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Saving History Amid Disaster


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When Salem underwent its renovation a few years ago, I felt appreciative and heard. Salem’s new Archives space is roomier, has excellent lighting and includes built-in climate control. While the 1950s-era windows remained, in keeping with the historical integrity of the building, they seemed to be airtight. Moving Salem’s historical treasures into the new space after a year in temporary storage felt incredible. But then…COVID-19. It was another 18 months before I could return to Salem’s Archives. After losing so much time, how could I possibly catch up?  

Thankfully, the church’s life continued to thrive during the construction and the pandemic. Newly acquired print materials and artifacts accumulated in the Archives, awaiting my return and anticipating proper archival storage. This past year has been a joyful challenge: organizing shelving, digging through administrative work and processing materials.

Then the rains came. Even Salem’s well-maintained drainage system was no match for the rain, which caused devastating flooding throughout St. Louis in August. The waters poured through a window in the Archives, filling drawers containing some of Salem’s historical blueprints. Salem’s staff worked fast, pulling the materials out and getting them in front of the fans. I dried the blueprints with towels, sopping up one page at a time as hurriedly as possible. The building manager quickly followed these efforts by overseeing the replacement of drywall. This teamwork salvaged many of the items in Salem’s precious blueprint collection. And while the repairs are being made, Salem’s archival materials are again in temporary storage or carefully secured from the rigors of construction. 
The onslaught of obstacles has forced me to step back and assess. How can I improve disaster preparedness? In anticipation of the return to normal, is “normal” the goal? Has the mission of the Archives evolved with the journey of the church? Many items have survived the lifelong voyage since Salem’s founding in 1841. 

As I endeavor to collect and catalog current records from every department, every committee and every board, I’m reminded that those documents tell the story of our church. These pieces of our past encompass our collective voice: every meeting minute, rough sermon draft and photo of an event outline our mentality as a church. 

Weathering the challenges of the past few years has instilled a sense of accomplishment. Yet, the road is still rough: mold assessments will be ongoing and vital; administrative work will involve months of catch-up, and the newly acquired materials and the rescued blueprints will require make-shift protection since funding isn’t available to store them properly. Regardless, our documented history proves how far we’ve come and defines us honestly as we are today. Our church is responsible for using these precious artifacts to determine where we need to go.