How to Start a Church Archive
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. A good beginning for the church archives can go a long way to assuring its success. Early planning and decision making are crucial. So how should your church begin?
Picking A Place
The first decision to be made is the location of the archives in the church building. The most logical place for the archives is in the church media library since it has existing reading areas and some type of card catalog for locating materials. the media library is ope for specified hours and has a staff to care for 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 your collection can occupy more room than your regular library work area. The archives room should 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. This committee will need to establish the archives’ purpose, goals, policies, and procedures. The committee should also choose a church archivist to collect, store, arrange, describe, and make the archives available for use. The committee will then assist the archivist with these responsibilities.
What to Collect
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—minutes of the church’s official bodies (deacons, trustees, church council, and business meetings), financial records, membership rolls, and official correspondence of the church office and staff.
Publications of the church such as newsletters, programs, directories, brochures, and pamphlets should also be preserved. The inclusion of a photograph collection in the archives holdings is an excellent way to visually document the church’s past. Other non-official historical materials of value are scrapbooks, interviews with church leaders and key members, tape recordings of services, and motion picture or film recordings or events in the life of the church. The committee needs to determine if the collecting of these artifacts is important to documenting the church’s history and if the archives can adequately house this type of material.
Limits will have to be placed on what will be included in the archives. A collection of letters from a longtime 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 and its activities should be referred to the local historical society or the public library.
All material given to the church archives is not sacred. Multiple copies of publications, programs, and form letters need to be discarded. Saving two good copies of such items is usually adequate. Some material will not have any historical, informational, or legal value.
All church records are not created equal. Housekeeping records—utility bills, invoices, check stubs, etc.—need to be retained for a limited time period and then destroyed.
There are no strict rules for organizing a church archives. Remember as you sort through your material not to mix the records of one kind with another (for example, the minutes of a business meeting should not be grouped together with the records of the Woman’s Missionary Union). Develop a system for describing and locating materials such as a card catalog, a compute database, accession sheets or simply a good arrangement system. Try to keep the system simple and easy to maintain by your successors.
Your church needs to place its historical materials in a safe, secure environment. It is best for the archives area to maintain a constant temperature. Therefore, avoid attics, basements, and areas that have heating and cooling on weekends only. Also, limit access to the archives so that individuals are not allowed to casually rummage through the collection. For more preservation tips, you may wish to purchase the Resource Kit for your Church’s History from the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The kit contains a wealth of information for your church history committee.
Purchase archival folders and boxes for storing the collection. The Church Archives Starter Kit, available from the Historical Commission, SBC, contains archival quality folders and boxes along with a list of archival suppliers for your future needs.
Shelving, filing cabinets, and other furnishing will also need to be purchased, so be sure a line item is established in the church budget for the archives.
Where to go for Help
People and resources to assist your church are closer than you think! 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 willing to provide helpful information and suggestions. Your state Baptist historical organization may also be able to assist you.
For more how-to’s on preserving, collecting, writing, displaying, tape-recording, photographing, and organizing your church’s history, see the Resource Kit for Your Church’s History.
Words of Encouragement
Do not be discouraged if your archives is presently small. You may have to settle for reality instead of possibility, but the ministry you will provide in preserving the records of your church will bring joy and guidance to future church members for years to come.
What the Texas Baptist Historical Collection can do for you:
1. Provide information about how to write your church history.
2. Provide forms for church history and Pastor’s biography
3. Provide biographical information and photographs of former pastors.
4. Provide basic statistics about your church.
5. Provide addresses of living former pastors.
6. Microfilm church minutes.
7. Provide for preservation of your church history and minutes.
What you can do for the Texas Baptist Historical Collection:
1. Send two copies of your church history to the Collection.
2. Send available biographical information and photographs of former pastors to the Collection.
3. Send copies of all special occasion programs and articles about your church to the Collection
4. Deposit your church minutes and other records with the Collection.
5. Join the Texas Baptist Historical Society.