The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 7, Number 5
Nov 1983


A Legal Mandate for Preservation

The British government regulates the way in which local church records are kept, presumably because they are an important documentary source for historical research and compilation of vital statistics, as well as documents with legal significance. In 1978 the "Parochial Registers and Records Measure" was passed, superseding similar measures from 1929 and 1812, and setting minimum preservation standards to, be met for storage of register books and records in each parish. These standards are indeed minimal. It should be interesting to compare them with the standards that will eventually come out of ANSI's Z-39 Subcommittee R on Environmental Standards for Storage of Paper-based Library Holdings (AN Aug. 1981). Still, the British standards may have a generally beneficial effect that is quite significant. They may even be hard for some parishes to meet without making capital expenditures. Here they are, from page 20 of the 22-page legislation, the rest of which deals with matters like making the entries, custody, transfer and inspection:

  1. Every register book or record to which this Schedule applies shall be kept in a rust-proofed, vented steel cupboard, the door of which is fitted with a multi-lever lock, and the cupboard shall be kept in the appropriate parish church or other place of public worship.
  2. The place in the church or other place of public worship in which the cupboard is kept shall be the place where there is least risk of damage to any such book or record in the event of a flood or an outbreak of fire.
  3. The temperature and relative humidity in such cupboard shall be checked at least once a week by means of a maximum-minimum thermometer and a hygrometer, each of which shall be kept in the cupboard.

    The hygrometer shall be one conforming to British Standard Specification Number 3292 or any new British Standard which supersedes it.

  4. The difference between the maximum and the minimum temperatures in the cupboard during any week shall not be allowed to exceed 10 degrees Celsius.
  5. The relative humidity in the cupboard shall not be allowed to fall below 50 per cent, nor to rise above 65 per cent. [Many of the records are on vellum, which requires a moist atmosphere; happily, England's atmosphere is naturally moist.]
  6. Subject to paragraph 3 above, nothing, except books or other documents, shall be kept in the cupboard in which any register book or record to which this Schedule applies is for the time being kept.
  7. Without prejudice to the preceding provisions, the person or persons having the custody of any such book or record shall take all such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that the book or record is protected against theft, loss and damage.

G. Crawfourd & Sons (2-4-6 New Mount St., Stratford, London £15) manufactures and sells a "Parish Cupboard" designed to meet these specifications. It has 17 cubic feet of storage space in the inner wooden cupboard, which in turn is completely enclosed in a coated steel cupboard that is rustproofed on the cut edges. A dial hygrometer and a dial maximum-minimum thermometer are screwed to the inside of one of the doors of the inner cupboard. There are screened slots for air movement into and out of the cupboard. The wood, some of which is mahogany, appears to be finished, but is described as "unsealed," except for two-thirds of the outer surface of both ends is coated with fire-retardant paint.

The manufacturer sends out with the cupboard five pages of "Notes for Guidance" which help to compensate for any deficiencies of the law or lack of sophistication in the cupboard design. Sections are headed

The Choice of Location
Inside the Cupboard
Checking the Cupboard Weekly
What can go Wrong and Why (two whole pages)
General Advice

They give explicit advice in layman's language covering most of the avoidable hazards of storage, including flood, mold, vandalism, theft, sunlight and other heat sources, fire, insect infestations, dirt, and careless shelving. Selected passages follow:

"There should be room for the cupboard to be at least six inches, preferably a foot, away from walls. It should be on a stand so that it is about a foot off the floor with an air space under it, and NOT near hot water pipes or electric fires."

"If a book has loose covers or pages, wide cotton tape should be tied round it. Any more extensive damage than this should be referred to the Diocesan Archivist. It will probably need the attention of a trained conservator."

"Check the books and documents themselves periodically, say once a month, to see that they are dry, clean and free from mould and insects. The instruments cannot detect dirt, mould or insects and may, through some fault or other, be giving incorrect readings. The evidence presented by the books themselves is often of vital importance."

"It will be found that as the outside climate changes during the year, the climate inside the cupboard.. .will change slowly enough for the documents to adjust easily and comfortably to new conditions, and, equally important, that the new conditions will not stray outside the proper range."

The section titled "What Can go Wrong and Why" gives common-sense measures to take if the climate inside the cupboard is cold and too humid, warm and too dry, etc. Remedies include finding a better place for the cupboard, pulling weeds along the footing of the outer wall, and use of silica gel.

The law, together with the cupboard and instructions, make up an innovative package that is important because of its potential impact nationwide, and the example it can set for other countries. Outsiders, and even people intimately involved, may find it hard to say whether higher standards could have been mandated or more adequate care realistically recommended. In order to closely judge the effectiveness of the package, it would be necessary to keep systematic inspection records or make a survey. The success of the system depends on several factors, including how closely instructions are followed and whether the cupboard can do its job without any unintended side effects or maintenance problems. We are not likely to see much high-quality feedback, however, because of the cost. Future generations will judge the success of the package by the reputation it will have built up, and by the extent to which its features are imitated elsewhere and in other contexts.

If any readers know of any law or policy in this country that makes similar provisions for preservation of local records--aside for the provision that they not be removed from the court house for any reason--it would be interesting to hear about it.

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