Page from Bible belonging to slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, 1800-1831
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Maurice A. Person and Noah and Brooke Porter

Dear Professor Gates:

I am reaching out to you on behalf of a neighbor. She has a family Bible that takes her family history back to their time in slavery. Unfortunately, it was in a house fire and the pages are so brittle, they fall apart when the book is opened. So all she has is an oral history passed through the years.

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It would be wonderful for her to link her knowledge to what's in that Bible. Do you know the best way that she could have it restored for her family?

I would so appreciate it if you could point me to some resources, especially any that are contributing their time for worthy causes, such as assisting African Americans in tracing their roots. —Carol Maker

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Your neighbor has a potential treasure trove of family information, if only she can access it. Family Bibles can be an important source for genealogical research. Usually a family member recorded names and dates relating to the life events of kin, and the Bible may contain information on births, baptisms (sometimes with names of godparents), marriages (with maiden names) and deaths. Historically, many Bibles had designated pages for entering this information.

Furthermore, family Bibles are an excellent resource when vital records do not exist—the information in these Bibles may be the only place where data on life events were recorded. Family Bibles tend to be handed down within families, so besides the recording of individuals and events, a Bible’s provenance also allows one to understand family relationships.

Pay close attention to how information was recorded. If each record was written in a different handwriting, ink color or writing instrument, then each piece of information was probably recorded at or near the time of the corresponding event. However, if the names and dates look to be written in the same handwriting, same ink, etc., especially if a record shows a whole family with the parents and all of their children, then these records were probably copied into the Bible at later time and therefore may be more prone to errors. Although Bible records may contain errors, they can still provide enough genealogical information to point a researcher in a certain direction.

Preservation, Conservation, Restoration

As with all historical documents, family Bibles are vulnerable to the ravages of time. Professor Gates, himself, had one rebound because it was falling apart. (It is currently in the possession of a first cousin, who inherited it from his father’s sister, Helen Gates Stephens. The latter appeared in an episode about the Gates family genealogy in an episode of African American Lives on PBS.)

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In your search for a way to unlock the secrets of your friend’s tome, a brief primer of common terms may be helpful. The Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, includes these key definitions on its website:

Preservation: “ … action taken to anticipate, prevent, stop or retard deterioration.”
Conservation: “the maintenance of each item in the collection in a usable condition.”
Restoration: “ … the act of returning the deteriorated item to its original or near-original condition.”

Your neighbor may need to first find a conservator to help her determine the damage done to the Bible and how it would best be repaired and stored.

In order to preserve the records from the Bible, that person may suggest taking digital photos of each page, if that’s possible. Ideally, your neighbor would have been able to have transcribed the records at some point, though that seems unlikely, since you indicate that she is currently relying on oral history.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website provides a guide to finding a conservator, as well as a national directory of conservators. Check it out, or email the AIC for a listing of conservators in your area. Also on this website is information about handling, caring for and storing precious and fragile books like your friend’s Bible. Both the National Archives and the Library of Congress websites have information, as well, about preserving books and FAQs about conservation and storage.

With respect to maintaining African-American records, this 2014 story on NPR’s All Things Considered,Preserving Black History, Americans Care for National Treasures at Home,” is essentially about preserving the stories behind family artifacts through the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institute’s “Save Our African-American Treasures” program. At the time of the article, the program included a road show in which preservationists gave consultations to people who brought in family photos, documents and other artifacts. While no upcoming events are scheduled, the website of the museum asks readers to check back for future dates.

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We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the National Museum of African American History and Culture will open officially Sept. 24, 2016. Learn more about it at its website. Among more than 37,000 objects in its collection are four Bibles, including one dating from the 1830s that belonged to the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Nancy Bernard, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.