Archives–the very word conjures up all sorts of images. A news commentator in Montgomery, Alabama stated that he knew what an archives was and that he had instructed his wife not to cook anymore of them– they tasted awful. Other images of a dusty old room with piles of record books and clinging cobwebs are equally misplaced.
The term archives can have at least three meanings. It can mean the noncurrent records of an organization or institution preserved because of their continuing value, also referred to, in this sense, as archival material or archival holdings (example: the records of a church or religious institution). The term can also refer to any agency responsible for selecting, preserving and making available for use archival material. The term can also describe the building or part of a building where such materials are located.
What is archival material?
A church archives serves as a repository for the official records and historical materials that document the heritage of the church. A church archives’ holdings include: minutes of church meetings, deacon and church council minutes, membership records, financial records, Sunday School and church attendance records, committee files and reports, the files and papers of church staff members, photographs, slides, newsletters, programs, publications, Brotherhood and Woman’s Missionary Union records, clipping files and scrapbooks. Some collections include motion picture films, videotapes and sound recordings as well.
All records created by the church may not be historical or worthy of permanent retention. Housekeeping records such as telephone and utility bills, invoices and check stubs need to be retained only for a limited time and then destroyed. The archival records are those materials that illustrate and document the actions, decisions, policies, programs, and statements of the church.
Purpose of the church archives
The establishment of a church archives serves several purposes and functions. Legal documents may be preserved in the church archives and provide needed information. Vital statistical records (membership, baptismal and marriage) are often referred to by persons needing proof of birth dates for retirement and pension purposes. Archival files provide useful data to church leaders on past promotional activities and events and assist them in evaluating future programs and methods. These records may help to avoid mistakes of earlier years. Specific information on church policies and statements can be located in the archival holdings.
Informing the church membership of their heritage through exhibits relies on having historical material to display. These items are of great value for anniversary celebrations or the development of a Heritage Room. The records of the church also assist in public relations efforts of the church. Information from the archives documents the influence and activities of the church in the community. Its stance on various issues, its commitment to the goals of the Kingdom of God, its willingness or lack of willingness to adopt new procedures and programs are all rooted in the church’s history.
More traditional and external use of a church archives comes from individuals researching their family history and local history. Genealogists find church records choice material for finding valuable family data. In most communities, the history of the local area cannot be written without discussing the influence of the church.
The importance of church records
The major functions of a church archives are to collect, preserve, arrange, describe, and make available for use the records and materials that document the congregation’s heritage. Hundreds of years ago scribes and other religious folks diligently preserved and transcribed sacred documents–documents that detail the story of God’s movement in history and the history of God’s people. Those primary documents (the Old and New Testament) of our religious faith were preserved because they witnessed to God’s revelation to his people. Our own church archives document the faithfulness of a particular people’s response to that revelation. Without the careful preservation of these records we can do no better than guess at that faithfulness. The story of God’s people continues and it is important to preserve those items that record such people, events, and institutions. The work of those involved with the archives can be seen as a stewardship of heritage–a heritage that needs to be preserved and remembered.