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New digital archives connects Methodists today with past

New digital archives connects Methodists today with past
Photo by Mark Olencki, Wofford College. Dr. Phillip Stone uses the new scanner on an 1870 issue of the Advocate. 

By Jessica Brodie

SPARTANBURG—For years, if people wanted to dig into the full tomes of South Carolina’s Methodist history, they needed to make the cross-state trek to Wofford College and slide carefully preserved old books and papers from their shelves, or pore through images on a microfilm reader.

Now, all they need is available with the click of a button from the comfort of their own home.

Thanks to the leadership of Dr. Phillip Stone, archivist for the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church and Wofford College, his team has digitized all conference journals dating back to 1814.

Now, anyone with Internet access can go to the Sandor Teszler Library Archives and Special Collections, located at digitalcommons.wofford.edu. There, for no charge, they can access everything from conference journals and pictorial directories of clergy to addresses from the Conference Historical Society.

While some of these items had been available digitally before, the big work this summer was the conference journals, Stone said, which involved collecting microfilms from both the predominantly African-American conference formed in 1866 and the predominantly Anglo conference formed in 1785. The two conferences united in 1972. After he had all the microfilms, Stone sent them off to a vendor for converting into pdfs using about $6,000 worth of conference archives funds saved up over the years for this purpose.

“All along what I really knew we needed to do was digitize all the conference journals,” Stone said. “Some people nerd out over getting it each year. There’s so much historical information—statistics, appointments.”

Now, Stone said, if anyone is doing research and needs to access the 1870 conference minutes—or the 1914, or the 1956, “they can download it and read it on computer.”

Stone said he has wanted to digitize the archives for a long time as research trends have evolved with technology. Back in the 1990s, when Stone was a Wofford student, caravans of genealogists would head to the college archives every year on their summer road trip, culling information.

“But nowadays, genealogists and archeologists want it all on the internet,” Stone said. “Our researchers now are all over country and other parts of world and can’t always travel here, and other archives are doing the same thing.”

For a long time, many researchers made do with microfilm. Old periodicals would be photographed and turned into microfilm, and people would use microfilm readers—essentially, a machine with a projector—to view and even print off pages of research. But today, microfilm machines and film are harder to come by, and most people prefer digital.

“We’re here to serve our researchers, and this is how we need to serve them now,” Stone said. “It doesn’t do any good to have a vault full of materials nobody can see.”

Now that the conference journals and other historical periodicals are digitized into PDFs, Stone was able to download everything from a server, do some text-conversion scanning so they are somewhat searchable, then catalogued using the state digital library standards.

Then Stone uploaded them to the Wofford digital commons site.

Stone said he is excited to have so much historical information available not only to researchers but to local churches, many of whom embark on research projects of their own each year in an effort to preserve the past to inform their future,

“We are a connectional church, and archives are a great point where we see the connection,” Stone said. “I feel I sit at the connection between past, present and future even—we’re here helping the people of today connect themselves to their past. I think about it every year on All Saints Sunday, that great cloud of witnesses we talk about. These records are what that great cloud of witnesses left behind.”

Stone said digitization also is a means of preserving the records.

“It means there’s a copy now,” Stone said. “If, God forbid, the library burned down, these records are now somewhere else. Also, they will survive the decay of the book. It’s preservation.”

Joyce Plyler, chair of the Conference Historical Society, said she is thrilled to know conference journals and other historical Methodist materials are available digitally for the world to access.

“This will allow wider study of the history of the South Carolina Conference by scholars and church members alike and make our history available 24/7, no appointment or lengthy car ride necessary,” Plyler said. “I am grateful to be able to provide a resource to people who ask me about researching their church or perhaps an ancestor who was a clergy member of the conference.

“These records do not tell us everything by a long shot, but their public availability will allow us to have a much better understanding of our history at a time when we desperately need to tell the full story of our traditions.”

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