Today we feature another intern perspective on the Old South project.
I had known nothing about archives or archivists before working at Old South Church to help continue upon the efforts of Church historian emerita, Suze Campbell. The experience has been not unlike an archaeological dig, only instead of sifting through the sands of Giza, we have been sifting through documents -- mostly 20th century, but some date back further. The analogy with ancient Egypt does not end here: they had papyrus and we have paper; the basement chamber of Old South has taken on the weight of a pyramid, structurally, and out of its very interior concealment. While handling material, we have encountered traces of dust and barely perceptible crystalline substances, generally known as 'grit'. We have also seen some examples of penmanship rendered in sepia inks, just as fascinating as any series of painted hieroglyphics. Today, the hieroglyphics have found permanent residence in museums -- as has our society’s historical reverence for handwriting.
During our team internship, we have been involved in a high-level survey of a collection. The goal is to organize by thematic series and then, through appraisal, select material appropriate for inclusion at the Congregational Library in downtown Boston where it will be maintained under the perpetual care of a librarian, an archivist, and, by extension, the current Old South historian. The Library is a central location for preserving material which, if not cared for, risks extinction, and similarly, it cannot be overemphasized that acts of preservation are also owed to the archives which remain on site at the Church, even as they continue to grow.
Material has been stored in "x" number of boxes, and can also be quantified in "linear feet": the traditional measurements applied to archival volume. The work of appraisal involves the determination of what the experts sometimes call "inherent value". It is not principally about judging worth in terms of the Philistine clanking of coins, though some of the material we have seen has considerable value as a 'commodity'.
Since the founding of Old South in 1669, each generation of Americans has undergone change. This is quite natural since the experiences shared by one generation are always different from the experiences of the rest. I do believe that all the generations -- relative to one another -- get the same deal: problems to be sure, but problems of equal gravity, only different. The archives at the Library and at Old South contain impressions from each generation; each has a personality of its own and these silent documents and images all reflect change. It seems a given, then, that time is well spent in the preservation of material which enhances and complements Congregational identity and tradition.
Sermons are an important example: not only do they carry a moral message but they hold keys to theological thinking, historical events, and are perhaps the most important single contribution from the ministry (though certainly not the only one). During a service, a good sermon is stands on its own, like the pipe organ and the Choir and hymns and Scripture and the Offering and the Doxology and Communion and Fellowship.
Other items like publications, correspondences, reports, and written dialogues on matters like church polity and future planning are of equal worth. And the rich collection of architectural drawings undeniably helps underscore the church’s historic landmark designation. They exist in abundance -- in the fourth floor Guild Hall -- rolled up and unwieldy, like giant scrolls from the Library at Alexandria.
Aside from the monumental (and I daresay almost futile) effort and expense of maintaining a splendid building (a gift of never-to-be-seen-again 19th century architecture), the collection as a whole represents the other things that people have invested their time and money in. The archives of the church, then, reflect history, put faces behind inanimate objects, and help sanctify and inform the entire membership. It is here that I suggest their inherent value can be found.