Ninety-nine percent of the allocated storage areas in our church buildings for parish archives and records are totally inappropriate. A Church tower where the bells no longer call members to worship with the dust and damp filtering through the wire mesh ‘windows’ or the church basement where water rises periodically to ankle depth, or for that matter the unexplained concrete vault in the floor of the old church fall far short of the standards required to protect our fragile historical documents. Then there is the attic in the old hall where the temperature constantly fluctuates that lacquered covered books and loose papers are now so gummed together that to separate them will do damage. And there is the so called security and fire proof safe so crammed with records that the door no longer closes, or the old fridge that leaves spotty traces of mould; evidence that moisture hangs around even years after non-refrigerated use.
These examples are just a few locations which housed some of our Church’s archives. I haven’t mentioned the corners of church halls and cupboards which house vermin, silverfish, borer and other such paper-eating undesirables. And don’t let’s forget the many personal storage facilities provided by generous office-bearers and local businesses and Banks. With members moving on and time passing the location of these records is forgotten and as a consequence parish collections are lost and destroyed. The parish returns of 1931 suggest even further obscure storage locations: ‘in the vestry stationery press’, ‘laid to rest in the Manse study’, ‘old records found in wash-house’, and ‘in pantry of Managers’ vestry’!
A glance at ‘Lost Archives’ on the Archives web site is a sobering reminder how susceptible our records are when poorly housed, to fire, floods, decay, neglect, theft or “acts of God”. The story is repeated time and again, ‘All records seem to have been lost’, ‘Incomplete, nothing prior to 1907’, ‘Destroyed by fire in 1884’, ‘Early records cannot be found’, ‘Old records presumed to be burnt’, ‘No trace of old records’. Although the Preface in a number of recent parish church histories lament this loss we as a Church continue to overlook all the necessary precautions required if a parish wish to retain their records on church premises.
The fire and water damaged records from a recent arson attack on a church hall forced me to question once again the wisdom of parish collections remaining in the parish. In this case the accumulation of 75 years of papers stored in cupboards in an unprotected hall has resulted in not only the hall being gutted and demolished and its contents destroyed but the records seriously damaged. More than likely the hall will be rebuilt but not so the records. It is impossible to restore burnt and water damaged records to their former ‘glory’. Once charred and soot damaged the paper weakened by fire and water will continue to deteriorate in coming years. With no insurance cover for salvage and conservation of the paper records, the cost on the Archives Research Centre to undertake this work is high and will probably result in a minimum amount of preservation only being carried out.
Nowhere in New Zealand are we exempt from the effects of weather and geological disturbance as the recent devastating Canterbury earthquake reminds us. Many of our buildings do not meet current building standards therefore, every precaution is necessary to protect our “Taonga”. The Presbyterian Archives Research Centre however, has been relocated into a space which now meets international building and archival standards. Although not quite a ‘state of the art’ Archives building, it is secure, vermin free, earthquake proof, with a sprinkler system through out, and climate control environment for storing records. We encourage parishes who continue to retain their archives and records to give serious consideration to transferring them. The collections are fully processed and catalogued to enable access to both the parish and researcher. The burden to provide a secure and appropriate storage facility becomes the responsibility of the Archives and is removed from the individual parish.