Billy Graham Center
Archives


Preserving Your Church Archives: Workshop 2000




Presentation of the BGC Archives' Church Archives workshop by Paul Ericksen, with translation by Irene Wong, to pastors, archivists, and interested laypeople at Hong Kong Baptist University on February 14, 2000

INTRO. It is a very great honor for me and Irene to work with you today. The general focus of this workshop is on archival management, but specifically as implemented in establishing and managing a church archives. An archives in your congregation can be more than a treasure chest, more than a storage closet, more than a curiosity. Your church is a living organism, part of the Body of Christ, which feeds the souls of your congregation. The archives should correspondingly become a dynamic part of the life of your church, serving you and those who come after you as an ongoing congregational memory.

We are very excited and humbled by this turnout, especially because it suggests that there is a widespread sense of need for this kind of program and service within the context of congregations. I hope that our work together here today will serve your congregations here in Hong Kong and also facilitate your collaborating together.

Before we go any further I would like to pray for our thinking and talking and interacting today.

While it would be helpful to introduce ourselves to each other, many of you may already know each other and there are just too many of us today. Unlike a group of fifteen which this workshop typically is, we would spend too much of your valuable time on that. However, while I know from your registration forms the general breakdown of our audience today, it would be helpful for you to know that as well.

So would you please raise your hand if you are:
church archivists or historians?
pastors?
church administrators?
representatives of Christian organizations?
representatives of other archives?

I'm assuming that many of you won't become the archivist but will want to identify that person who can work with you, perhaps you will oversee them, and you will serve your congregation by supporting them.

For those of you who come with a more general interest in archives, I hope you'll be able to translate the specific examples into a form you can apply to the specific needs and concerns you come with.

The first concern of this workshop is those of you who are considering starting or are struggling to maintain an archives in your local church. I want to give you the tools so you can carry that on, help you achieve that goal. We want to help you construct a plan that you can return to your church with and implement. It may be a plan for assessing the feasibility of establishing a church archives; this doesn't have to be an enormous project, but it may be more than your congregation can take on right now, or it may be a low priority in view of other things you are concentrating your energy on. I would like to give you the tools so you can make that judgement. But it may also be a plan for how to move ahead and I would like to make that achievable.

Our goal today is to help you begin to draw a concrete and comprehensive picture of an archives in your church, know how to go about beginning to achieve that, and identify the first steps you can take to make it a reality. The point of this isn't to make you professional archivists by the end of the day or feel you have to have one on your staff in order to make your church archives a reality. But that's because we don't believe your goal is to establish a professional operation. Instead, you want a way to evaluate the feasibility of developing a simple functioning archives and then set out to accomplish that.

Having an archives is not the most essential or most important thing in the world or in your congregation. Neither is a church archives a room in the building when you dump church records you can't bear to throw out or a curiosity to satisfy the interests of a few members who like history. Rather a church archives is a resource for a living institution. It can significantly nourish the life of your congregation. The archives can reinforce a link between generations. It can underscore the reason the church exists. It can help the members maintain their faith in a rapidly changing and often dark and hostile world

There is a resource here which surpasses any others you might have at your disposal. That is you. You are the ones who have the dream of establishing a church archives. Maybe you are the ones who will begin to motivate a few people to establish the archives in your church. You are certainly the ones who will be in your church after this workshop. And you are the ones who best know your own situations. You know what is possible in the immediate future. You know what materials are already in hand. And you know what resources can be applied to make this church archives happen. However, although you are here to learn today, you also will be resource to each other tomorrow. You can ask each other questions, give each other suggestions, maybe help each other move boxes of stuff. I hope you will find ways to support each other.

We are going to talk about archival principles, goals to aim toward, but together we will need to adapt that information to your particular needs. Furthermore, I think it's already very obvious that I have no ability in the Chinese language and I am very naive about the nuances of your culture and working environment. Please take this information and rework it in a way which fits in the local culture of your churches and the general culture here in Hong Kong.

THREE PRINCIPLES. There are three principles which are the foundation on which we build today.

The first principle is that an archives is not the project of one person in the church. Instead, it must be a project which involves the entire congregation at some level. You will inevitably have a few people who do lots of the work, but if it remains the hobby of a very small group or even worse one person, the continuity of the archives will rely on their continued interest and presence. Instead, let's envision church archives which will be functioning long into the future, beyond our lifetimes if God wills, and make that happen by developing programs which invite and build on congregational support and contribution.

How can the whole church be involved? By contributing materials, or by suggesting what to save. Or by reading or listening to or looking at the materials and then making use of those in sermons or Sunday school lessons or newsletter articles. Or by telling each other the stories which surface from using the materials. One of the most invigorating moments as we work in our reference room is seeing researchers being caught up in the events or personalities of those they are reading about; they can't help but share it and we're often the closest at hand.

The second principle is that the value of an archives is measured by its use. It is a worthy effort to gather important papers and publications in a church archives. And the gathering can be an intense process requiring persistence and determination, and therefore produce a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction. Once you have gathered materials it is important for you to describe what you have so you or someone else can find a needed document. Describing those can be very rewarding, but it too can require a lot of time. Do you still have time after gathering and describing to make sure the most important thing happens? It's not just to have it like treasure that's too valuable to let anyone touch. If no one uses the material, you may have a grand collection, but for what? Use is the reason for collecting.

The third principle to apply in establishing a church archives is to develop it to last. Don't just work to get it started; also work to see it thrive for years. We frequently find that an organization is ready to assign some space to its archives, has several people on hand who they can commit to oversee the gathering of materials, and is prepared to get the documents organized and provide a way they can be used. There is lots of enthusiasm for starting the program. But long-term development isn't as high a priority. They aren't as ready to hire a full-time archivist if that is called for to keep the operation running and they don't think in terms of what they need to do to maintain the ongoing operation. This is not a short-term project. All the securing space, gathering, sorting, arranging & describing, and even stimulating preliminary use is short-sighted if we haven't built a program to continue gathering, sorting, arranging & describing, and encouraging use. From the start, establish your church archives with a view to its being carried on by those who will come after you. You will always rely on individuals to do the work, but developing a system which is simple and self-sustaining will provide for long-term benefit and relieve you of the burden of holding the program together.

A final thought before we launch into details. Church archives are unlike most other archives. Most archives are run by professionals. (Can I say parenthetically that Irene has had training as a librarian and to a lesser extent as an archivist. She may tell you she doesn't yet view herself as a professional archivist, but I can tell you from my experience in working with her and overseeing her work that she is already very capable as an archivist, knows the archival tools she has at her disposal and the principles by which to work. She is a resource to you.) However, the church archives isn't run by professionals but by volunteers. This is actually a great benefit because it contributes to the sense that the archives belongs to us rather than to the specialist and will facilitate use rather than being left to the elite. Your church archivists or church historians may be the primary users of the archives, but because they are part of your congregation, you and they can more easily stimulate use of the archives.

By the time we finish, we want you to have:

Here are questions we'll be answering in the course of our day together:

This is a big agenda, but let's tackle it together. I hope what I am presenting today isn't an American solution or an American methodology, although my experience is only within the American context and I have no archival experience outside the US. I hope I give you something which will help you change the landscape of HK churches, but I'm certain my being here at the Hong Kong Baptist University archives and with you will expand my understanding of archives beyond my geographical and cultural limitations.

BUILDING SUPPORT FOR AN ARCHIVES. Before you being collecting and arranging and promoting, you should think through how to build a support base for your church's archives so that it will survive. Establishing your church archives will require from you a steady effort to build and sustain support for the program. This support- building isn't like one of the immunizations I received before traveling here which you do once and then you're covered for a long time. Instead, you do it in the beginning, do it in the middle, and you do it again at the end. Neither is support-building just getting people, whether the church board or congregation to just sign off on the project to leave the archivist alone. So what does this support-building consist of?

Your archives won't emerge or survive because of a general or abstract commitment to history. That is not the sort of thing people will do for very long or with determination if they don't believe in it's real and concrete value to them and the fellow parishioners.

What value can it have for them? For many or most Americans, history is something old, dusty, yesterday, and so for people absorbed in the present, it's irrelevant. A church archives can be an unnecessary extra, impractical, a waste of funds and human energy. There is a much greater respect for history here because you have so much more of it, but even you are constantly pressed by what is happening now or will soon happen, and so the future drags our attention away from any appreciation of the past. It is that appreciation of the past, what can be learned from it and how it shapes who we now are, that breathes life into your church archives.

Remember that we said that for long-term success a church archives needs widespread involvement and support. The irony is that its beginnings usually start as an individual vision. Perhaps it's your vision. You must now share that vision and let it capture the imaginations of others in order to develop support in the congregation. You want your vision to be translated into institutional commitment by pastor, church leaders, and lay people. That institutional commitment is something you must have a hand in creating.

So what can you do to start you down the path toward that institutional support? Begin your program in small, manageable, simple steps, and do those few things well. But as soon you start your collecting, sorting, and arranging, also begin your outreach program. Outreach is a term used by archivists and librarians to describe the activities of encouraging use of the resources by various groups. Some of those groups might not even know you exist or that you could have anything of interest to them. An example of this from our Graham Center Archives collection: The theme of our collection is North American non-denominational Protestant missions and evangelism. Someone who is studying the mission or missions in Kenya would most likely come to us; they need what we have and don't need to be contacted or persuaded to do so. However, our Africa Inland Mission collection contains many documents which record some of the history of the colonial period of various African countries, and so students of African history, economics, politics will find plenty of material to wade through. But if they only think of us as a missions collection, they might overlook the wealth of material we have for them. Part of our task as archivists at the BGC is to find ways to alert those groups which might not otherwise come to us that we have things they need. Perhaps you will find in the materials you gather together photographs from fifty years ago; while these may be a curiosity to your young people, they will be a real draw to your older members. As your program develops, elderly members may come to the archives without much encouragement but initially they will need to be alerted to what's available to them; perhaps later on your outreach will need to include the community around your church building. The great thing is that as your users recognize the value of the archives to them, your group of supporters will also begin to expand.

The reality of operating a church archives is that it won't be a high profile program, few people will be directly involved except for special projects, and there won't be much money budgeted. This will truly be a labor of love. But being here today is already a labor of love and suggests that you recognize this is a need and one that you can participate in responding to.

The genius and beauty of an archives, a church archives, is the variety of needs which will be served there. Not everyone will benefit from the same things in an archives. Perhaps one person will be captivated by the history of the church over its entire life span, while another will find it to be a rich source of genealogical information, and still another may examine the church's interaction with and contribution to the community in which it resides.

Building support is more than just holding a rally or whipping up enthusiasm. A key element to building support for the church archives is bringing the governing authorities of the church into your support base. The pastor, elders, board, deacons, committees, and staff all can be supporters or obstacles to the future of your archives. You want them to be supporters, so don't ignore their questions, doubts, reservations or hesitations, or their suggestions, dreams, or ideas. Instead address them and interact with them. Build alliances with them, not to politicize the archives but rather to share it with them and have them see encouraging it as a responsible way to exercise their leadership of your church. But also don't become so impressed with the official structure of your congregation that you overlook that informal network of influential people. Who are they? They're the ones who are the encouragers, the prayers, the ones who others look to to follow, the ones who do what has to be done, the opinion leaders, perhaps the natural leaders. And then there are the groups within the church which can also be supporters and users: young people, young marrieds, Sunday school groups, the elderly, church neighbors, etc. Each of these groups may have special interests which you can serve.

QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN YOU START AN ARCHIVES. You should only begin this project after assessing what it will take to do so, what it will take in human energy and resources, what it will take in finances, and what it will take in support from the congregation. Jesus in the midst of his parables applauds the wisdom of those who plan carefully, such as in the parable of the builders (Matthew 7:24-27), with the foolish one building on sand while the wise one built on rock. In talking about the cost of being a disciple Jesus said, "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'" (Luke 14:28-30) Even more than avoiding ridicule, we want to be good stewards and avoid diverting human energy and money away from those things our congregations have determined are most essential. So let's ask the hard questions. They don't comprise a long list but answering them will carry us a long way. [Note: at this point, handout 1 was used.]

The answers to these questions are what help you develop the archives statement of purpose or mission statement.

ARCHIVES STATEMENT OF PURPOSE. This statement, sometimes called an archives charter, is the foundational document or set of documents you create. It articulates where you are going, what you want to accomplish, how you will go about doing that. The beginning of your program doesn't involve buying conservation supplies, using a software program to catalog, setting aside some storage space or even beginning to collect materials. The archives charter is really the starting point of your archives. By answering the questions we've listed above, you will have the outline of your charter. This afternoon you will begin to develop a purpose statement for your church archives.

The charter can be one document or a series of documents. The series you may end up with could include a mission statement, collection policy, and access policy. What is important is that it is comprehensive.

What functions does the charter fill?

What goes into your charter?

1. The purpose of the archives or its mission statement - why you are doing what you do and who you are serving. This can be pretty brief, but should be well thought out.

2. Your charter should include a definition of the archivist's position description. This places their responsibility in the context of the church - identifies their authority, duties, term of office, who they report to, relationship to church library, relationship to a denominational program. It is especially important to describe the scope of the archivist's duties (collecting, encouraging use of the records, serving church officers and staff by providing information, overseeing the use of the archives in church events, etc.) Maybe it seems obvious but all this job shouldn't be dumped on someone but given to a person who wants it and will be effective with it.

3. Your charter also needs a collecting policy defining what you will and won't collect. You can't and shouldn't collect everything; define the boundaries which you want your church archives to work within. Some of the kinds of materials which might be included are:

3.1 Official church records

3.2 Records of associated groups like schools

3.3 Private papers of members

3.4 Assorted memorabilia

3.5 Oral history interviews

3.6 Data you collect

3.7 Related publications

4. Include in the charter a statement about those who are to be served by the archives

4.1 Church officers, who may need information for their leading & deciding.

4.2 Members of the congregation (in worship services, annual events, to strengthen ties to the church)

4.3 General public

5. Don't omit the access policy in your charter. This defines how people will be able to use the materials. It could include things like:

5.1 Hours the archives will be open

5.2 Limitations on use of material

5.3 How much supervision by the archivist will be required, how much will be self-service

5.4 What security measures will be used (locked room, borrowing rights, etc.)

6. Your charter should also state long-range and short-range goals

6.1 Short term goals might identify first steps to be taken

1.1 Preliminary survey of records

1.2 Basic description of holdings

1.3 Recruiting volunteers for first year

1.4 Sponsoring a history Sunday

6.2 Long term goals focus on strategy

2.1 Training volunteers for ongoing work

2.2 Developing means of building support

2.3 Means of assessing members desires and needs

2.4 Increasing awareness of the archives

2.5 Developing endowed support

6.3 Ranking of goals

STAFFING THE ARCHIVES. Your church archives isn't going to have an large staff, but it will need one person who is the overall supervisor, perhaps called the archivist. That person will probably be the most involved and spend the most time establishing and maintaining the archives. There may be several other people who also devote a lot of their time, but the rest will be involved very occasionally or on a particular project. However, this is all volunteer help. So whether people are involved a lot or a little, it will be because they are interested, because they value it for themselves, they want to be there, and they want to see the archives thrive. This is a great asset for your church.

How do you recognize your archivist and gather this group of archival disciples? By going out, promoting the idea, suggesting to some likely candidates, and inviting rather than waiting for people to volunteer themselves. Don't forget to ask God to provide people to do this. If we believe God is steering us in this direction, let's ask Him to provide the laborers. Perhaps you want to arrange a Sunday school class on the history of your church or the denomination - this will be an easy opportunity to introduce the archives. You can insert announcements in the Sunday bulletin, in Sunday school classes, at prayer meetings, etc.

Make sure to identify the different tasks to be done, so your archivist can enlist many different people for all that needs to get done (computer skills, photography, oral history interviewing, historical background knowledge, arrangement skills, librarians, etc.) The best way to leave volunteers with a great experience is to match skills and experience with needs.

Don't enlist volunteers forever, but instead for a set period of time. Also consider the possibility of having training for your archives team. Between all of you here today there could soon be a great deal of archives experience and expertise. You can assist each other by developing or sponsoring training programs. By providing training, you give your staff a resource through which they can improve their skills and apply archival principles to their work - this will be both satisfying to them and enrich the archives program.

WHAT SHOULD YOU KEEP? You can't keep everything, and you probably don't want to. Good. Some people can't help themselves and hang to all they can. In the US we call these people who hoard things pack rats. Other people may view pack rats as natural candidates to be archivists because of the high value they place on documents and artifacts, but pack rats often have difficulty discriminating between what is worth keeping because it will be used and what is unlikely to be used but ought to be kept anyway because someone might under some circumstance use it. An archivist should be skilled in assessing what is of enduring value and what isn't, and also be informed and ready to make the hard judgements about what will be used and what very likely won't.

Here is a list of possible documents to keep:[Click to see the list, which was Handout 3]

These documents can be found in various forms. They might be paper records, or artifacts, movie film or video tapes, photographs (whether prints, slides, negatives), blueprints, audio tapes (reel or cassette), and many more. Each of these types has unique characteristics and distinct problems for storage.

WHERE DO YOU KEEP IT? Although even a professional archives sometimes has to work with whatever space is available, a church archives can be sure it won't have state-of-the-art facilities. Fortunately, you probably will not have a great volume of material in your collection so you won't need a large storage area. If possible, choose a place where the temperature and humidity are fairly constant. In Hong Kong high temperatures and high humidity will be the enemies of your holdings; in Illinois, we have wildly fluctuating temperatures and humidity which also threaten documents. Choose a location where air circulates freely to prevent mold from developing. Keep materials out of direct sunlight or they will quickly fade and deteriorate. Keep documents shielded from extended exposure to indoor lights as well; they don't work on documents as quickly as the sun but over time have the same effects. If possible establish your storage area near space where your archivist and staff can work, hold meetings, and arrange collections.

An important part of your storage planning involves anticipating a disaster. A typhoon and accompanying flooding is probably the most common one you're exposed to. If possible, don't store your materials in a basement or room where you know there has been or likely to be flooding, leaking or water damage. The costs of recovering soaked documents by freeze-drying far exceed any budget you will ever have, so preventive conservation should be an important part of your thinking.

The other space you need to consider is that for your users. Where will they look through your collections. You should have some table space for them to work at, preferably under the supervision of the archivist or other volunteer. The size of this space should correspond to the use you anticipate, but you will do better to have a little space which the archivist oversees than having your users wander off or out of the church building with the materials they are studying.

WHAT KINDS OF SUPPLIES SHOULD WE USE? Archival supplies can eat up all your budget in a hurry, so you want to carefully select those which you need the most. For a church archives, small quantities of supplies should not be too expensive. For boxes and folders, prefer acid-free folders and boxes. A fire-rated safe or file cabinet with a lock should be used for the church's important legal documents. For shelving, choose metal shelving in a secure room. Provide an area with a smoke detector and hand-operated fire extinguisher.

THE PROCESS OF COLLECTING. This is the looking and gathering stage when you bring together the materials which will comprise your archives. Once your archives program is started and you have some material, other documents will find their way to you. But right now the threads of your church's history have yet to be brought together, so you have to mix determination with innovation and begin to find the first of them. From what you know of the church's history, where might its records have spread out to? With that question in mind, the answers which surface will guide your search. Several key locations to survey are the church building (attics and basements), former pastors for their memories or documents from the time period when they served the church, former officers and staff, former committee chairs or members.

There may be documents which are located in public offices, such as deeds, mortgages, bequests. These might be located in a courthouse or a local library if information was reported in newspapers. Simultaneously, develop a list of significant dates to guide your search and help you recognize time period gaps.

I don't know whether you here do what we Americans do. We put things in attics or basements to get them out of our way yet not discard them. Where is the parallel for you here that you want to check? Maybe you do the same. Perhaps you could arrange a hunt for these locations to search for congregation-related materials.

Advertise your request for documents. Placing announcements in the church bulletin or newsletter for old church bulletins or photographs could produce an interesting collection of materials and help you gauge the interest of the congregation.

Plan oral history interviews. We'll talk about this later, but let me say at this point that having various viewpoints represented in your archives is very important, especially for those groups that are often neglected or ignored by historical accounts: women, young people and children, minorities.

And don't forget that your denomination will most likely have records which contribute to the portrait of the story of your church. Contact the denomination's archives for their assistance and guidance.

DOING ORAL HISTORY. Before I talk about conducting an oral history, I'd like to play a short excerpt which illustrates what an interview is like. This one I did with a Peruvian man, Dr. Rene Padilla. I've selected one which has already been transcribed, so you can follow along with the speaker in the handout.

[At this point, an excerpt from from tape T1 of Collection 361, Interview with Rene Padilla, was played. Click for Handout 4, a transcript of the excerpt used.]

One of the great tools available to archivists and historians is oral history. This excerpt helps me highlight some of the benefits of adding oral history interviews to your collection.

How do you decide who to interview?

Who does the interviewing? Your church archivist might be one likely candidate, even if he or she doesn't do all of it. Perhaps you have enough people with a natural interest in history or the congregation's history to form a team of interviewers. Perhaps you can use some of your young people to interview older members (this builds a link between generations and conveys honor to those being interviewed). Interviewing isn't something you just sit down and do - it does require some training, but it is also a skill which is developed through practice rather than lecture. Even veteran interviewers struggle and new interviewers can produce an interesting and valuable source of information.

What equipment will be needed?

How do you prepare for your interview? Do what research you can. Begin by bringing together information about the person (age, education, career, other significant achievements, events they've lived through, stories you've heard told about them). Then ask others what questions they think should be asked. Through this process you begin to build a picture of the person who will be answering your questions. With that person in mind, frame your questions. By being thorough in your preparation, it also helps you to keep the interview accurate. None of us remember everything the way it actually happened but as we have made sense of it; we may scramble dates or names. Since the interview is their telling of the story, they may get the facts wrong and they may throw in their opinions for free. But the interview isn't the place where you correct someone; not even a good American interview for whom saving face isn't such a high value recognizes the danger to the interview this creates. Instead, you can rephrase the question to see whether misunderstanding your question was part of the problem. Finally, anticipate questions other people might have if they were interviewing this person. After all, it's those people you're recording this for.

Doing the actual interview. Where you do the interview does matter. You want it to be convenient to the person you're interviewing in a place where they can be at ease. You especially want it where you won't be interrupted by other people. (I have done several interviews where a wife sat in and interrupted to correct her husband; the interview suffered from this. I've also done one interview while I was driving a car and my ninety-five year old interviewee was answering in between giving directions; this too is not ideal.) So you also want it to be out of the flow of traffic, away from telephones, televisions, radio, or noisy equipment. Other than that you can be flexible.

The setup of the interview is important, but this is largely a function of culture. In America, it is important that the interviewer and interviewee not sit too far apart or they will feel disconnected, which will have a negative impact on the interview. It's also important to face each other. There may be similar aspects of communication which will enhance or diminish the value of interviews in Hong Kong. Be sensitive to these.

In the course of the session, a relationship grows between the interviewee and interviewer. Sometimes the interview can have the ease of a conversation, but it shouldn't become one where your comments consume the same amount of time as the interviewee. The interviewee should ask the question and then get out of the way. The point of the interview is for the person being interviewed to tell their story; they should be doing most of the talking. Like good interaction though, the interviewer should prompt the interviewee with questions, encourage them with eye contact and nodding. Doing an interview can be stressful for the interviewer because you're doing many things at once: encouraging, watching the recorder, thinking about the next question to ask, following up on something they're saying, staying focused, thinking about how to spell a place name or person's name, and hoping this is a good and useful interview. None of those things should keep you from listening to and interacting with the person telling the story.

The form your questions take is also important. They should be phrased to produce a concrete response. You don't want vague answers, so ask questions that will produce the result you want. You will help your interviewee by asking for specifics too, and in the course of the interview they will work from more general answers to adding specifics. But as I say, if they are vague, ask for specific examples.

Let me illustrate.

Don't ask: What did you think about how that decision was made?

Instead ask: How did the church make the decision? or Who had the most influence on the direction the church took? You probably will find out what the interviewee thought, but you will more importantly get other information as well about who was involved, how long the process took, how much resistance there was to the decision, etc.

Another very important point. Let your interviewee think about their answer rather than rushing them. Perhaps this is an American trait, but if a person doesn't answer immediately, we interpret it to mean that either they don't know or have nothing to say. But people need time to think and remember. If you allow them time to think and be silent, they will answer your question, perhaps the best answer of the entire interview. Don't require a hasty answer.

Don't ask leading questions. Remember, you want their perspective and you want them to tell their story, not confirm what you think is the story.

Don't ask: Pastor Li was a wonderful leader, wasn't he? This is such a leading question. If the person liked Pastor Li, they will just say yes. If they didn't like Pastor Li, it sets up a conflict in the interview. Either way you have them trapped.

Instead ask: What was Pastor Li like? The interviewee will probably convey their feelings but even if negative they will probably be more well-rounded in their description

Don't ask questions which can be answered YES or NO. Instead ask questions which produce concrete detail and keep your question-asking to a minimum.

Don't ask: Did you think he was reliable?

Instead ask: How reliable was he?

Don't ask: Were the church leaders able to avoid the conflict everyone feared?

Instead ask: How did the church leaders handle this sensitive issue?

Ask follow-up questions, even though it means you won't get to ask all those you came to the interview with. The primary reason you won't ask all your questions is because the information the person gives you in their answers prompts more questions and it is good for you to ask them. As you learn new things, it gives you new things to ask about, and follow-up questions are important to draw out areas you were unaware of when you started. Sometime tangents seem irrelevant but can lead to the most valuable information, so don't be too restrictive of the person.

There may be questions that will be hard to ask or about controversial areas. Be sensitive, save them for the right time, find a way to ask them that is gentle, but don't be afraid to ask either. An example of this was an elderly missionary who worked in China. While there she carried and lost three infant children during World War II. There was only very thin evidence of these children in the woman's letters, so as Irene and I were conversing with her on the phone about her papers and an upcoming oral history one of our staff was to do, we finally worked around to asking about these. She confirmed that there had been three children, but even sixty years later struggled with the grief. This question can only be asked based on trust, but even then the interviewee may be reluctant to answer.

There are disadvantages to doing oral histories.

Nevertheless, oral histories are a great tool in the hand of an archivist and a great resource to historians, researchers and general public users. Don't let these potential drawbacks keep you from using it for your archives.

Once the interview is completed, you need to write up your notes on the interview (length, date, place, additional notes on contents) to store with the interview, and you need to store the tape.

These interviews are recorded to be listened to, so find a way to make them available and possibly have equipment which can be used at your archives. Transcribing is very labor intensive, but is a good way to make them more accessible and a good way to involve church members in contributing to the archives. Some people prefer to skim the written text of an interview rather than sit and listen to an entire tape which may not have anything relevant for their study.

ORGANIZING THE ARCHIVES. The archives is one part of your church which will have to be organized, in part because you want people to be able to use the collection, and also so you can add to it in a systematic way.

One form this organization should take is by gathering all the materials together in one secure place and clearly marking them to be saved. You mark them so someone doesn't think they are junk to be thrown out; you want them in a secure location so people who recognize them as archives don't start to rummage through or borrow them.

The next thing you should do is accession the materials using a simple numbering system and a log sheet. I've included a sample of this in your packet. By doing this you will keep track of everything given to you that you take into your archives. Along with this, develop a simple certificate of gift form (you've gotten a sample of this too) which you can use to formalize the gift of papers to the archives. In this way the material becomes the property of the church and can be overseen by the church archives and made available for use.

If the documents are already in some order, leave them in that order. This both saves your archives team work but also retains an order which was meaningful and will be assumed if the creators come to use the documents. If the letters, for example, are in chronological order, don't put them in alphabetical order. You may hate chronological order, but retaining original order is a primary archival principle.

Also retain the materials in the units of those who created them. If you have several pastors' papers, don't intermingle them to have all the sermons together, all the pastoral counseling correspondence together, etc. Instead, Pastor A's papers should be one unit, Pastor B's a second distinct unit, and so on.

However, not all papers come arranged. Attempt to recognize and order but if none appears, the archivist should then establish an order that will most facilitate their use, whether alphabetical, chronological or some other scheme. Once arranged, the materials should be described briefly, whether in the form of lists or short narrative paragraphs.

As you carry out this processing, you will develop common practices for your church archives. Write this down as a written collection and arrangement policy. Doing so will standardize your procedures, something you will want when you have rotating volunteers serving you.

THE COMPUTER. Computers have become an integral part of our lives, so it's no surprise that they will be part of the picture of your consideration of a church archives. There are two ways to view computers in your church archives:

1. One is as a tool for managing your archives and creating control of your collection

2. The second is as a tool used by the church staff and others to create documents which you want to collect.

Computers have become a part of the way people create documents to communicate with each other and they will therefore in all likelihood record part of the activity of your church. Probably the primary church documents which will appear on a computer are correspondence, although they may also include sermon texts, newsletters, bulletins and meeting minutes. Don't overlook this source of your church's history.

As a tool for you to organize and describe your collection, you can consider archival software, although this may go beyond your needs or means. Our primary use of computers at the Graham Center Archives is as word processors, but we also have a database which allows researchers to search for collections and our Web site. As you begin to describe your collection, whether in word processing software or by using databases like Access, you can then enable users to search text or fields to identify relevant material. You can also use your computer to transcribe oral history interviews or other church events which were recorded.

You may choose to use your computer to store data which might consume much more space in paper form, but you should make sure to back up your data to protect yourself against computer problems. If you have CD-burning capability, you can both store data in this way and make it easily available to others. Another of the archives at Wheaton College is anticipating placing an entire photo collection of 1,400 images on a CD-ROM.

Finally, you can use your computer to make documents available. If your church has a Web site, you could place an interesting and historically significant document on the page to build appreciation for the church and for the archives. If your church does have a Web site, and probably more will do this in the future, you should also document this in some way.

WRITING A CONGREGATIONAL HISTORY. Just a few brief comments here. A congregational history isn't the primary outcome that the archives produces, but the archives may significantly contribute to it and the history will also help the archives locate sources of information and documents. The history will partly educate your archivist and volunteers. But it is also an educational tool for the congregation as they have a historical account which helps them understand their congregation better.

Begin your history with a chronological outline of important dates in the life of the church. In order to strengthen your conclusions and make it possible to return to these documents, make sure all source material is dated and identified. Photographs are a valuable feature of the history as they help illustrate it. Thinking to the future, you might want to designate congregational photographers who will capture the visual record for tomorrow's members.

There are some traps you should avoid when writing your church's history:

MAINTAINING THE ARCHIVES. Some of this will be review from earlier comments. Remember, your goal isn't simply to get the archives running, but to keep it running and operational. Starting it without anticipating or working toward keeping it working is poor stewardship.

First, financial considerations: this will depend on how your church administration is structured and budget administered, but you will probably want your archives funding to be a line item in the church budget, so it isn't vulnerable to the priorities of other programs under which it could also be placed. You will need funding for archival supplies, resource books and manuals, training, special events and exhibits. You may also wish to purchase computer software, office supplies, or even microfilm some of your collection. (Microfilming, by the way, provides a unique opportunity for collaboration among archives. If there is one existing archives here in Hong Kong which can provide archival quality microfilming, that can be a service which many of you can use.) The budget for a church archives isn't going to be enormous; remember you aren't trying to run a professional archives, and hopefully your modest program won't have high costs, but without some budgeted resources, you will be unable to launch or maintain your program for very long year after year.

If the archives becomes an established part of your congregation, it will be important to provide regular reports to the church leadership and the congregation. Some of this reporting can happen through church newsletters, a church annual report, or perhaps during your worship if you highlight different programs of the congregation. Be on the lookout for these opportunities. Describe what the archives has done, what things have already been gathered, what your goals for the immediate future are, how you have used the financial resources given to the archives, and what kinds of material you are currently looking for. Also find out what the church leadership wants to know, what they are concerned about, and what perceptions they have of the archives. Finding a document in your collection which helps address an issue they are currently wrestling with would be a very simple but strong way to demonstrate the archives' usefulness to the them and the church. One thing we don't want to happen to you is for the archives of your church to become a headache to the church leadership or members.

Develop a list of few things to do every year. This archival calendar will help you build regularity into your operation and help you identify and schedule those things most important to accomplish. There may be things which are most suitable to be done in conjunction with other yearly events which you can take advantage of.

People sometimes think that archives don't want to or cannot throw things away. Therefore, they can be given anything and everything. But an important aspect of keeping material is throwing material away. Not everything is of equal value, and developing a critical eye for what should not be preserved will increase the value of what is kept. A way to help you do this is to determine categories of things that only need to be kept for a period of time, whether for legal or financial reasons. Doing this also helps you more accurately anticipate the space your archives will need. Also let your experience guide you, especially in terms of what people are using. The archives has to anticipate what people will want to use in a year, ten years or a hundred, but it also has to be realistic. Not everything that someone MIGHT use should be kept.

Establish an archives committee. This advisory committee or team can help your archivist decide what to collect, plan future direction, review decisions about what to throw out, and be an advocate to the congregation for the archives. The committee can also dream for the future. A benefit of having an archives committee is that it begins to spread the responsibility for and ownership of the archives beyond the handful of people who are doing the actual work.

Maintaining an archives requires that you always are adding new people to your team, so make efforts to recruit people to join you. This can be a great way to involve new members, and they find out about the church and its history, they meet new people as they do something.

Don't stop collecting. Don't wait for people to ask about what you are looking for. Keep telling them that you want to do oral histories or gather church newsletters. People have only a vague idea of what an archives is anyway, so the archivist will have to make it concrete for them. You can't define the archives too often for the congregation. They also need to be reminded that the archives isn't about significant events and well-known people, but that it is the record of the story of your church which is made up of people like themselves.

One other thing you can do is participate in the historical activities in your community. I would guess some or many of you know each other. But maybe this is one of the first times all of you have been together in a room to be aware of each other, especially in terms of establishing archives. But each congregation here resides in a different neighborhood. You all have a chance to have an impact in your neighborhoods. What events in neighborhoods could offer a chance to remind them of the contribution of your church to the neighborhood as well as the membership in your church from the neighborhood. You can highlight the part your church plays in your community. This may help community relations and is another way to proclaim your love for God.

A final thing you can do to maintain the archives is interact with your denominational headquarters or denominational archives. They may have resources which you can use, and it will strengthen their program as well. For those of you representing denominations or archives at the denominational level, this is a service you can offer your congregations, whether by reminding them, encouraging them, gathering them together, or helping finance their programs.

The archivist is probably the one person in the church directly concerned with the history of the church, the only one who will bring a historical perspective to decisions. The archives should become an extension of this perspective and reinforce it. Hopefully, the church will look to the archives to be concerned for the history of the church and advocate activities and emphases which preserve and encourage an appreciation of the church history. Don't de-emphasize or undercut this role of the archivist or archives but let them be your church's advocate for this cause.

MAKING THE ARCHIVES PART OF THE CONGREGATIONAL LIFE. What are ways that the archives can be integrated into church life? How can it be more than a curiosity for those people who like history? Here are a few possibilities which I suggest only as samples. You know your churches, know what works, and can probably suggest ideas which fit your congregation's needs and abilities.

One possibility is to have your archivist contribute to new members classes, confirmation classes, pastoral search committees. The focus of this isn't to advertise the archives, but rather assist in achieving the purpose of the event. The pastoral search committee may want to review the church's history and the archivist can briefly review that history or suggest lessons learned in previous pastoral searches. The archivist can facilitate a committee's doing its job, in the process reinforcing the value of the archives to the congregation.

If your church has the space, the archives can provide an exhibit which highlights some aspect of congregational life or contribute to the celebration of an anniversary.

The archives could contribute to or sponsor a skit about the church's past; or it could develop a living history which brings to life former leaders or pastors of the church.

The archives can write history-oriented articles for a church newspaper, denominational publication, or even a community magazine.

The archives can finally contribute to a contribution by the church to community activities, meetings, or holidays and parades.

Again, you know your situations, so my comments are only starting points for you, samples which illustrate kinds of activities which have worked in one situation. They may not work in yours and you shouldn't assume that if they don't there is something wrong with your church. Churches are dynamic organisms made up of flawed people who want to be there, worship God together, and tell others about Jesus. Adapt these tools to help them do that.

BENEFITS. I hope we have already developed a picture of the benefits that a church archives can bring to your congregation, but let me restate them.

2. The archives can provide the healthy nurture which comes from contact with the past.

3. The archives can strengthen links between generations, as documents in your collection are vessels of contact between generations, making the links alive and real.

4. The archives helps a congregation maintain its true identity in a rapidly changing environment and sometimes hostile world; it can help members of a church remember who they are and what they are gathered to do.

5. The archives can provide authentic history, not just what a person remembers or wishes to believe about the past.

6. And archives can strengthen faith of church members, reminding them that God has blessed this church, protected this church, guided its history. Not all history is pleasant. Disputes between people, splits in churches, conflicts over trivial issues, all mark the histories of churches. However, even though we wish otherwise, these are part of who we as congregations are and who God has chosen to work with. Record that for his honor, even when it humbles us.

7. The archives can be a great resource to a new pastor or new members. They can find out how the church works, what decisions it has made, what programs it has or had, how it carries out its witness to the community around it.

ARCHIVES CHARTER EXERCISE.[Note: At this point, handout 2 was used.] I have talked a long time, and you have listened for what probably feels even longer. Now we're going to work at turning some of this information into concrete possibility for your church. Each of you is going to develop a draft charter for your congregation's archives, using the ARCHIVES CHARTER handout in your packet. This is only a starting point as you will probably want to bring other people from your church into your discussion and planning. But it will help you pull together what we've talked about, and perhaps help you clarify questions in your mind. Please take the sheet from your packet and for the next fifteen minutes begin to sketch in the outlines of your church archives.

REPORT BACK ON YOUR FINDINGS.

QUESTIONS?

RESOURCES FOR THE CHURCH ARCHIVIST. Resources come in many forms, but your church archivist will want to know where they can learn more and who they can talk with and ask questions. I'm the guest here, the outsider. You may not have known much about archives before we began talking this morning, but you live here and are far more familiar with your environment here. I've asked Irene to speak to you about resources she is aware of that church archivists will want to know about for their development and planning. This will include books and manuals which will guide you in establishing and running your archives. It also will include sources of archival supplies.

One book I would recommend is Elizabeth Yakel's Starting An Archives, published by the Society of American Archivists. You can order this book through the SAA Web site at: http://www.archivists.org/catalog/index.html

COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS. The director of the Billy Graham Center once told the staff, "We don't want to do anything alone that we can do together." Perhaps that applies here too. There are many things which are part of this archival picture which you don't have to do as a single church, pastor or archivist.

1. There may be a large church represented here which would consider offering some space or facilities for storing the archives of other congregations. That does present its own problems, but is one possible way of cooperating. It may be that a large church archives could even become the archives for other small congregations.

2. Most things we buy in this world are less expensive if purchased in large volume. Another thing which various churches could do is jointly buy supplies to reduce everyone's costs.

3. You may develop a church archives council from this meeting today which could sponsor training sessions, host lectures on archives subjects or lectures on the history of a congregation using archival documents, convene question and answer sessions on problems which your archivists have encountered.

QUESTIONS. Before we conclude, I wonder whether there are any questions you would like to ask.

WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP? Perhaps you feel like you now have enough to get going on contributing to the setup of your church archives. Or perhaps you are now thoroughly overwhelmed. You already have a preliminary copy of an archives charter. What are you going to do next? Would you take the handout from your packet and identify what your next three steps of action will be. [At this point, Handout 5 was used. Click for Handout 5.]

What will you do next? Please fill in this sheet. This is not for us to collect but for you to keep and act on.

CONCLUSION. I hope the issues we have talked about will assist you in evaluating whether your congregation should have an archives or how to go about setting up the archives you already are sure you want to see develop. I would love to see the outcome of this day be archival activity rather than just archival thought, but the point of this ultimately is the healthiness of your churches, the spread of the gospel and the glory of God. Let me pray for you as we close.


Send us a message

Return to BGC Archives Home Page

Last Revised: 2/5/00
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005