At least five of the teachers in Princeton for the Gilder-Lehrman "13 Colonies" seminar brought this New York Times article to my attention earlier this week. Historians Margaret Bendroth and James Fenimore Cooper Jr. are traveling throughout New England trying to persuade local churches to turn their records over the archives and libraries so that they can be preserved and digitized.
I was so glad to hear about this effort. I have done a lot of work with church records and have had many conversations with stubborn local church officials who refuse to give their records over to archives because they believe that they should remain with the church in the church building.
Here is a taste of Michael Paulson's article:
Now, in a regionwide scavenger hunt, a pair of historians is rummaging through New England church basements and attics, file cabinets, safes and even coat closets, searching for these records of early American life. The historians are racing against inexorable church closings, occasional fires, and a more mundane but not uncommon peril: the actual loss of documents, which most often occurs when a church elder dies and no one can remember the whereabouts of historical papers.
“I have seen them be destroyed, lost, covered with mold or just forgotten,” said the Rev. Janet Leighninger, the pastor of the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale here. “And as finances get tighter, as they are everywhere, and as congregations shrink, and they are doing that in many places, it becomes a matter of, ‘Do we do the ministry we are called to do, or do we preserve the past?’ ”
The historians — James Fenimore Cooper Jr., a professor of history at Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston — are trying to persuade small town church leaders to turn over their records for digitization and preservation. They are focusing largely on Massachusetts because the record keeping there was especially careful, and on congregational churches, or their successors, because those were the official churches in colonial Massachusetts.