SIM International Archives

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Presentation for Missions Archives Consultation
In Wheaton, IL, on November 2, 2001.
Bob Arnold, Director of Research, SIM Int'l.

History. The year is 1958. Independence is coming to Nigeria and no one knows what the future might hold. Ian Hay, a second-generation SIM missionary, has just been appointed acting field secretary. His father and mother have been in Nigeria since 1918, so to some degree mission history is his family history. Ian Hay took it upon himself to collect the valuable records at hand and he sent them to our Toronto office. Later, in his position as North American Director, he encouraged all the field offices to do the same in order to preserve our heritage.

At that time SIM's International Publications Department was in Canada. The archives were initially organized as an adjunct to Publications, and it provided a valuable resource to our media staff. Through the 70's and 80's the SIM Archives grew to 200 linear feet.

When the Billy Graham Center Archives were established, SIM considered sending the collection here, but in view of the importance of the archives to our own media productions and researchers we decided to keep it in-house.

In 1992 the archives was relocated from Toronto to Charlotte, NC. A local Christian businessman provided funding for the construction of a fireproof vault with halon protection, and contacted another businessman for the gift of 700 feet of mobile shelving. Since relocating to Charlotte our collection has grown to about 850 linear feet, due to active collecting and to two more mergers. We are currently studying the construction of another vault.

What do we collect? Eighty percent of our holdings are paper. Quarterly station reports, council minutes from each sending office and field office, administrative correspondence, personnel files, mission periodicals and other publications, Bible translations and literacy materials produced in foreign languages, and records which document significant new ministry advances or transitions in ministry.

What do we discard? We keep only 10% of our missionaries' prayer letters; we evaluate them for historical value-does this letter explain why we started a new ministry or closed an existing ministry? Or is it simply a family update? We keep only one copy of anything no matter how significant. We toss all duplicates, including publications. We have only two boxes of financial information.

We have 49 boxes of photographs. With photos you must be brutal. We toss some magnificently beautiful photos, and keep only those that document the progress of the ministry. We have 220 films. We have 10 boxes of sound recordings. We have 24 boxes of realia-clothing, tools, and curios. Our holdings are arranged primarily by geography, and then by date (and sometimes, ministry type). Every collection, box, and folder is now listed, or will be listed, in an Access 2000 database.

We hold the archives of all the missions that joined to form today's SIM: the Sudan Interior Mission, the Andes Evangelical Mission (which was formerly the Bolivian Indian Mission), the International Christian Fellowship (which was a merger of the Ceylon and India General Mission and the Poona and Indian Village Mission), and finally Africa Evangelical Fellowship (the former South Africa General Mission).

How's it all used? We serve three constituencies.
The first is the mission's leadership and departments. A few examples:
Recently I've supplied photocopies of land deeds in Liberia to help settle a dispute there.
In another case, mission and church leaders had differing recollections of statements made regarding the eventual disposition of land in Ethiopia/Eritrea at the time of the Marxist evacuation. I was able to quote from 1975 Council Minutes by e-mail to resolve the issue in one day.
We supplied a survey instrument used in Ghana to our team in Mozambique.
One of our missionaries in Benin used the archives extensively for his doctoral dissertation on education and leadership training models among the Baatonou.
Also recently we supplied a photo for an obituary, and information for our MK publication, SIM Roots.

We also serve the churches planted by SIM.
Many Nigerians and Ethiopians are studying in the U.S. and often choose to write their theses and dissertations on some aspect of their church's development. Also the churches overseas frequently request information in conjunction with the celebration of an anniversary of their founding-they want accurate information on the pioneer missionaries, the first converts, etc.

In 1997 the SIM International Council passed a motion that my department "explore ways to assist and strengthen archives for national churches." So earlier this year one of our associate archivists spent 6 weeks in Nigeria helping ECWA organize their own archives. I have a project to help three more national churches to establish their own archives, for which I am currently seeking funding. If the national church will make a firm commitment for a suitable location and for at least one full-time employee to be trained, then we will help them get their archives started and provide ongoing advice.

Our third constituency is the non-SIM academic researcher.
We seem to average about six of these a year. I've had,
A student from Rutgers studying a local revival in Zimbabwe in 1910;
A German anthropologist studying how the traditional religion of Nigerian Nupe tribe changed due to contact with Christianity and Islam;
An Australian senior lecturer in Gender Studies looking at women missionaries in India;
A New Zealander studying the origins and development of NZ's missionary movement from 1890-1920.
It's helpful to view the academic researcher as an outreach opportunity. We attempt to ascertain the spiritual condition of each one and minister appropriately.

What lessons have we learned?
Consistent adherence to the 40-year access rule. As I understand the story, a few years ago two different Nigerian researchers used our archives to study similar topics. The first was relatively unknown to us and we restricted his access to certain materials in accordance with the 40-year rule on non-published documents. The second was a prominent leader in ECWA, our national church, so in our well-meant efforts at helpfulness we bent the rules a great deal. After publication it was obvious to the first researcher that the second had had access to holdings closed to him. He was rightfully upset.

Academic freedom. You must remember that academic researchers are not mission publicists. A few years ago a researcher used our archives to study the origins of the evangelical church in a certain region of Ethiopia. In his book some SIM pioneers were portrayed as narrow-minded. A shocked SIM leader asked the archives director how we could let this man do that. We cannot expect that the books and dissertations written by researchers will always portray the mission favorably; there is a certain risk involved.

Volunteers. The good news is that most of our labor is free. Almost all our archives processing is done by retired missionary volunteers. We have five retirees in the Charlotte area who volunteer one day per week and one who volunteers two days per week. We also have retired missionaries from outside the area who come for two to four weeks. I pay their room and board in the SIM guesthouse if they give me at least 10 days of work. I usually have them work on the country in which they served. These folks enjoy going through these materials, and they know the names of the people, the places, and the various ministries. They are eminently qualified and motivated.

Professionalism or lack thereof. Our biggest weakness at the SIM archives is the flip side of our negligible labor costs; we are well-meaning amateurs. Paul Ericksen visited our archives in 1994 and made numerous recommendations. The most important of these was that we hire a trained archivist immediately; this was not done in 1994, and probably will never be done. I have no background in this field, but I am signed up to attend a two-week training course given by the National Archives in Maryland in January-February.

Last Revised: 11/12/01
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005