Getting My Hands Dirty While On My Sabbatical

This semester, for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president, I’m not in a classroom as a student or a teacher. I am on sabbatical (think paid research vacation), and my project is to organize, arrange, and describe the records of Zion’s United Church of Christ from Reading, Pennsylvania, established in 1881 and closed in 2010.

On September 26, 2010, Zion’s United Church of Christ closed its doors.  At the last worship service, the Reverend Dr. Robert G. Aregood mentioned during the sermon that one of the challenges of closing a congregation is getting the records ready for deposit at the church archives.  My mother and I were sitting in the congregation, and I was thinking that I would be willing to help if I lived closer.  Well, at that moment, Reverend Aregood looked out into the congregation and stated that maybe the history professor in the pews would help.  So, as the saying goes—when God calls you to do something, you answer the call.

Finally, in mid-November, we made arrangements for me to pick up some of the records from his house (where they had been stored after the church closed) to bring to Mansfield. 

The church records after their arrival:  November 2010

The church records after their arrival: November 2010

My plan at the time was arrange them and take them to the Evangelical & Reformed Historical Society in Lancaster by the next summer.  But, as they say, life gets in the way, and finally, in Fall 2012, I decided to apply for a sabbatical in order to finish the project.  In the meantime, they had been stored in my living room behind my recliner and had only been used when I was researching the formation and early years of the congregation for a presentation at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Association last November.  (The presentation was filmed; if you get bored, you can watch it at

Organization and research began the week of August 26, the first week of the fall semester.  That week, I spent organizing, cataloguing, and taking notes on church bulletins from the 1960s and 1970s.

Sorting the church bulletins (and other items)

Sorting the church bulletins (and other items)

The minister during most of the 1960s, the Reverend G. Richard Ott, used the church bulletin as a way to disseminate information as well as to remind members of the congregation about how he conducted the worship services:

9 April 1961:  “Following the recessional, the choir remains in the rear of the church to complete singing the last hymn.  The congregation is asked to sing the entire hymn and Amen before closing their books, and then maintain a reverent attitude during the extinguishing of the candles.”

14 May 1961:  “Please note that the congregation shall be seated for the parts of the service directing them to kneel.  The pastor will kneel in behalf of the people.”

25 March 1962:  “The Church School Association meeting scheduled for tomorrow evening has been postponed one week to April 2nd.  The same program of leadership training and the movie, “The Wonderful World of Gas” will be held then.  The postponement was made so that the membership of Zion’s may attend the Seder Tea at Kesher Zion Synagogue tomorrow evening at 8 P.M.  Rabbi Bennett will explain the entire ritual of the Passover Seder and answer questions on the faith in general.  Tea will be served following the presentation.  See the bulletin board for details.”

25 April 1965:  “It is only common politeness to refrain from whispering before and during the Service.  Those about you may be disturbed as they worship and pray.  The God you come to worship might also be disturbed.”

25 November 1965:  “Do your Christmas shopping the easy way, pick a gift from the table in the narthex.  Prices range from 20¢ to $5.00, all age groups are covered.  Let’s keep Christ in Christmas this year.”

This week, I have started arranging materials that were stored in tubs.  The records mostly included minutes of the Consistory (Church Council), but they also include financial accounts, membership books, and correspondence.  Part of the process of arranging the materials when preparing them for deposit involves removing fasteners that damage the paper:

Notice the rusted paper clip at the top

Notice the rusted paper clip at the top

Notice the mark/damage on the previous page from the rusted paper clip

Notice the mark/damage on the previous page from the paper clip

Removing paper clips is a delicate job, but one that needs to be done in order to preserve the documents for future generations.  Staples are also removed whenever possible, along with metal fasteners.  The first rule for archivists when preserving documents like these is first, do no harm (just like for doctors), and the second rule is to be able to undo anything that is done (for example, if I put tape on torn pages, I should be able to remove the tape without damaging the paper).  Obviously the people who created and maintained these records did not consider the potential damage that could be done with metal paper clips; of course, plastic clips were not available during World War II.

Sometimes, I encounter items that are a bit unusual.  Here, the records of a church dinner include the recipe:

Recipe for chicken patties.  Peppers?

Recipe for chicken patties. Peppers?

Another thing about working with these documents, some of which date back to 1881…they are filthy.  No wonder archivists wear white gloves—it’s not just to protect the documents from our hands, but it’s to protect our hands from the documents.

 More to come as I discover more exciting things about Zion’s history while arranging the records.


About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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2 Responses to Getting My Hands Dirty While On My Sabbatical

  1. Karen,

    I’ve just now caught up on your sabbatical bloggins’ (in reverse). I love the anecdotes about church behaviors, the Vietnam letter, and the like. Great stuff. Sounds like a lot of fun.


    • Karen says:


      Thanks! I figure that since I’m supposed to write a report at the end of the sabbatical, it makes sense to blog about it along the way.

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