Preserving the past


Anne Don in front of the library

The first thing to greet visitors at Orrong Road Uniting Church is a plaque commemorating the laying of the foundation stone in 1887. A small walkway separates the main church building from the hall and the ‘Ladies Guild Hall’. Walking through the doors of the old church into the vestibule is, quite literally, like stepping back in time.

Paintings and photographs dating back to the 1800s line the walls. As framed faces stare down at modern-day visitors, it is easy to picture parishioners in times past arriving via horse and cart, dressed in their Sunday best trying to capture something of the civility they left behind when travelling to this new land.

Since the 1970s, a small group of dedicated volunteers has ensured that all records, documents and artefacts relating to the UCA are catalogued and stored for future reference.

Letters written on expensive stationery, architects’ drawings for new churches and minutes of parish meetings are just some of the items sorted and catalogued into boxes. The sheer number of items is apparent by the rows and rows of boxes, all in alphabetical order, from each of the congregations. Lifting the lid on the contents offers a unique glimpse into what makes an organisation such as the UCA tick.

Those researching their family history can find records of baptisms, marriages and funeral rites. Even publications such as Crosslight can reconnect with ancestral articles, with bound copies of Spectator (a Methodist publication) dating back to the early 1800s.

Archives have often been described as the ‘secretions of an organism’.  Unlike official historical accounts – deliberately produced as formal record – archives offer clues of the emotions and human interaction that make up the inner life of an organisation.

But the archives not only offer a glimpse into the past, they serve as a stark reminder that time moves on.

While the beautiful historic building seems the perfect place to house the archives of the Uniting Church, it is the age of the building that means it is time for the archive centre to change. In order for the work to continue, a new location must be found.

The building at Orrong Road would require ongoing maintenance to ensure the safety and security of irreplaceable artefacts and records, and the decision has been made to electronically catalogue all material so it is easily accessible for future generations.

Rev David Parker is chair of the synod Property Board, which is responsible for the relocation project.

“We are extremely grateful for past and ongoing contributions of volunteers, in sorting, filing and recording records of the synod and all congregations of the synod,” Mr Parker said.

“We have a statutory responsibility, along with the need to keep good records, so that our ‘story’ may be told to those who follow us.”

Anne Don has been the librarian at the archives centre for more than 20 years. Housed in the Ladies’ Guild Hall, books – chronicling the life of the Uniting Church and its predecessor churches dating back through the centuries – have been painstakingly organised by the Dewey decimal system.

Speaking with Ms Don, it is obvious that the decision to move the archives is emotional for all involved.

“The library is a collection that people have donated; we have some really precious material,” Ms Don said as she looked around the well-ordered shelves.

“The parish histories are very special as they’ve come in as the result of years and years of work. It’s a snapshot back in time and we have individual journals that go back a long way. Down in the family history section, there are people who have researched their own histories and will then leave those histories with us. So there’s a lot of special material here.”

Ms Don reflects the commitment of the volunteers as she looks around her library with pride. Not only do the archives reflect the past, they are a present-day passion for those involved.

Relocation of the archives will take place throughout most of this year.

Changes include appointing a professional archivist to work alongside the current volunteers as well as the establishment of a new research and processing facility.

Archives currently stored at the Orrong Road property will be relocated to purpose-built facilities managed by a specialist provider, and options are being explored for specific artefacts to be displayed at various locations throughout the Vic/Tas synod.

The Property Board hopes the relocation will be complete by the end of the year.

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