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Lightning and Fire

July 24, 2013
Main Street Presbyterian Church (Honey Grove, Tex.), via WFAA-TV.

Every so often, a congregation calls me with some alarm to say a nearby church building has burned down and lost all its records. Catastrophic fire is the classic long-tail risk: something that happens rarely, but which has incalculable consequences. Fortunately, you can handle this risk by storing historic records with the Presbyterian Historical Society, and by using our preservation services.

Earlier this year, Main Street Presbyterian Church (Honey Grove, Tex.) was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, taking all its historic records with it. On December 29, 2011, Westport Presbyterian Church (Kansas City, Mo.) was severely damaged by fire. In April 2011, lightning struck Mayfield Presbyterian Church (Mayfield, N.Y.), quickly reducing the building to ashes. The church's pastor, quoted in local news accounts, recounted the devastation: "You look at what's left and you say the history here, over 200 years of history in this church and it's laying there in shambles."

Four years after a calamitous fire in 2009, the First Presbyterian Church (De Bary, Fla.) was able to celebrate Easter in its new sanctuary. Their earliest records, spanning 1958 to 1974, were secured on microfilm, and the master negatives are held here at PHS. Microfilm remains the archival standard for long-term preservation of paper records. It's the only preservation medium we know of that's tested to last for 500 years.

Collections which have been professionally filmed in the past 50 years are easily scanned en masse to provide easy digital access. Most importantly, microfilm provides a secure copy of your records, stored far away from your church building, should disaster strike.