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The Preservation of Mission Archives - An Archivist's Perspective

by Martha Lund Smalley
Research Services Librarian and Curator of the Day Missions Collection
Yale Divinity School Library

So begins a web site describing the Society of American Archivists, the professional organization of archivists in North America (1). When individuals train to be archivists in an academic setting, there is considerable emphasis on understanding the processes of acquiring, organizing, and describing archival records; the rationale for collecting and preserving records in the first place is sometimes skimmed over as a given. Yet professional archivists, and all of us, do well to step back from time to time in order to see the forest and not just the trees, to re-glimpse the lofty goal of enabling the creation of the story that becomes our history.

Core texts of the archival profession point to the distant past to provide the context for understanding why we should preserve documentation. T. R. Schellenberg, for example, began his classic Modern Archives; Principles and Techniques by noting that "Archival institutions probably had their origins in the ancient Greek civilization. In the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ the Athenians kept their valuable documents in the temple of the mother of the gods, that is, the Metrôon, next to the court house, in the public square of Athens. The temple contained treaties, laws, minutes of the popular assembly, and other state documents. Among the documents were the statement Socrates wrote in his own defence, the manuscripts of model plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the lists of the victors in the Olympic games." (2) In fact, it would appear that archives played a role in the Bible well before that. In Ezra 6:1-3 we learn that "Darius the king made a decree, and a search was made in Babylonia, in the house of the archives where the documents were stored. And in Ecbatana, the capital which is in the province of Media, a scroll was found on which this was written: 'A record. In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt...."

It strikes me that we, as Christians, should be well prepared to understand the need for archives because our faith specifically engages us with the whole long history of God's interaction with humankind. This history has been made known to us principally through the extensive and amazing story that is our Bible. Andrew Walls has written that "the Christian is given an adoptive past. He is linked to the people of God in all generations (like him, members of the faith family), and most strangely of all, to the whole history of Israel, the curious continuity of the race of the faithful from Abraham. By this means, the history of Israel is part of Church history, and all Christians of whatever nationality, are landed by adoption with several millennia of someone else's history, with a whole set of ideas, concepts, and assumptions..." (3) Appreciation for this grounding of our faith in the whole history of God's people can open our eyes to the need to preserve the record of our own part in an ongoing and interrelated story.

As I began to prepare this paper, I had just finished teaching a four day seminar called "How to Develop Church and Mission Archives" at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven. These archives seminars at OMSC, which I have led for several years now, never fail to inject me with fresh enthusiasm for the cause of collecting and preserving archival records. The seminar participants generally include some budding archivists specifically charged with the care of their organization's records, but the majority of participants are the yearly residents of OMSC - church leaders and missionaries from around the world, mostly of non-Western origin. Some of these folk have scarcely heard the word "archives" before attending the seminar, and for many there is a "Eureka" experience as they grasp the idea that the documentation of their own everyday work is the stuff of which the history of Christianity is made, that the records of their church or mission organization are a small but crucial piece of the puzzle that depicts the whole story of the expansion of Christianity throughout the world.

There is a real sense in which records form the basis of our identity as individuals and as groups. As non-Western church and mission leaders recognize the need to preserve the records of their organizations, they are validating their place in the larger picture of God's work on earth.

In the archival field, records are said to have two types of value: primary and secondary value. The primary value of records is their usefulness to the organization that generated them. It is not hard for us to imagine scenarios in which it would be helpful to have an organized record of what happened in the past in order to make wise decisions about current affairs.

One of the largest collections held at the Yale Divinity School Library is the archives of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. The United Board began around 1920 as a cooperative effort to support Christian higher education in China. The various mission boards in the U.S., Canada, and Britain that had established colleges and universities in China recognized that there were benefits to be gained by cooperating in the recruiting of teachers, in arranging for supplies, and in raising funds. When China became closed to mission activity around 1950, the United Board focused its attention on educational institutions in other parts of Asia. Now, as China has become more open again, the Board has re-engaged with higher education programs there. Throughout its more than eight decades of existence, the Board has largely worked behind the scenes in providing support for institutions in Asia, all the while gradually ceding more and more of the leadership roles to Asian administrators and educators.

As part of the agreement by which the original United Board records were deposited at Yale in the mid-1980s and additional increments sent over the years, our staff undertakes to search the archives for answers to inquiries directed to us by the Board from time to time. Not surprisingly a fair number of these inquiries relate to financial or legal matters - for example, what were the terms for the establishment of a scholarship fund honoring Bishop Kim Yousoon at Yonsei Medical College in Korea? In other cases the inquiries relate to gathering material for illustrating a publication, honoring a leader, or celebrating an anniversary. Because their records are preserved in an orderly manner, the Board is able to insure efficient response to these kinds of inquiries and requests that are an inevitable part of an organization's life.

The primary value of archival records, then, relates to their role in facilitating ongoing operations and making sure that those who follow us in our organizations and those we serve on the field have the information they need to do their jobs well . We can think of this as an issue of stewardship - part of our obligation to be as efficient as possible with the resources, including time, that are available to us, as well as to convey to future generations the resources they will need to carry on. This is not something to be underestimated. It would in itself be enough to justify the expense and effort required to preserve the records. Yet archives have another dimension as well, referred to as their secondary value. The secondary value of archival records is their usefulness to individuals outside the organization.

The same archival records that serve as the organizational memory for the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, for example, are also a vast treasure trove of information for scholars, researchers, and journalists. The records related to Christian colleges and universities in China yield important information about the impact of Western science and medicine on China, the development of the Chinese educational system during the 20th century, the role of women, rural reconstruction, famine relief, the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre, and a wide variety of other topics. Over the years scholars and writers have drawn on the United Board archives to write institutional, social, and political histories, to create documentary films, and to investigate family history.

Perhaps most exciting for the custodians of records is to see how scholars can draw on a wide variety of archival sources to meld together and synthesize a new view of events and issues. One recent example of such valuable work is a book entitled Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927 by Yale graduate Ryan Dunch. Once a student worker for me in the Yale Divinity School archives, Dunch has drawn on a wide variety of archival resources at Yale, the Methodist archives in New Jersey, the YMCA archives in Minnesota, and extensive records in China, in order to describe the experiences and social role of Chinese Protestants in the Fuzhou area of China. He writes that "Although mission sources are important here, the chief focus is not on missionaries or on the missions as institutions but on how Chinese Protestants understood themselves, how that self-understanding changed over the period, and what differences the existence of the Chinese Protestant community made to Chinese society." (4)

Taken together, the records of missions, churches, and individuals throughout the world bring us to a better understanding of the past and the past's impact on the present. As Cecelia Irvine put it in the paper distributed to us earlier: "History is not static or frozen; it must be reexamined and rewritten in the light of the changing perspectives of each generation of scholars from many different parts of the world. The contemporary documents of long ago must be scrutinized to provide new insights, for the interpretation of history is much influenced by the main preoccupations of the times." (5)

Some may say that the value of academic gleanings from the archival records of a mission organization does not merit the effort or risks involved in making the records more widely available. It is a debatable point, and not all organizations will reach the same conclusion. However, the opening of archives to the wider world for study and investigation can be valuable in a number of ways. Christian journalists and media creators may find excellent content among mission records. Students at an educational institute that is training new missionaries will be able to explore and interact with missions archives in a hands-on way, increasing their ability and inclination to keep good records of their own work. A participant in my recent OMSC seminar, in which we have an afternoon of actual hands-on work with an unprocessed archival collection, said that hearing about archival records without actually encountering them hands-on was like learning to drive a car without actually having access to a car. Future missionaries and their teachers will benefit greatly from an opportunity to engage hands-on with records of the missionary movement.

There is a tradition of the "Missionary as Scholar" that Andrew Walls, among others, has described. Walls notes that "In a pioneer situation the missionary was faced either with complete ineffectiveness or with a course which, if it did not make him a scholar, would give him, in spite of himself, scholarly instincts and disciplines." (6) Missionaries have become linguists, anthropologists, and more, and even those with no secondary vocation become researchers and scholars in their own way. Andrew Walls writes that the mission field thinker becomes "a scientific observer, collecting facts; but he must not be a bookworm, nor turn a blind eye to the difference between the teachings of the sublime texts of the ancient east and the popular religion of the east today. Further, he must be a philosopher on the Pauline model, who can recover the hidden universals of our common humanity and thus open the closed doors that separate eastern from western minds; and he should be a master builder, able to cope with the complex problems of social life and development which arise on the mission field." (7)

There is no need to belabor this point, but I hope we can agree that research, analysis, and comparison are by no means foreign to missionaries and the missionary movement. Viewing our institutional records through the eyes of the scholar or teacher can illuminate how mission work is by nature a process of seeing how things can fit together - fitting together the message we bring and the context of the people who receive it, the weight of a Western agency and the exuberance of the younger churches.

When I was looking around for an illustration of the primary and secondary value of archives for my OMSC seminar, I happened upon a jigsaw puzzle once used by my sons. The picture on the front of the box was of the fifty states comprising the United States. The puzzle pieces seemed an apt example, showing how the components fit together to provide a picture of our country, just as the different types of records generated by an organization fit together to illustrate the whole of its operations and character. The interesting thing about this particular jigsaw puzzle was that each piece of the puzzle was double-sided - on the front was a specific state of the United States, on the back a section of a map of the whole world. There was no picture on the puzzle box to guide one in reconstructing the map of the world, yet the information was there, awaiting analysis and synthesis. This seemed an apt example of the secondary value of archives - something in the background of the primary task of assembling the puzzle of states of our country, something that provided an entirely new dimension of information, but also provided information about the context and setting of our country. Just so, a mission organization in North America might begin a program to preserve its records and in the process find that it has learned something important about the people and groups with whom it is engaging throughout the world.

The questions I was instructed to address in this paper were three: 1) What is the value of preserving mission archives, from the point of view of benefit to the missionary enterprise as well as for scholarship? 2) What problems currently hinder the preservation of nondenominational mission records? 3) What are possible solutions to those problems? I hope that I have presented a convincing case for the benefits of preserving records, both from a practical, operational viewpoint and from the viewpoint of scholarship. As far as questions 2 and 3 are concerned, I am really only equipped to address them from somewhat outside the nondenominational mission scene, but I think that the problems facing all organizations that wish to preserve their records are pretty much the same. What are these problems? - time, money, staff, space, and inertia.

I have two parts to my job - research services librarian and curator of special collections at the Yale Divinity Library - so I know something about the problem of time firsthand. Faced with an orientation tour to lead, a helpsheet to compose, email inquiries, phone calls, and committee meetings to attend, I know what types of activities have strongest claim on my time on any particular day - and it isn't the care and tending of archival records.

It is all too easy to set aside the tasks that do not have stated deadlines or immediate consequences. It is for this very reason that we must be so deliberate and explicit in planning out and executing the steps necessary to establish an archives program. There is never enough time to do all that needs to be done, but the chances of an archives program being successful are directly related to the extent to which the components of the program are clearly assigned responsibilities of particular individuals who deliberately and explicitly schedule those activities into their monthly and yearly calendars.

The second problem is money, and, as we have all heard, time is money; staff is money; space is money. All organizations have a limited amount of funding available and a variety of conflicting claims on that funding. In order to justify the money spent on an archives program we must believe that the expense will result in more efficiency, that it will improve the operations of our organization. We must believe that investing time and money in an archives program will result in long-term benefits to our organizations - if not outright monetary benefits, at least benefits in terms of seeing ourselves as part of the larger picture of God's work in the world and facilitating the work of future generations. We are all familiar with the parable of the talents in Matthew 26. A man entrusts his servants with his property while he is on a journey. One servant trades his five talents and gains five more. The second servant invests his two talents and gains two more. The third servant receives one talent and hides it, afraid that his master will become angry if the property is lost. This third servant is the one who loses out, because he is unwilling to take the risk of engaging his funds to reap more benefits. We must be willing to take the risk of engaging our time, money, staff, and space in order to reap the benefits of preserving our records.

It should be noted, however, that though an archives program is sure to entail some expenditures, there are many ways in which we can be creative and work toward solutions to problems without spending money. Staff is one area in which this is true. One of the most effective workers we have in our archives office at the Yale Divinity Library is a retired volunteer, eighty years old, but still sharp, interested in the subject matter, and patient enough to endure some of the more tedious portions of archives processing. A couple of years ago I visited a missionary retirement community called Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California, and I was struck by the enthusiasm and interest of these folks when I described our program to preserve documentation related to the missionary movement. I only wished that Claremont was a little closer to New Haven; my staffing problems might have been solved. Perhaps you can think of retired missionaries or administrators in your own setting who would both enjoy and be good at archival work.

The issues of staff and space can also be dealt with in another way - by making an agreement with another organization to oversee the handling of your archival records. Most likely there is a college or seminary associated with your organization that would find your archival records to be an asset and not just excess baggage. The school's students can benefit from working with the archival records and the school itself can benefit from closer ties with the associated mission agency. The Yale Divinity Library has accepted custodianship of the archival records of various organizations over the years. In some cases we have requested financial assistance from the organization to help pay for processing and storage of the records. In other cases, we have been happy to take on the task of caring for the records without any financial arrangement because we feel the records are of such high value to the students and researchers who use our library.

Many seminaries and church colleges are eager now to include global perspectives in their curriculum so that their students have a fuller understanding of the Christian faith. The World Christianity Interest Group of the American Theological Library Association recently conducted a survey of faculty members in theological institutions associated with the ATLA, asking them about their efforts and desires to introduce global perspectives into their courses - whether the course was Old Testament, New Testament, Ethics, Theology, or more standard missions history or missiology courses. The results of this survey revealed a substantial interest in including such perspectives, but uncertainty about how to do it. Certainly there will be some situations in which seminaries or colleges and mission agencies can work together to their mutual benefit .

The last hindrance to the collecting of records that I mentioned above was inertia, the "inability to move or begin." There are various reasons why organizations experience inertia when it comes to beginning an archives program. It seems too complicated. We aren't exactly sure how to do it. It means diverting attention from something else. Even the weight of the past can be daunting; we look at the detailed reports, correspondence, and archival records preserved by mission agencies in the 19th century and despair of being able to approach this standard.

The only way to combat inertia is to begin with small steps and not feel that an entire well-funded archival program has to be designed before any action can be taken. There are a series of well-defined steps that any organization can take to start on the path toward fulfilling its obligation to preserve records, including the possibility of designating an educational institution as custodian of the records. We hope that the Guidelines discussed at this consultation will shed light on the various concrete steps that can be taken to break the hold of inertia and get started in the right direction.

I like to think of an archival program as a bridge. The purpose of this bridge is for people to have some basis for getting from the present to the past. Bridges come in many varieties. There are rope bridges strung between mountain chasms, narrow bridges across country streams, giant steel structures across huge rivers and bays. All these types of bridges are appropriate in their individual settings and, just so, there will be a variety of archival programs appropriate for specific settings.

I believe you all received via email the checklist that I usually distribute at the end of my archives seminars. I would like to conclude my presentation with an even briefer checklist - one that I believe is within all our reach as a step out of inertia in the direction of responsible preservation of our records:

In conclusion, archiving is a practical, common sense-driven activity. There is no one right way for things to be done. We just need to do the best we can in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

* * * * * * *

1. The Society of American Archivists (

2. T. R. Schellenberg, Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956.) p. 2.

3. Andrew Walls, "The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture", in The Missionary Movement in Christian History, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996.) p. 9.

4. Ryan Dunch, Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China 1857-1927, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.) p. xvi

5. Cecilia Irvine, "The Documentation of Mission in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries", presented at the Association of Professors of Mission meeting in Dubuque, Iowa. June 8-9, 1975.

6. Walls, "The Nineteenth-Century Missionary as Scholar" , ibid., p. 195.

7. Walls, "Humane Learning and the Missionary Movement", ibid, p. 207-208.

Last Revised: 10/01/01
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005