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PHS: 160 Years and Counting

April 17, 2012

Shortly after celebrating its 60th anniversary in 1912, PHS president Henry Van Dyke articulated his vision for a future Presbyterian Historical Society.

The Society, he noted, “should have a home of its own [in Philadelphia], designed and fitted for its special use…ready to welcome all visitors and guests.” Van Dyke added, “Such a house would surely become…a meeting place for people of good will and loyal memories who do not forget the faith and deeds of their forefathers.”

It would take another 55 years for Van Dyke’s dream to become a reality. PHS opened “a home of its own” on 425 Lombard Street in 1967, fulfilling Van Dyke’s hope of “more room for storage and exhibition and study.”

The Presbyterian Historical Society building

As PHS celebrates its 160th anniversary this year, the “place” for storage, exhibition, and study is being joined by a virtual space. As more and more records begin their lives as computer files, we are expanding our approach to acquiring, managing, and preserving records. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has recently approved an electronic records policy that will help PHS staff capture and provide access to the denomination’s records that are born digital every day. We have also begun making more materials available online.

Like Van Dyke’s dream of a building, the quest for a more virtual PHS will take time, resources and creativity.  But if the past 160 years is any indication, the Society and its users, supporters, and benefactors will work together to meet the challenge.

Our vision for the future is similar to Van Dyke’s in that we will remain a “central fountain of enlightenment for all who wished to study the origin and influence of those great churches of America which have held the Reformed faith and the Presbyterian order.” But PHS will be defined less by a physical structure and more by a virtual presence, making the story of Presbyterian heritage available to new generations both in Philadelphia and anywhere else via the web.

Fred Heuser, Ph.D.