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NEH Supports Archival Preservation at PHS

February 8, 2016
The recent NEH grant award supports a conservation environment assessment--an important step in protecting PHS's historic collection.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a $6,000 Preservation Assistance Grant to the Presbyterian Historical Society, the national archives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The NEH grant will fund a 2016 conservation environment assessment of PHS’s archival facility in Society Hill—the first such study of the building in 25 years.

Natalie Shilstut, PHS Preservation Archivist, believes the assessment is a crucial step in providing for the future well-being of the Society’s 30,000 square feet of unique items and rare publications. Society holdings go back 500 years and include church records from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, personal papers, photographs, and recordings. Its collections document the history of American Presbyterianism and Presbyterian missionary work around the world.

“Using environmental data we’ve collected continually since 2015, we will work with a preservation environment expert to identify and analyze building issues,” Shilstut said. “This work sets the groundwork for planning important building renovations.”

PEM-2 data logger. Image via Image Permanence Institute.

The data loggers, as well as a 2014 preservation needs assessment, were supported by grant funding from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts. The NEH-funded conservation environment assessment will incorporate and build on those earlier efforts, identifying steps to protect the collections for future generations while maintaining the Society’s open-access research policy.

An environmental expert, preservation specialist, and HVAC technician will assess environmental conditions and identify building modifications that improve the collection storage spaces. The surveyors will consider the condition of the building envelope, energy use, light levels, and gaseous and particulate pollution levels—all of which affect the longevity of archival materials.

Shilstut hopes that the NEH-funded assessment will help PHS secure additional funding for building improvements. “NEH funding is a powerful vote of confidence in the work of its grantees,” Shilstut said. “We are excited about receiving such recognition.”

January 2016 PEM-2 environmental data, PHS processing room. 

The Society’s application was subject to the NEH’s review process, which includes peer review along with deliberations by the National Council on the Humanities and the Office of the Chairman. According to the NEH website, an average of 284 applications were submitted in the last five competitions of the Preservation Assistance Grants program. The program made an average of 90 awards per year, for a funding ratio of 32 percent.

The NEH is an independent federal agency created in 1965 and one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. Notable NEH-funded projects include The Civil War, a landmark documentary by Ken Burns viewed by over 38 million Americans, and the United States Newspaper Project, which cataloged and microfilmed 63.3 million pages of historic newspapers, paving the way for the National Digital Newspaper Program and its digital repository, Chronicling America.

View a list of all December 2015 NEH grant award recipients here.