The process of arranging and adequately describing the materials in a church archives is done to make these items readily accessible for use. The procedures for this function can be simple or sophisticated depending upon staff time, potential use and the nature of the collection. Those church archives whose material will have only in-house use by staff or a limited few might adopt more streamlined steps in arrangement and description. Those churches who will serve outside researchers and church members will need more detailed finding aids.
The first step in dealing with archival and manuscript material is accession control. Each separate collection of records is an individual accession. Remember not to group different types of records together. The minutes of the deacon’s meetings should not be accessioned or grouped with the treasurer’s records. They both would be separate accessions.
An accession sheet can be developed to show title, date of receipt, donor information, size, general description and location if necessary. The accession sheets can be filed in loose-leaf binders for easy access. If the church archives is small, these accession sheets can serve as the principal finding aid to the holdings. If you have a sizable backlog of unprocessed material and you use a card catalog in your finding aid system, you should type a temporary card (title of collection) and place it in the catalog. This serves as another measure of control for the holdings of the church archives.
Establish a folder to hold material related to the collection such as a copy of the accession sheet, any gift agreement, notes about the collection and a final copy of the inventory.
For some records the process of accessioning may be the only major cataloging step. If a card catalog is used, adequate cards need to be developed. An example catalog card is listed below:
85-6 Woman's Missionary Union. Scrapbooks. 1942-1980. 5 volumes. Scrapbooks of the Woman's Missionary Union of the First Baptist Church, Vincent, Alabama. Scrapbooks include clippings, photographs, programs, and reports. Includes material about Lindsay Kirkland who served as president of the WMU from 1945-1961 Inventory available in church archives. 1. Kirkland, Lindsay. 2. Lottie Moon Christmas offering. 3. Garrett, Benjamin, donor.
The arrangement of some church records or collections is accomplished simply; for example, the church minutes follow a straight chronological order. The same is true for most bound volumes of treasurer’s records, newsletters or membership books. Arrangement schemes are more difficult for loose material and for larger collections. Take the time to examine the material in a collection to determine how best it can be arranged. Look for any existing arrangement and retain that system if it is useable. If no arrangement is apparent, develop the system that makes the most sense. The two most common arrangement schemes are chronological and alphabetical The files of a former pastor might be sorted into major series such as correspondence, sermons, subject/informational files, associational material, and state convention/SBC files. Each series might have either chronological or alphabetical arrangement. Usually the best method for such collections is to use existing folder titles as a guide in determining chronological versus alphabetical order.
Reviewing the material
As you examine the collection, also look for significant information and make notes–these will be of value later when you write your description of the collection and in preparing subject catalog cards. This is also the time to do some preliminary preservation work. Remove metal paper clips, pressed flowers, rubber bands and other foreign objects that will damage the material. Use plastic clips or stainless steel clips as replacement for metal paper clips Flatten folded documents and letters and identify items that need special attention. Transfer the material to acid-free file folders and pencil existing folder titles on the new folder.
Some collections will contain oversized material, audio tapes, photographs, films, books, periodicals and artifacts. Usually books and periodicals can be removed from the collection and added to the church library. If the archives has a separate photograph collection, the prints and negatives might be removed and placed in the photograph collection. Items should be removed from the collection only if they have distinct research value separate from the collection. Oversized material and three-dimensional artifacts will need to be separated for storage reasons. Be sure to maintain adequate documentation on each removal. A separation sheet describing the item removed and its location and disposition needs to be completed and filed in the collection file. A copy of the separation sheet should accompany the removed item or the accession number needs to be penciled onto the item.
All the material given to the church archives is not sacred. Some of the material will not have any historical, informational or legal value. Multi-copies of publications, programs, and form letters need to be discarded. Saving two good copies of such items is usually adequate.
All church records are not created equal. Housekeeping records such as utility bills, invoices and check stubs need to be retained only for a limited time period and then destroyed. The archival records are those materials that illustrate and document the actions, decisions, policies, programs and statements of the church.
Once you have sorted through the material, made notes, arranged the material and taken initial preservation steps, you are ready to prepare the inventory. The inventory is a guide to the collection, describing its contents and allowing easy retrieval of information. Most inventories have three major sections; a historical sketch, a scope and content note; and a container listing.
The historical sketch should provide a good overview in either outline or narrative form of the principal events in the history of the person or organization. For example, the historical sketch on a collection of WMU scrapbooks should give data on the formation of the union, its leaders, significant events and activities and the purposes of the organization.
The scope and content note discusses, in narrative form, the extent and depth of the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in the collection. It mentions the types of material, dates, important divisions, significant correspondents and subjects in the files and the arrangement of the material.
The container listing is a detailed table of contents since it provides specific information on the filing order of the contents of the collection. This list usually can be made from the container (file folder labels).
The next sequence would be to update the information on the accession sheet and type the entire inventory and appropriate catalog cards. Box and folder labels need to be typed if possible. It is always a good idea to make an extra copy of the inventory, filing one with the collection and one in the collection file.
The material can now be shelved in its proper location. If space is adequate, it is better to arrange your collections by the accession or collection number. If you cannot sequence your collections, the accession sheet and catalog cards should show the location (range number and shelf number).
Setting up a separate photograph collection is a good idea. A simple self-indexing system can be established to hold the photographs and negatives. Prints can be slotted into established categories. Sub-categories and divisions by dates can be added to focus the sorting of the photographs. For example, one category might be: Buildings–Auditorium-Interiors-1950’s. Such a system lends itself to quick retrieval of needed photographs without extensive and time-consuming cataloging procedures.
Your unique situation
Some of this information may seem overwhelming to a small church archives or inadequate for a larger collection. Do not feel that all these procedures apply to every collection or every archives. Each archives and individual collection are unique. Determine what procedures are adequate and within reach for your individual situation, and then begin the process of making your church archives material available for use.