Blue Earth County Historical Society
displaying capsule contents to visitors
(Mankato Free Press photo)
In 2011, one-hundred years after the cornerstone of Old Main, the original building on the Bethany Lutheran College campus, was laid, it was decided to remove the time capsule placed there. When the metal container was opened, it was found to contain mostly paper documents – German and English newspapers published in Mankato and elsewhere in Minnesota, German hymnbooks, and medallions celebrating the founding of the college. In addition, there was an inventory of the contents written in the very difficult German cursive script. The contents made it clear what the original institution, Bethany Ladies College, was intended to be: a conservative Lutheran school for girls.
Those cornerstone contents are now stored in the climate-controlled vault housing the college archives. They were replaced with books and other printed material telling the story of the college since 1911. Rather than trusting these materials to the passage of time, digital copies of much of the printed material were placed on computer disks and flash drives. The thought was that the technology might have a better chance of surviving, though one may speculate that in one-hundred years the paper products will still be readable, but there will be no technology remaining to recover the information on the electronic media.
On the Bethany Lutheran College campus, there are two archives and a museum. The oldest of them is the museum, having come into existence in the early 1930s when the libraries of several pastors and memorabilia of some churches and households were donated. Later, the archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod which has owned and operated Bethany College since 1927 was established to give more order to the acquired materials, and to the official documents and records of the synod. The newest is the Bethany Lutheran College archives, located in the college library. This archive came into existence on the occasion of opening the 1911 time-capsule, and the retirement of two long-time professors both of whom had accumulated papers from service in many college positions and committees over the years. A few years earlier, the third of Bethany’s twenty-year presidents had retired, leaving a substantial collection of papers. Until that time, the college’s presidential papers and been included in the synodical archives but accessibility to those materials was limited.
(Mankato Free Press photo)
A suitable space in the college library was dedicated to the development of an official archive for the college, and much of the material pertaining to the college, including significant photo collections, were moved to the new facility.
Today, materials in the college archives are cataloged in an electronic, searchable finding aid. Some of the archive’s material is accessible through an electronic photo-archive on the college’s website. It contains digitized photo collections, school yearbooks, school newspapers and other materials which tell the story of the college. You can view it here.
The two archives and museum have provided valuable resources for those who examine the history of the church body and the college. A recent book celebrating the centennial of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod is a strong testimony to the usefulness of systematic preservation of historical materials. A history of the college is also being prepared. In both cases, the major resource is archived material communicating the histories and the missions of the synod and college, both of which exist to communicate the Christian, Lutheran faith which is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The development of the college archives and a close cooperation with the museum and synodical archives across the campus has led to a more intense discussion of the nature of the archiving task for the college and the church. Behind these discussions is a desire to preserve the history of these institutions and to make that history accessible as a testimony to their beliefs and values.
The college’s extensive use of information technology dates back to the late 1970s, but only since 1990 have computers been used extensively by the administration, staff and faculty. Today, both the synod and the college present a public face on the internet and use technology to confess the Christian gospel to others. As a result, material needing to be preserved exists in both paper and electronic form.
(Mankato Free Press photo)
Twenty years into the twenty-first century, those who work with archival materials have a great wealth of technology to use in the organization of materials they are asked to care for. In the last three decades, computers, scanners, and various types of electronic media have increased in capacity to store huge amounts of material in a relatively small space. For the most part, electronic media provide a way to save and store images and text that neither fade nor turn to dust. But that does not mean that technology and electronic media resources are without problems, especially in regard to durability.
In the face of all the resources available, archivists have had to ask many questions about their mission and how they carry it out. In most cases, the mission statements of archival departments contain two essential elements: Preservation and Accessiblility.
Those two elements present some challenges. For one thing, they are distinctly different. Both have limitations. Not everything can or should be preserved. All material things are unstable in the sense that they decay, but in different ways. Thus, some types of paper, like newsprint, have a very short shelf life. Photos, especially colored photos, by the very nature of their chemistry fade and lose their value. Today, paper and printer’s inks have been developed that last much longer. But they still don’t last forever.
Similar limitations must be placed on accessibility. Not all materials can be made accessible for anyone and everyone. Accessibility must often be conditioned on need personal privacy and to know. Distinctions need to be made between public and personal-private materials. And yet, those limitations are often in tension with the importance of historical scholarship.
(Mankato Free Press photo)
Furthermore, in some respects preservation and accessibility become contradictory. In the case of much archival materials, full accessibility for the public, or even for a limited public, makes the preservation principle of the mission difficult. On the other hand, the best way to preserve some materials would require that they be sealed up in a vacuum.
Many of the problems that have arisen for archivists have been solved in various ways by modern technology. Paper making has improved. Original materials, for many years, have been made available by film or paper copies. But most forms of film storage are short lived. In many cases the original will long outlive the media to which the original has been transferred. Short of returning to stone and clay tablets, paper remains the most likely to be accessible for longer periods of time.
Much of the weakness of committing materials to various physical media were seemingly overcome by the development of electronic digitization. Just in the years since the mid-1980s, materials electronically recorded can no longer be read because of the media they are preserved on, or because of the constant evolving of programs and computer languages. Given the speed of change in technology, the life span of materials produced or recorded electronically only a decade ago is short.
There are no simple answers, but for our purposes here, we can only suggest that electronically produced materials serve best to make materials accessible; but for preservation, the old technology, physical storage under the best conditions is probably the most dependable – at least for now.
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