Beacon Street Diary blog

Beyond Beacon Street

Our newsletter and blog often discuss the records in our collection, from documents of agricultural disputes, to notes on the LGBT struggle. But there's more to the Congregational Library & Archives than the books and papers at 14 Beacon. Our archivist Jessica Steytler often goes out into the wider Congregational world, visiting churches to help congregations care for their own records, and find glimmers of historical gold.

"We teach churches to care for their own records," says Jessica. "We always encourage churches to contact us with questions. Sometimes, I am able to go visit and work with them in person."

One such recent visit is to the First Church in Malden, where Jessica met Marilyn MacAskill, the church treasurer. "The First Church in Malden called initially to ask if we would take their records," says Jessica. "We don't take records from active churches, so we started talking about what the church could do with their material."

The First Church in Malden is a congregation in transition, moving from a church built in the early 1930s to a smaller space. "Our church building has been sold, and we're moving to a building with less storage space," explains Marilyn.

There are generations' worth of material in the Malden church, dating back to the 1870s. But with the move to a smaller building, space to store the records is becoming a problem.

"The big problem now is what we keep and what we do away with," says Marilyn.

After Jessica consulted with Marilyn on the phone about storage and management of the collection, she made the trip to the church.

"I am able to make recommendations in person and over the phone about what resources are available for disaster planning, records management planning, suppliers for archive-quality material. The thing that I try to emphasize to churches is scalable solutions. You can do a little thing, and it can make a big difference. You don't have to pick the Cadillac choice to do the right thing."

Simple choices, says Jessica, can make a difference for both digital and paper records.

"Like keeping only one version of something, naming files logically, trying to be thoughtful about organizing computer files so that it's not just a mess on your desktop. These things require time and thought, but not money."

As far as physical records, Jessica says, "Knowing what you have is the most important step." From there, she recommends starting with simple solutions. To that end, storing items in a well-organized filing cabinet is perfectly acceptable, as are clean, strong cardboard boxes. "Well-marked boxes," she adds, "so it is clear that they are historically relevant. You don't want them to accidentally be confused with Christmas decorations." From there, it's important to keep the records safe from water damage and pests. "Is it too close to the floor in a basement? Is it too close to the roof in an attic? Is it underneath pipes?"

"These are things that don’t require a lot of money, but they require time and interest."

Time and money are constraints for many churches, and some are turning to digitization, hoping for a solution. "Everybody's interested in scanning their records," says Jessica, but she is quick to warn against scanning a record and throwing the paper copy away. "The reason to scan something is because you want to make it available to the public. Pick your favorite thing, scan it, do it well, maintain it. Just don't throw it away when you’re done!"

Digital records are, in the long run, more fragile and more expensive to maintain, Jessica explains. "You will be able to read a piece of paper in 100, 200, maybe even 300 years," says Jessica. Even if the digitized files survived inevitable computer crashes, viruses, and were diligently transferred to each new computer, "You won't be able to read a Word document in twenty years," she says. "Scanning is a short-term solution, and not something to be done lightly. There are so many ways for valuable things to disappear."

Jessica recommends thoughtfully editing the records. "You cannot keep everything," she says. "Not only because it takes up space, but you can't make interesting records accessible when they are buried under unimportant things like cancelled checks," Jessica says.

Whenever possible, Jessica recommends churches work through their records with help from a professional archivist, and that's just what the church in Malden is doing. "Jessica suggested that we get an archivist come in to help in deciding what we should keep and what we should throw away," says Marilyn.

"But when it's not possible to hire an archivist, we need to empower congregations to take on the responsibilities of caring for historical records," says Jessica. "That's very much in keeping with how Congregationalism works, from the bottom up, letting the congregation make their choice on what to do with their records."

Church records are of clear importance to an active church, but they are also of significance to the wider community. "Those records are a window into a town's history," says Jessica. Marilyn agrees. "Our church is one year older than the town, so the town was actually formed in the church. The church was the governing body and the social outlet for everyone. It was where people went to meet and discuss things, as well as to have religious services."

Beyond New England history, church records tell stories that would have otherwise been forgotten, says Jessica. "They have details of people's lives, people who aren't in history books."

Sometimes, clearing out the cancelled checks is necessary to find that gold.