. More information on what PHS can do for congregations is available here.

For maintaining session minutes, the best path forward is to maintain them electronically as a pdf, Staniunas said, print them on acid-free paper, place the minutes in a folder or binder, and then store them in a box away from heat, light and water. Church registers should be treated the same way, Staniunas said.


Photo by Wesley Tingey via Unsplash

PHS also serves congregations by converting their essential records from paper to digital. Each year, PHS images about 70,000 pages for many of the PC(USA)’s 8,925 churches. The process is explained here. United Parcel Service is PHS’s shipper of choice. Churches should identify the volumes to be digitized, wrap the volumes in newsprint or bubble wrap, box them, tape the box(es) and ship them to PHS at 425 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.

Records can also be dropped off in person, Staniunas said.

It’s rare that session minutes older than 25 years will need to be on hand. Anything older can be digitized. “If you send it here, it’s not inaccessible to you,” Staniunas said. “You can ask us to image records, and you can ask us questions about your own records. If you’re doing a deep dive into your history, you can have records sent back to the church with just a note from your clerk of session.”

Staniunas said genealogists contacting churches can be referred to PHS using this email: “We get about 3,000 requests per year, and about one-third of them are from genealogists,” Staniunas said.

PHS also deals with church records in languages other than English. For the past 18 months or so, PHS has been digitizing mission records from the 1840s through the 1880s that came from a region in Lebanon. PHS assumed the records were in Arabic, but later found out the language used in a large portion of the documents was actually Ottoman Turkish. “We didn’t know that was the case until we put the digital records in the hands of scholars in the area,” Staniunas said. “The best thing we can do is digitize and then get it in the hands of people who can read it.”

What’s the recommended action, one viewer asked, with ragged and torn family Bibles containing family registers, including births, marriages and deaths, some dating back to the 1700s?

“The short answer is that it’s none of my business. Do with it as you see fit,” Staniunas said. “If you want to remove the family history from the Bible, you should do that.”

Many churches have a century-old Bible that was long used as a pulpit Bible. But Bibles are not records, Staniunas said.

“Records are unique traces of events that happened. Pulpit Bibles are publications,” Staniunas said. “If they carry records of interest to your congregation, you might find a way to [preserve] the parts of that Bible with documentary information.”

Another viewer asked, what about annual reports? Those records “indicate what has been done,” while session minutes “indicate what session hoped” would happen. “So annual reports to some degree are better,” the viewer wrote. And what about membership directories? Are they accepted by PHS as well?

They are, Staniunas said. “Annual reports and directories are classed as permanent records.” In addition, programs and booklets from memorable celebrations, such as 50th or 100th church anniversaries, can also be important church records.

Kristen Gaydos, communications and development associate for PHS, assisted Staniunas with Thursday’s webinar, attended by nearly 80 people via Zoom and seen by others via Facebook.

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