What Is a Records Preservation Center?

by Matthew K. Heiss, Church History Library
15 February 2022

The Church History Department maintains over two dozen records preservation centers around the world. What are they? Find out here.

For many years now, I have traveled around the world to document the establishment and growth of the Church outside of North America. While on these trips, there were times when I would acquire records (documents, photographs, and so forth) about the Church and carry them back in my suitcases—as many as I could carry while staying within weight limitations. There were a few times when I discovered large collections of records; these were boxed, placed on pallets, and shipped to the Church archives in Salt Lake City. I—and other Church History Department representatives like me—quickly came to the realization that, yes, there were historically valuable records around the world that needed to be preserved, but we couldn’t keep bringing them all back to Utah.

In 2006, Richard E. Turley Jr., the Church History Department’s managing director at the time, addressed this issue by suggesting we create global satellite archives where locally produced records could be preserved. That idea began to be implemented in 2012, when the Church History Department started establishing regional records preservation centers (RPCs)—locations where historically significant records could be received, preserved in a secure environment, and potentially digitized in their countries and regions of origin.

As of February 2022, there are 26 RPCs around the globe. RPCs are located in secure facilities (usually Church-owned) with stable temperatures and humidity that is closely monitored to promote long-term preservation. They are operated by full-time employees as well as local volunteers and missionaries.

Some RPCs only have a small number of records, while others have hundreds of collections. Our RPC holdings are increasing as Church History Department representatives discover and acquire records that have enduring historical value. While RPCs usually cannot provide public access, their records are discoverable through the Church History Catalog.

Let me share two examples that show the importance of local RPCs.

Thirty years ago, I was working in the reading room of the Church archives in Salt Lake City when an older man came to the desk. I could tell from his accent that he was South African, and he asked me about accessing Church records from his country. His name was Clive Nicholls.

Clive said that he had been a member for most of his life and that he had compiled a large collection of records chronicling how the Church had grown and developed in southern Africa. In fact, he’d literally saved some of the records from a trash heap as South Africa’s mission office moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg. I was amazed at his description of the collection, and I proposed that he donate the records to the Church. He declined, but we remained in contact after he returned home.

In 2012, I visited Pretoria, South Africa, where Clive was living at the time, and I finally got to see the magnificent collection of ward, branch, and country histories (pictured at the top of this article) that he had been compiling for at least five decades.

I mentioned that we now had an RPC in Johannesburg, at the area office near the temple, where his collection could be carefully preserved. Clive liked the idea of his records remaining in South Africa, even though they wouldn’t be publicly accessible. Accordingly, two years later, Clive met with two members of the Africa Southeast Area Presidency and our local Church History Department representatives to transfer his collection to the Church.

The RPC in South Africa is also home to the papers of Julia Mavimbela, one of the first Black women to join the Church in South Africa. Julia lived an extraordinary life. When Julia was a child, her mother made sure that Julia got an education, which enabled Julia to become a teacher and a school principal as an adult. She married John Mavimbela, a prosperous store owner, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1955. The person responsible for the accident, a white man, survived and was not charged. To add insult to injury, John had been taking a large sum of money to the bank when the accident occurred, and the money was never recovered.

In the aftermath of the accident, Julia certainly had cause to feel bitter; instead, she chose to focus on healing herself and her beloved country. Her decision to serve others would become a mission lasting her entire life. For example, in 1973, Julia was elected president of a South African charity devoted to helping the needy. Later, during the 1976 civil strife that swept through Soweto, where Julia lived, Julia thought that teaching gardening could help heal the community. Her garden came to symbolize hope to the rising generation of Soweto, whose schools had been burned to the ground.

In 1981, Julia was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Shortly after her baptism, Julia was called to serve as South Africa’s first Black Relief Society president. She was also a worker in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple.

In his April 2015 general conference talk, Elder Dale G. Renlund praised Julia’s Christlike example. He told of an incident when Julia and her daughter Thoba “were treated less than kindly by some white [Church] members” in post-apartheid South Africa. Instead of becoming angry, Julia used the experience as a teaching moment. Julia told her daughter Thoba that “the Church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way. We come to church to be helped.”1

Julia Mavimbela died on July 16, 2000. Julia had recorded her thoughts, feelings, and experiences in many journals and other documents. Her daughter Thoba later donated her papers to the Church for placement in the Johannesburg RPC.

Clive’s and Julia’s papers are vital additions to the Church archives, and I am honored that they chose to entrust us with them. Their experiences are similar to many others I have witnessed throughout the world: history-minded Church members with valuable records selflessly choose to donate them so they can be preserved.

The creation of a worldwide network of RPCs has already proven to be a great blessing and a huge aid in fulfilling the Church History Department’s mission to document the history of the Restoration. If you have materials related to Church history that you would be willing to share with the Church History Department, we may be interested in them. And, if there is an RPC near you, your records may not need to travel far to be preserved. Please contact a member of our staff via our online contact form, and we will reply to you as soon as possible. Thank you!

Top image: The Nicholls Collection, prior to its donation, housed in the Pretoria Ward meetinghouse, 2012.