Archives and Disasters


I’m trying to write an annual report for the Synod of Otago and Southland’s forthcoming Annual General Meeting and I wonder what I can say in the light of the horrific affects of the earthquake and tsunami that our Japanese friends are experiencing and our own tragic earthquake in Christchurch.  I wonder where archives fit into all this destruction and tragedy and how significant they really are in the order of things.  As I dwelt on this thought I was brought up with a jolt when a researcher rang in asking what material we had on the missionaries’ response to the Japanese war in China in the 1930s.  Researchers confirmed for me once again that they expect us, as an Archives, to have material relating to the past be it disasters or moments of great joy.

I was soon back on track as I accepted that as the Presbyterian Church Archivist it is my job to collate material that pertains to our collection policy whatever the subject matter.   Archivists must not become gate-keepers that make decisions on what may or may not be too tragic or unpleasant to keep. Our primary function is to gather material so that memories and experiences of the past are accessible to enable us all to gain new understandings as we confront change. 

The newly completed St Paul's Presbyterian Church Napier, damaged by earthquake and then fire in 1931

Our archives collections are just snap shots of life and the Presbyterian collections on its disasters are scant.  If we take the 1931 Napier earthquake as an example, there are very few records that tell how our church grieved its loss, how life changed for its people, how our members and ministers worked together in a spirit of love to support each other and those around them, how their faith was challenged and strengthened as a result of the disaster or what huge effort and emotion went into rebuilding their city and churches. 

 In 2011 communications are instant, they bring a crisis right into the fore that we can almost not avoid hearing, seeing and being totally absorbed in a tragedy, so with a deep sadness over the last few weeks I compiled my blogs on the Christchurch earthquake and the effects felt within in the Presbyterian community and beyond.  The response generally has been supportive and I trust as the weeks go on we at the Archives will sympathetically and systematically gather what material comes our way, and report on it to the best of our ability.  We are confident that from the eye-witness accounts and other material gathered, information will be discovered that will help people learn, evaluate, plan, and make decisions to lessen consequences of future tragedies.  

To those who have forwarded their stories, letters and reflections thank you and we will archive them for posterity.  As I begin to write the Synod Report my conviction that Archives play a continuing and significant role in our lives does not override the great sadness and loss so many are experiencing at present.

by Yvonne

One comment

  1. Yvonne, you’re poignantly wondering where archives fit into all the destruction and tragedy that has taken place in Japan and Christchurch; you pose a question how significant archivists really are in the order of things.
    Obviously many aspects of our daily lives have been put into perspective by the tragedy we have been witnessing in Christchurch and Japan.
    It is certainly an intellectual & ethical dilemma that appears to me to be rather unnecessary. It is in times like these we need archivists as much as rescuers, doctors, builders, engineers, plumbers, road fixers etc.

    You are the search and rescuers of our past that by gathering and preserving the historical facts from our past help the communities to build their future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s