Archives Month: Microfilm project stresses importance of historical preservation

October 15, 2013

HOUSTON — In October, the United States celebrates American Archives Month. Archives are records of an individual, institution, organization or business. 

These records come in a variety of forms, including letters and memos, photographs, maps, diaries, publications and artifacts. Today they also include electronic or digital documents.

For the past several months, the Archdiocesan Archives office has been coordinating a project to microfilm the sacramental records of our 153 parishes and missions. These records include Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, marriages and burials. 

The canon law of the Roman Catholic Church requires each parish to keep records of these sacraments received, and to keep them the old-fashioned way, in register books. 

The records, which are permanent records, are the most important that a parish keeps, because they document the faith lives of individuals and of the community. 

The first question asked by the public about this project is, “Why aren’t you scanning the records?” 

Microfilm may seem like an outdated technology in a digital world, but it remains the gold standard for preservation of vital records. It is very stable, lasting hundreds of years, and it can easily be read with just a simple light source. 

Digital images are more challenging to maintain long-term, since they have to be transferred to new formats as equipment and software change. 

The main purpose for microfilming the parish sacramental records is security. 

Paper records are vulnerable to fire and flooding, not to mention wear and tear from regular use. If disaster strikes and the original registers are lost, there are copies of these vital records in the Archives. 

The Archives staff also uses the microfilm to help people locate their records. They receive calls every day from individuals who know only that “I was baptized somewhere in Houston,” or Sugar Land, or Montgomery County. 

They need their record to be confirmed or to get married. Often these individuals have been away from the Church for many years, and finding their baptismal record is one of the first steps in coming back to the practice of the faith. 

Today, just as many callers need their sacramental records for legal reasons, particularly to apply for a passport or even a delayed birth certificate. 

The older parish records, which begin in the 1840s, are also in constant demand, from genealogists tracing their Texas roots.