Abilene Christian University, in central Texas, is home to a large collection of historical materials that document the history of American Christianity. In particular, the university holds the largest collection of its kind related to the non-denominational Churches of Christ, which have around five million total congregants in the American Midwest and Southeast and a growing presence around the world. A preservation assessment grant from the NEH is allowing the university to develop a plan to effectively preserve these important pieces of the history of American religion.
The university holds over 500 manuscript collections related to the history and formation of the Churches of Christ, a branch of Protestantism that developed in the early nineteenth century entirely within the United States. These collections contain a wide variety of archival materials, including sermon manuscripts, photographs, and 10,000 to 15,000 items of spoken word recordings—as well as the personal papers of Max Lucado, a major author in American evangelism. They also include a number of print volumes, many of which are unique to the university. The collection is used by scholars from a variety of disciplines, most notably scholars of American religion or theology but also from disciplines such as art history.
The university’s home of Abilene, Texas, is hot and dry, with summer temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees. These are not ideal conditions for preservation; books and other archival materials often require relatively cool and humid conditions. The NEH preservation assessment grant allowed the university to hire a consultant to develop a plan for the future that takes into account the full context of the university and its surroundings. The university was also able to hire a consulting architect to improve the effectiveness of the existing HVAC systems so as to best meet preservation needs. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the grant’s completion, the additional time has provided for more comprehensive data collection that will improve the ultimate assessment.