New Direction: An Interview with Nancy Taylor | Presbyterian Historical Society

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New Direction: An Interview with Nancy Taylor

October 6, 2020
Nancy at PHS, September 2020. Photo by Cecilia Figliuolo.


PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II named Nancy Taylor the Executive Director of PHS in early April, just as Covid-19 had begun to profoundly reshape American life. In this edited interview Nancy discusses the Society’s response to the pandemic, its history work on behalf of racial justice, and what excites her most about the future.

The pandemic has challenged every PC(USA) ministry—from congregations and other worshipping communities to mid councils and national church agencies. How has the national archives of the PC(USA) changed during the past six tumultuous months?

Because we serve an international constituency, we have lots of experience providing services remotely. But the coronavirus pandemic pushed us to think even more creatively about how to connect our collection materials with a virtual world. Documenting these last six months in the life of the church has meant expanding our capacity to take in and preserve videos and other digital content that will help tell the story of this time 50 years from now.

The building was closed to researchers most of the spring and summer. How did PHS staff continue to help patrons during that time?

425 Lombard Street was quiet, even for an archive! But there remained a buzz of activity as staff members helped remote researchers with the hundreds of questions we received via email and over the phone. We also created freely accessible, online resources that people can use to connect the complex history in our collection to today’s PC(USA). We continued to receive church records for deposit plus donated personal papers and other materials. And our digitization team has been busy scanning and describing records, images, and audio-visual materials for use by researchers remotely through our Pearl digital archive.

PHS's Pearl Digital Archives. Click above to explore.

After the killing of George Floyd, historians, archivists, and Presbyterians renewed their calls for racial justice. How has PHS responded?

PHS staff issued a Black Lives Matter statement in June with six commitments to guide our racial justice work going forward. In the ensuing months, the staff and board have talked repeatedly about increasing equity and justice in our internal practices. We also lifted up historical resources in our collections to assist PC(USA) congregations and mid councils in the self-study and corporate repentance called for by this summer’s General Assembly. We emphasized the intentional collecting of materials documenting African American Leaders and Congregations. And we put out a call for sermons and other worship material that speak to this moment in the life of our church.

Are there any other recent initiatives that will remain core to the Society’s mission to collect, preserve, and share Presbyterian history in the future?

In June, we launched PHS Live, a biweekly Zoom webinar series featuring PHS staff speaking on topics ranging from how to use the various tools available through the PHS website to China mission research and managing congregation records. These webinars have been very successful, and we’re planning more sessions focusing on a wide array of topics and speakers into 2021.

In a time of virtual meetings and online worship services, do you have advice for groups and individuals looking to steward not only paper records but digitally born history?

Make sure you have procedures in place for organizing and preserving digital files. Decide on a filing scheme and stick to it. (Ideally backup copies of files should be organized the same way and distributed across different platforms—that is, use both cloud-based backups and storage on network-attached servers or external hard drives.) And never rely on a USB drive for long-term storage!

Best practice is to have typed-out procedures in place, assign responsibilities to specific people or positions, and make sure information about digital files and procedures is shared during staffing transitions. PHS Records Archivist David Staniunas will be glad to answer questions about the best digital file formats for long-term preservation. As he says in a recent video [see below], putting your records on paper—even born-digital ones—remains our strong recommendation.

Is now a good time for mid councils and congregations to ship those paper records to PHS?

Yes, we are ready and eager to receive them! Visit our website for more information on the types of records we collect and how to ship them to us for deposit and/or digitization.

How can readers help the national archives of the PC(USA) collect, preserve, and share Presbyterian history?

Please continue to use our resources and to spread the word about PHS to people at your church or other communities. At this time of shrinking per capita funds in the PC(USA), financial contributions to PHS help us sustain our work and provide us with the flexibility to respond to the challenges ahead. Visit our website for more information about making a donation. We greatly appreciate your support!

This interview can also be accessed through the Fall 2020 issue of Presbyterian Heritage, PHS's biannual newsletter.

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