Twelve Corners Baptist Church


Starting and Maintaining an Archives in Your Church

Robert G. Gardner

Is the church of which you are a member gradually gathering a large collection of records? Or, as you think about the matter, are you wondering where all the records are—or have gone? Is your church in danger of losing its collective memory because its materials are disappearing?

In view of this situation, you have volunteered—or have been conscripted!—to initiate an archives in your church.

How do you start the project? Once started, how is it to be maintained? Let us consider the twin issues of starting and maintaining an archives in the church of which you are a member. (We will not consider the establishment of a heritage room. That, too, is a worthy project for your church, but that will have to be discussed by another person at another time.) What follows is certainly not an exposition of archival perfection. It is simply an exposition of a useful archival system which developed in one Baptist church over the last two decades.

Section 1
You must have time and interest, and both in abundant supply. Archival work is labor-intensive, and it simply cannot be done if you are in a hurry. You must be willing to take many hours working on the contents of a few file folders. You must have the patience of Job's teacher. Your collection will look nice and will be very useful when you finally achieve some sort of order, but it will take much time to get there—and then it will take much more time to keep it there as you continue to add materials to your collection.

Section 2
You must have the permission and supervision of your church. Will this be by a vote of the church in conference? By a vote of the deacons? By a vote of the trustees? Will it be simply the approval of the pastor? It might come when your archives is added to the church budget. Or when you are given physical space. Perhaps it will come gradually, as you show an interest and the church finally approves of what you have already started. But, however it comes, you must have overt permission from your church.

For the most part, you will be supervised by yourself. No one, or almost no one, at the church will know precisely what you are doing, hour by hour—and, truth to tell, most will not even care. No doubt the church will elect a history committee to which you will report. Its members will be your nominal supervisors, but in fact you will normally be checking up on yourself.

Section 3
You must have physical space for your collection. It must be located in a safe area, with a lock on the door. It should be unmarked, or only minimally marked. It should be in as obscure a place as is possible in your building. Vandalism is an ever-present danger, of which you should be conscious.

Furthermore, it must be in a location that is not too close to water fountains, rest rooms, sinks, hot water heaters, and boilers. If it is on the top floor of the building, be sure that the roof overhead is in good repair. If there is a room above it, be sure you know what is in that room—and in the nearby rooms, too. Keep your materials away from windows and away from any outside walls. As an ideal, install climate-control equipment in your room which keeps the humidity at a steady 55 percent level. Consult a climate-control expert on this topic. Your local librarian can probably help you find one. Water and heat are both sources of damage to your collection. Keep your room dry and cool.

How much space do you need? Each collection is different, of course. You will just have to make your own estimate.

Section 4
You will need permanent equipment in your room. This will include the following:

  1. Shelves. These should be constructed to accommodate four storage cases in each unit (approximately 33.5" wide x 13" high x 11" deep). (Storage cases are shelved flat, not on end.) Shelves should be no higher than six tiers (approximately 83" in height), with space on top for seldom-used materials. For a shorter archivist, a step-up ladder would be useful.
  2. A large, closed cabinet for the storage of oversized and framed items.
  3. At least one legal-sized metal filing cabinet with a lock on it. As time passes, you will probably add others. Even if your building is said to be fireproof, you should think very seriously about a fireproof—or at least a fire resistant—filing cabinet. Granted, they are very expensive, but what does your collection contain which you would prefer not to lose?
  4. A work table and some chairs.
  5. A small bookcase for frequently used books and pamphlets and for some supplies and other items which you do not want on your table all of the time.
  6. An electric heater. Your room should not be heated on a regular basis, but it should be comfortable when you are working in it.

Section 5
You will need supplies with which to process your collection. These will include the following archivally approved items:

  1. Acid-free storage cases, legal-sized, 11" x 16" x 6".
  2. Storage cases, 17" x 24" x 3".
  3. Acid-free file folders, legal-sized, full-cut.
  4. Transparent, acid-free, Mylar sleeves of varying sizes: 4" x 6", 5" x 7", 8" x 10". These are used principally for old documents and for rare photographs.
  5. Acid-free white storage envelopes of varying sizes: 6" x 9", 9" x 12". These, too, are used principally for old documents and for rare photographs.
  6. Acid-free negative (and photograph) envelopes, 5" x 7". These are used for most photographs and negatives.
  7. Acid-free writing paper, 8.5" x 11".
  8. Acid-free pens.
  9. Acid-free document repair tape.
  10. Three-ring transparent binder pages for 2" x 2" slides. These may be stored in either archivally approved binders or storage cases.
  11. White plastic paper clips of varying sizes: small, medium, and large.
  12. Flat folder, 17" x 24". Documents too large to store in legal-sized, acid-free file folders and in the larger storage cases can be placed in this large folder. You can easily make one for yourself—even though it will not be acid-free. You can line it with acid-free file folders to secure that end.

Where do you secure these supplies? There are numerous reputable supply companies. Write or call for their catalogs, and investigate them for yourself. Their names may be secured at a nearby public or college/university library. Be sure, however, that your supplies are archivally approved.

Section 6
You will need money in order to start your collection and to continue it. How much will you require to initiate it? The estimated cost of your permanent office furniture and other equipment will vary from church to church and community to community. So far as your supplies are concerned, $475-$500 will suffice for a beginning in 1998, with an additional average of at least $75 each year thereafter for supply replacement.

With reference to section 5, above, an initial stock of supplies might be:

  1. 20 storage cases
  2. 1 storage case
  3. 200 acid-free file folders
  4. 3 assorted boxes of transparent sleeves
  5. 2 assorted boxes of acid-free white storage envelopes
  6. 100 acid-free negative and photograph envelopes
  7. 1 ream of acid-free writing paper
  8. 3 acid-free pens
  9. 1 roll of document repair tape
  10. 1 box of transparent binder pages
  11. 3 assorted boxes of plastic paper clips
  12. 1 large flat folder

Section 7
You will need materials to process. What you will want to secure is dealt with in section 8. Here, the question is: "How do you secure such materials?" Look around the church and see what you can find. Long-unopened closets can be treasure troves, although you should seek permission from the keeper of the closet before removing things. Ask the pastor, the church secretary, and church lay leaders what they have for you. Ask once, and again, and again. Repetition may make you a bit objectionable to some folks, but you will get materials that way. Place your name on every mailing list maintained by the church. If your church has an internal post office, be sure that you are assigned a box. Week by week pick up copies of every document that you see lying around for public consumption. Do your best, over the years, to repeat a key phrase as often as possible to as many people as possible: "Don't throw it away; let me throw it away." Sooner or later they will start believing you. Some of what they give will be gladly thrown away, but some of it you will be pleased to have. As you read your local newspaper and state Baptist paper, keep your scissors handy for articles to clip and date. Occasionally run a notice in the church bulletin. If someone has something desirable and refuses to part with it, offer to have it photocopied or microfilmed for the church—and then be sure that it is returned to its owner/custodian. The how can include almost anything that you can think of, short of theft.

Section 8
You will need a filing system. No doubt there are numerous systems which are usable. The following has been found to be comprehensive. It calls for one or more storage cases for each topic on the list.

  1. Church Clerk. Arranged chronologically. Minutes; related documents.
  2. Membership. Arranged chronologically. Membership directories; books recording additions and subtractions; letters of recommendation to and from your church; admissions regulations; membership surveys; card file of all persons known to have entered church-related vocations.
  3. Deacons. Arranged chronologically. Minutes; reports presented by various persons and organizations to the deacons; card file of all deacons.
  4. Trustees. Arranged chronologically. Minutes.
  5. Finances. Arranged chronologically. (1) Current finances, budgets; annual audits or surveys; correspondence; some purchase orders. (2) Memorial funds; annual audits; correspondence. You will not include individual giving records. These are confidential, and you should neither want nor get them.
  6. Building and Grounds. Arranged chronologically. One file folder for each year. Blueprints which are no longer current may be stored between plywood boards, with acid-free file folders between the plywood and the blueprints. Of course, current blueprints will be kept in the maintenance office.
  7. Sunday School. Arranged partly chronologically and partly by classes. Minutes of officers' and teachers' meetings; attendance records; treasurers' reports; at least one file folder for each class included in your collection.
  8. Boy Scout Troops; Senior Adult Fellowship; Discipleship Training and Its Predecessors; Baptist Men; Royal Ambassadors. Arranged chronologically in each category. Mail-outs; printed programs; various internal records; news notes; correspondence; reports to the church or deacons.
  9. Woman's Missionary Union; Girl's Missionary Organizations; Girl Scout Troops. Arranged partly chronologically and partly topically. Minutes; scrapbooks; loose papers; current missionary groups; yearbooks prepared by the church's WMU.
  10. Music. Arranged chronologically. One copy each of worn-out scores not currently used; printed programs; various internal records; news notes; correspondence; reports to the church or deacons.
  11. Children. Arranged chronologically. General materials; Vacation Bible School materials; Day Care Center materials.
  12. Youth. Arranged chronologically. Mail-outs; printed programs; various internal records; news notes; correspondence; reports to the church or deacons.
  13. Committees and Other Leaders. Arranged chronologically. Lists of committee members; some committee minutes; lists of church leaders.
  14. Newsletters and Church Bulletins. Each category arranged separately and chronologically. One copy of each known item goes into the master file and will not usually leave your room; all duplicates go into "dead storage."
  15. Names of Persons. Arranged alphabetically, with a file for each letter and also separate files for some family names.
  16. Miscellaneous Topics. Arranged alphabetically. Examples include the following: baptism and Lord's Supper; blacks or other minorities in the church; books in the archives collection; charter/incorporation papers; church bus; church library; covenant/constitution/bylaws; employees; missionary apartment; churches organized by your church and various other Baptist churches related to yours.
  17. Miscellaneous. Arranged chronologically. Items which do not seem to fit elsewhere.
  18. Audio-Visuals. Arrange topically. Both photographs and slides should be organized using the same system; buildings (separate file folders for each structure); events; miscellaneous matters; musical events; persons (individuals and groups); youth and children.
  19. Your Church's History. Arranged partly chronologically and partly topically, with a file for each decade and also separate files for some important years, some topics, and financial expenditures.
  20. Pastors. Arranged alphabetically.
  21. Other Personal Papers. Arranged alphabetically.
  22. Your Local Baptist Association. Arranged topically. Executive committee minutes; your church letters to the association. For some churches, separate storage cases should be maintained for state and national Baptist conventions, and/or other Baptist general bodies.

Almost all of the items listed thus far would be placed in storage cases on shelves. Other items would be stored in metal filing cabinets. These might include your very oldest record books, scrapbooks, artifacts related to the church or one of its organizations, films, cassettes, memorabilia and/or artifacts related to former pastors, extensive collections of correspondence, and church-related papers from professional and/or lay leaders. The contents should be briefly listed on the outside of each drawer. If required, detailed contents should be listed on a sheet placed prominently within each drawer.

Other items would be placed in the wooden cabinet. The detailed contents should be listed on a sheet attached to the inside of the door. These might include framed items, minutes from various associations and conventions with which the church has been related, ceremonial shovels, unframed drawings, various larger documents and artifacts, and newspaper clippings (which eventually you will want to microfilm in chronological order).

Other items, not frequently used, could be placed in a separate storage room which is directly under the archivist's supervision. These might be research notes left over from the published history of the church, blueprints which are no longer current, books once owned by the church library or various persons associated with the church, volumes of the state Baptist newspaper, and persons' papers which have – or have not – been processed.

As you process materials, be sure to remove all staples and paper clips. Unfold all pages and flatten them. Your legal-sized file folders will accommodate most of them. Place the large pages in your oversized file and make a cross reference sheet. If it seems proper to keep certain papers together, use plastic paper clips or devise a system of penciled notations for the upper right corner of each page.

As you process materials, cross-reference them when it is appropriate. In dealing with newspaper clippings, oversized items, artifacts, and some audio-visuals, you can list the name of the person and/or organization on a quarter- or half-sheet of paper and place the paper in the appropriate file folder. Hence, any given file folder would reveal at a glance everything in the collection which is relevant to the contents of that folder.

Some sort of accession system should be maintained. Some archivists simply place the name of the donor and the date on the item itself in pencil. Others use accession sheets, number each item (e.g., 98/1, 98/2, 98/3, etc.), and place the number on the item in pencil. In either case, however, the name of the donor and the item should be listed on a quarter- or half-sheet of paper and placed in the appropriate name file.

What about microfilming your collection? Some day at least the oldest items should be preserved in this fashion. You should be aware of the value – indeed , the virtual necessity – of such a process and should make up your own mind, taking into consideration the many factors (not the least of which is financial) which relate to the decision. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives will always and the Baptist Depository in your state will often make arrangements for microfilming your materials if you ask.

You may well be standing on the threshold of a most fascinating part of your life. As you invest countless hours in the history of your church, you have the opportunity to make an important contribution to your church and to create a unique collection that will provide you with enormous personal satisfaction. In a very real sense, gradually you become the memory of your church, and questions of all sorts will be directed your way for answers. You may well be involved in a labor of love that you will not be able to put down until the Great Archivist calls you to become a permanent active part of the Eternal Collection.

This essay first appeared in "Viewpoints: Georgia Baptist History" 13: 1992, and was revised slightly by the author in 1998.

Robert Gardner is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Shorter College, Rome, Georgia, and Senior Researcher in Baptist History, Mercer University Main Library, Macon, Georgia."

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