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.
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.
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.
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.
You will need permanent equipment in your room. This will include
- 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.
- A large, closed cabinet for the storage of oversized and framed
- 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?
- A work table and some chairs.
- 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.
- An electric heater. Your room should not be heated on a regular
basis, but it should be comfortable when you are working in it.
You will need supplies with which to process your collection. These
will include the following archivally approved items:
- Acid-free storage cases, legal-sized, 11" x 16" x
- Storage cases, 17" x 24" x 3".
- Acid-free file folders, legal-sized, full-cut.
- 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.
- 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.
- Acid-free negative (and photograph) envelopes, 5" x 7".
These are used for most photographs and negatives.
- Acid-free writing paper, 8.5" x 11".
- Acid-free pens.
- Acid-free document repair tape.
- Three-ring transparent binder pages for 2" x 2" slides.
These may be stored in either archivally approved binders or storage
- White plastic paper clips of varying sizes: small, medium, and
- 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.
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
- 20 storage cases
- 1 storage case
- 200 acid-free file folders
- 3 assorted boxes of transparent sleeves
- 2 assorted boxes of acid-free white storage envelopes
- 100 acid-free negative and photograph envelopes
- 1 ream of acid-free writing paper
- 3 acid-free pens
- 1 roll of document repair tape
- 1 box of transparent binder pages
- 3 assorted boxes of plastic paper clips
- 1 large flat folder
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.
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.
- Church Clerk. Arranged chronologically. Minutes; related documents.
- 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
- Deacons. Arranged chronologically. Minutes; reports presented
by various persons and organizations to the deacons; card file
of all deacons.
- Trustees. Arranged chronologically. Minutes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Children. Arranged chronologically. General materials; Vacation
Bible School materials; Day Care Center materials.
- Youth. Arranged chronologically. Mail-outs; printed programs;
various internal records; news notes; correspondence; reports
to the church or deacons.
- Committees and Other Leaders. Arranged chronologically. Lists
of committee members; some committee minutes; lists of church
- 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."
- Names of Persons. Arranged alphabetically, with a file for each
letter and also separate files for some family names.
- 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.
- Miscellaneous. Arranged chronologically. Items which do not
seem to fit elsewhere.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pastors. Arranged alphabetically.
- Other Personal Papers. Arranged alphabetically.
- 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
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
This essay first appeared in "Viewpoints: Georgia Baptist
History" 13: 1992, and was revised slightly by the author in
Robert Gardner is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Shorter College, Rome,
Georgia, and Senior Researcher in Baptist History, Mercer University Main
Library, Macon, Georgia."
© 2010, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
Comments and Questions