One of the questions I get most often from clerks of session has to do with databases: “Why, in this computer age, do we still have to keep our minutes, rolls and registers in paper form?”
It’s a reasonable question. Databases are wonderfully convenient, and offer powerful search capabilities. Compared to what a program like Microsoft Access can do, the old system of handwritten cross-references in our membership roll books seems positively archaic.
It’s still necessary, though. Remember: minutes, rolls and registers are permanent records, meant to last not just for decades, but for centuries. Generations from now, some historian may be grateful we took the extra time to maintain a hard copy.
Do you doubt what I say? If so, I have a phrase for you to ponder: “Five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks.”
Remember those? Think back to the good old days, when men were men and floppy disks really were floppy. It wasn’t that long ago that floppy disks were the storage medium of choice.
Now, here’s a follow-up question: “Do you have access to a computer that can read one of those things?”
I used to have one of those – about five computers back. I don’t, anymore. In fact, my present computer can’t even deal with those hard-shelled, three-and-a-half-inch diskettes that replaced the old-time floppies. Diskettes of any size – once ubiquitous – are becoming scarce as hens’ teeth. It’s CD-ROMs we’re all using.
Or is it? Ask a bunch of youth under the age of 18 how many music CDs they own, and you’re likely to get “none” for an answer. Today’s kids are the MP3 Generation. They deal in solid-state data storage. Have iPod, will travel.
Up-and-coming on the horizon (and, in many cases, already here) is the technology known as The Cloud. It’s a limitless place somewhere out there on the Internet, carved up into secure, electronic pigeonholes where we can squirrel away computer files to our hearts’ content. Could it be that The Cloud is where our old church records are meant to live, in retirement?
Can you see where I’m going with this? The world of data processing is expanding so rapidly, no one knows where it’s headed. Generations of data-storage come, and generations of data-storage go, but the hard copy remains forever (or nearly so, if we deposit it in a dry, fireproof place).
For storage of records, the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia is the church’s best source of expert records-preservation advice. The PHS strongly recommends we use only “formats that are considered archivally permanent – hard copy (acid-free paper) or microfilm. At present there is no electronic medium that is considered permanent by archival standards.”
If you like the convenience of a searchable electronic record, though, all is not lost. There’s a way to enjoy the best of both worlds. Go ahead and write your minutes using your favorite word-processing program, then use the word processor to print those words onto acid-free paper for inclusion in your record book. (Be sure you use the right kind of ink in your printer, though – I’m told that laser printers and photocopiers produce permanent, archival-quality results, but inkjet printers do not.) Armed with your back-up, electronic copy, you can then use the search function of your word-processing program to find things in the minutes, without having to go back through the books page by page.