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Archives agency warns of drawbacks to electronic records


By United Methodist News Service

Saving official church records is not always as simple as it may appear, according to the United Methodist agency charged with preserving the denomination's historical documents.

The churchwide Commission on Archives and History, with offices in Madison, N.J., is particularly concerned that some annual (regional) conferences are considering publishing their annual journals electronically as a cost-cutting measure.

"Our basic suggestion is that regardless of the publication process, the conference should still create a limited number of paper copies of the conference journal on acid-free paper," according to a March 27 letter to all conference secretaries.

"With the continued rapid change of technology there is no guarantee that an electronic journal will be readable in five to 10 years," the agency said.

Data stored 15 years ago on 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch floppy disks has been lost if it has not been transferred to more recent formats, the letter noted.

"In addition to the fact that the physical storage medium will change over time, there is also the problem of being able to read a file for the long term," a commission archivist wrote. "Already, earlier versions of Word documents cannot be read by the current Word program."

A conference journal needs to be accessed for at least 50 years in dealing with personnel issues, such as pastors' pensions, said L. Dale Patterson, archivist and records administrator at the commission.

"The electronic solution is to migrate files whenever the technology changes," he said. "This is often treated as a trivial exercise, but it is not. It costs time and money to migrate a file from one medium or one program to another." The time when the tools for accomplishing this are available is usually limited, and the loss of data or formatting is a real risk.

Patterson pointed out that the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline requires that two copies of the conference journal be sent to the denomination's Commission on Archives and History and two copies to the conference archives. At the very least, these should be paper copies, he said. He urged that additional paper copies be given to the bishop, district superintendents and the conference office.

Questions can be directed to Patterson at or (973) 408-3195.

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