The decision to establish a church archives to preserve the historical records of the congregation is an easy and logical one. The implementation of this decision, however, requires much more effort and detailed work. Getting a good start for the church archives can go a long way to assuring its success. Early planning and decision making are crucial to the lasting creation of a church archives.
The initial decision should be about the location of the archives in the church organization. The most logical place for the archives is in the church media library, since it has existing reading areas and a media locator system using a card catalog. The media library also is open for specified hours and has a staff to service the collection.
Adequate space needs to be allocated to the archives, not only for storage but also for a work area. The process of cleaning, sorting and arranging archival and manuscript collections can occupy greater room than a regular library work area. The archives section should also be secure and provide proper environmental conditions for the storage of materials whose value is permanent.
The administration of the archives is best handled by the media library staff or a special archives/history committee. The committee/media library staff establishes purposes and goals and policies and procedures. The committee/media library staff ‘s responsibilities include the recommendation of a church archivist. The archivist’s responsibilities include collecting, storing, arranging, and describing the historical materials in the archives and making them available for use. The committee/media library staff should assist the archivist in these duties. The best qualification for a church archivist is an interest in history, a good deal of common sense and an eagerness to share and explain the history of the church with its membership.
The committee/media library staff and the archivist need to prepare a clear and concise written statement on the purposes and goals of the archives. The purpose statement needs to describe the function of the archives, who it will serve and the church’s commitment to the preservation of its records.
The committee/media library staff and the church membership need to acknowledge that the preservation of the heritage of the church will involve some expense. Adequate supplies and archival quality file folders and boxes will have to be purchased. Shelving, filing cabinets and oversized map cases may need to be bought. A line item in the media library budget for the archives is a good idea.
One of the first priorities of the committee/media library staff and the archivist is to develop a collection policy for the archives. Determining what material should be included in the archives relates directly to the space, staff and resources available for the archival program of the church. The most immediate concern of the archives should be the preservation of the official records of the congregation. These official records include minutes of the church’s official bodies (business meetings, deacons, trustees); legal papers (deeds, tax certificates, trust agreements); financial records, membership rolls and the official correspondence of the church office and church staff.
Publications of the church such as newsletters, programs, bulletins, directories, brochures and pamphlets need to be preserved. The inclusion of a photograph collection in the archival holdings is an excellent way to visually document the church’s heritage. Other non-official historical materials of value are scrapbooks, oral history interviews, tape recordings of services, and motion picture film or video tapes of events in the life of the church. The committee/ media library staff needs to determine if the collecting of artifacts is important to documenting the church’s history, and if the archives can adequately house this type of material.
The policy should contain limits on what will be included in the archives. A collection of letters from a long time church member to her daughter would only be appropriate in the church archives if the correspondence related to the church and its history. Items not related to the church or its activities should be referred to the local historical society or the public library.
Once some of these administrative and organizational issues have been settled the task then usually involves facing a heap of stuff that has been designated the "old records." The first step in managing an unorganized group of records and historical materials is accession control. The process of accessioning consists of assigning a number to a group of records or collection of material and record its title, date of receipt, donor’s name and address, size, general description of subject matter, physical description, comments and access restrictions, and location. Accessioning data should be entered onto an accession sheet. An accession form could be developed to contain this type of information about each collection. These forms can be filed in loose leaf binders for easy access. Remember as you sort through your material for accessioning not to mix the records of one kind with another. For example, the minutes of the congregation should not be grouped together with the records of the Woman’s Missionary Union or the treasurer’s records should not be interfiled with the membership records. Each type of record would be a separate archival accession. If the church archives is small, these accession sheets can serve as the principal finding aid to the holdings. Procedures on arrangement and the development of catalog cards and inventories need to be discussed and developed by the archivist and the committee/media library staff.
With all the details of space, supplies, staff and procedures, do not neglect the opportunity to alert your membership about the new archives. Planning an open house or opening day ceremonies are ways to call attention to the church’s efforts to preserve its records. It can also serve as a way to encourage members to donate historical materials for inclusion in the archives. Include notices in the church newsletter or bulletin. Encourage local media coverage of the opening if appropriate. Such activities will alert people to the history of the church and the purpose of the archives.
Looking for Help
Do not ignore the people and resources available to assist you in starting a church archives. Discuss your plans with the staff of the local historical society or public library. If you are near a college or university do not hesitate to call on the university archivist. Most archivists are more than willing to provide helpful information and suggestions. Your state Baptist historical organization may be able to assist in the development of a church archives. A brief list of suggested reading material is listed at the end of this article.
Do not be discouraged if your archives is not perfect. Most of the archives I have been associated with sought the ideal but had to settle for reality. Put the plans into action for preserving the records of your church. Today’s members and those 100 years from now will benefit from your work.
Several resources can assist you in establishing your church’s archives. The January-March, 1979 issue of Media: Library Services Journal was devoted to articles dealing with preserving church records. Lucile M. Kane’s A Guide to the Care and Administration of Manuscripts is a good introduction to archival work. Equally helpful are August Suelflou’s Religious Archives: An Introduction; A Layman’s Look at Starting a Religious Archives by Kevin Sandifer; and a pamphlet Locating and Preserving Your Church’s Records by Pat Brown.