Religious Digitization: A Step Beyond a Database

Every ten years from 1906 to 1946, the United States Census Bureau surveyed religious congregations, synagogues, and other religious groups in a census similar to the population census. At the time, churches were considered a public good, similar to a public park or school. Through these religious censuses, the government could ensure counties had enough churches and what religions and spiritual sects were growing/prospering within the United States at any given time. Of the five religious censuses that the bureau conducted (1906-1946), only the schedules from the 1926 census still exist. 

The American Religious Ecologies project has photographed approximately 232,000 individual schedules that are housed in more than 300 archival boxes at the National Archives. The standard archival box is 15.25” wide, 10.25” tall, and 5” deep. That means, in the National Archives, the 1926 religious bodies’ schedules take up more than 158 ft². Assuming the 1906, 1916, 1936, and 1946 censuses had approximately the same number of schedules, taking up a similar number of boxes, that would measure to around 800 ft² of storage space needed to keep and house all of these records. That is just shy of three school buses worth of space.

On May 30th and 31st, I had the opportunity to travel into Washington, D.C., and attend the Society for History in the Federal Government, which was held at the Library of Congress. I spoke on a panel with several others, and I discussed the profound impact the American Religious Ecologies Project is having on our understanding of digital humanities. In my presentation, I emphasized how our work is not just about creating a database but also about preserving history through digitization. This process ensures that a vast number of people have access to documents, such as the 1926 census, and not just those who can afford to access them. I also spoke about other aspects of our project, such as the maps we have been making based on the data we have collected from the 1926 schedules, and how analyzing population and church attendance has allowed us to analyze statistical data that has also further enriched our understanding of religious ecologies in America.

This was a transformative experience for me. Although I am not a religious scholar, my research interests revolve around the utilization of digital history methodologies in order to increase accessibility to museums and archival collections. Not only did I get to share how this project has helped me grow as a scholar and learn more about applying these types of methodologies to my own work, but I also had the opportunity to make contacts in the field of history with people who are doing similar work as myself, and those who are interested in implementing the type of work I am doing in their own institutions.


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