TEXAS: Downtown Austin set to house future Episcopal archives

June 11, 2009

The future home of the Episcopal Church archives -- an "irreplaceable" collection that includes colonial-period artifacts and material dating to the 10th century -- is planned for a recently acquired block in downtown Austin, Texas.

The Episcopal Church on June 3 purchased the land, currently a parking lot, for $9.5 million, with the intention of breaking ground in at least 18 months on the proposed five-story, 70,000-square-foot building, said Mark Duffy, archives director.

The structure, which will consolidate 18,000 cubic feet of records housed in three locations in Austin as well as at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, is considered "not just a building project," but also a visible sign of Episcopal heritage, Duffy said during a telephone interview from his Austin office at the Seminary of the Southwest.

The project, expected to cost about $40 million, comes at a pivotal time. Archivists face increasing challenges of preserving and retaining information, especially as paper-based objects and records are being left behind, Duffy said.

"We are attempting to build a sustainable institutional entity," added Duffy. "Dioceses and church organizations are pressed in this electronic age about how to preserve things that are slowly becoming artifacts."

The church's Executive Council on April 22 allowed the archives to borrow up to $10 million for the land purchase. The council and the Archives Strategy Committee envision paying for the cost of the land purchase with revenue currently earned from the parking lot that now occupies the property. A capital campaign is planned to finance construction of the building.

New archives may share space with partners
Studio 8 Architects in Austin developed drawings for the proposed building, which incorporates themes "common to the Episcopal Church -- themes of openness [and] inclusivity," Duffy said. A small urban green space will be attached, he added.

The proposed building will include exhibit, research and conference space. An inner core area will include a vault with temperature controls "which we don't have now," as well as protection against humidity, ultraviolet rays, fire, and flooding, Duffy said.

Located in a social service, entertainment and ecumenical church corridor of Austin, the building may also include first-floor retail space. Duffy said another possibility is to partner with the nearby St. David's Episcopal Church, which is looking to expand their office space and mission work.

The archives, the church's official repository for church documents, electronic records, photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts, includes "irreplaceable" documents, such as a prayer book and liturgy collection, "the earliest writing being 10th century and a variety of materials in terms of format," Duffy said.

"These items do not exist anywhere else," he added. "It's hard to put a value on it, but it's clearly a major asset to the church."

About 60 percent of those who use the collection "are people doing the work of the church, those who serve as volunteers on our interim bodies, involved in General Convention," Duffy said. Often, they are looking for historical information to aid in developing local and wider church policies and to prepare for diocesan or general conventions.

Archivists also consult with dioceses and parishes, who are facing a "more complex time, one in which issues of preservation and long-term retention become particularly tenuous. We would like to be able to offer them more curatorial services, in terms of storage and preservation," he said.

In April, Executive Council member Kim Byham of the Diocese of Newark abstained from the loan approval vote. He objected to the decision to keep the archives located within the Diocese of Texas, which he said "steadfastly over many years refused to contribute to the work of the church."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Episcopal Church Treasurer Kurt Barnes noted that the diocese annually gives seven percent of its operating income to the wider church, which is 14 percent less than the Episcopal Church asks of its dioceses.

Tom Gossen, a council member from the Diocese of Kansas and a member of the archives strategy committee, told the council that keeping the archives in Texas would be a way to "raise the visibility of the greater Episcopal Church" in the diocese.

Duffy said that the location is also near the University of Texas and numerous research facilities. He said Austin will remain the site because "we've been in Austin since 1958 and so why not Austin? There was not a compelling reason to leave."