Creating Our Church Archives, Part II: Sorting & Inventorying
After accumulating documents, photos, ledger books and files for over 100 years, the small town church I belong to decided it was time to get organized, and take steps to preserve its heritage. Toward this goal, the call went out for volunteers to form a “Historical Committee.” Evidently not everyone was as excited about this project as I was, because we ended up with just a two-person committee. This has turned out not to be a bad thing – because with just the two of us, it doesn’t take us long to reach a consensus!
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept it... Our mission was to take the cabinets full of boxes and files and from them create a Church Archives. We initially had two main goals: the first was to organize the contents in such a way that someone looking for a specific item could find it, and the second was to take the necessary measures to preserve the various documents, photographs, books, and more.
Neither my partner nor I had any archival experience – just a love of our church, its history and respect for the people who came before us. So I started doing some online research, to see if there were any websites that could provide us with guidance. One of the best that I found was the website for the Southern Baptist Library & Archives. Although we are not a Baptist church, the principles in creating a church archive are the same, regardless of the denomination. Another resource that I found helpful is Sally Jacob’s blog, The Practical Archivist.
Phase One: To begin with, we just started sorting. We opened the boxes, and laid the contents out in piles on the floor, sorting them by broad categories such as: Membership, Christian Education, Photos, Correspondence, Church Council, etc. Eventually, we ended up with about 25 of these "categories." For me, this was one of the best parts of the project. Every time we opened up a new box, we never knew what we might find! Sometimes it would be full of hardbound "ledger" books, used for keeping the handwritten minutes of council meetings (the earliest ones written in German). Some boxes had copies of church service bulletins, going back forty years or more. Other boxes had photo albums and newspaper clippings. But no matter what, the boxes all contained glimpses back in time and mentions of familiar names….often the parents and grandparents of the people who are currently the oldest members of our church today.
Phase Two: The next step was creating a database inventory. Although I’m sure there are software programs out there that are designed for recording archival information, we needed to be frugal – so we just created our own using an Excel spreadsheet. The inventory process has been the slowest part of the project. We’ve been working on it weekly for more than a year and half, and are not yet quite done!
One category at a time, we’ve been going through all the boxes and files, adding the items to the database. We offer a general description of the name of the item or file, relevant dates, the category that it’s filed under, the location in which we’ve filed it, and any miscellaneous notes that seem applicable. The first thing we noticed was that many of the items lent themselves to more than one category! So while we filed the item under the category that we thought was the most appropriate, we also cross-referenced it in the database under its second category.
In all honesty, this part of the project could have been completed more quickly if my partner and I weren’t so fascinated by all of these historical items! It takes a lot longer to sort and file items if you feel the need to stop and read the minutes of the meeting from 1945 because you recognize the name of the recording secretary at the bottom of the page!
After working on the cataloging part of this project for more than a year, my partner and I are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. One of the nice things is that we’ve already found that our database inventory system is working. More than once, we’ve come across a file or document, only to recognize that we’ve seen something similar a few weeks ago. A quick trip to the database and a search on a likely keyword has led us right to the proper storage box or file cabinet drawer!
Phase Three: Once this portion of our project is complete, we are excited to look to the future. The next phase will include finding ways to make the information in the archives available to our congregation, while still protecting these fragile documents. We may transcribe some of the records, and make digital images of others. If you have been involved in a similar project, I welcome your comments and advice!