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20th Century Church Documents: It's all Historic, but it isn't all Historically Significant

Lately, I've been working with documents from a Congregational church that recently closed. Their organizational materials were deposited in our archives to preserve their written record and aid scholars in future research. While working with 19th c. documents it's not uncommon to come across water damage, red rot, a lot of dirt and grime accumulated over the years, and an occasional dead bug or two. Items come to the Congregational Library in various states of condition from pristine to damaged beyond repair. However, in terms of scope, they are often edited in their own way because someone had to painstakingly write or type each word. []It's in the 20th century when various copying possibilities come into play (onion skin, mimeograph, photocopies, etc.) that one often sees an explosion of paper in institutional records. The amount of paper to deal with can be staggering.

Making copies became so easy and inexpensive; there seemed no reason not to make them. And dutiful church staff and volunteers have filed them with care for decades. This means that when taking stock of your own institution's records, you can be sure there are multiple copies of the same documents. This takes unnecessary space in your facility and it is no doubt causing a certain amount of consternation for whoever stewards the collection.

Culling multiple copies of the same item is one of the easiest ways to get your arms around your collection. Start by grabbing this low hanging fruit! By doing so, you'll reduce the number of records in your stewardship as well as make more space in your facility for future records of import. Here are some tips:

  • Try whenever possible to save the original rather than a copy.
  • Save a copy with a damaged original if the copy is in better condition and you can't part with the original.
  • If you have multiple copies, choose the one that's in the best condition / has the least number of fasteners on it.

This is a great opportunity to consider your records management policies. Does your church have a policy where you save a certain number copies of vital records? If not, maybe it's a good time to create one. What's the right number of copies for your church to keep... 1, 3, 5? If you're a member of an active church, maybe there's a good need to have multiple copies of vital records, but if your church is closing, there most likely is not.

To make things as easy as possible for you, use the Congregational Library's resources for creating records management policies and schedule templates. If you have specific questions, don't forget to contact us directly!

Culling multiple copies from your collection is a great way to reduce the items in your stewardship and tackle some needed records management in the process. Once that is done, you can hopefully use the momentum to organize other documents. It's an opportunity to let some items go, feel good about it in the process, and move on to the next task!


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