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Archivist advises churches to start preserving history

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RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Panic.
That’s what many church leaders feel when a 50- or 100-year anniversary is about to roll around and they realize any historical documents or photographs they might have are buried in the basement of the first pastor. And he passed to glory in 1956.
Bill Sumners, director and archivist for the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, considers churches with any documented history fortunate.
“It’s very, very common for a church not to have a first 50 years of history at all,” said Sumners, who led seminars on collecting and preserving church history at the National Conference for Church Leadership conference, June 26-July 3 at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Baptist Conference Center.
A survey taken several years back through the (uniform church letter) revealed only about one-fourth of Southern Baptist churches have a church history committee, Sumners said. Even fewer archive any documents or photographs.
“And they don’t really worry about it until they are about to celebrate a significant anniversary or if they want to write a church history.”
Without historical documents, Southern Baptists would not know who the first single, female missionary to China was, or who served as the first man to evangelize Jewish people. (Harriet Baker was called to missions in the 1850s and Jacob Gardenhouse served as a home missionary from the 1920s to the late 1940s.)
“We wouldn’t know much about history if it weren’t for archives,” Sumners said.
Southern Baptists owe it to their churches’ first leaders to record history, he added.
“History tells us who we are, and it documents the work of God’s people. The local church did not appear over night. Many people had to sacrifice, give their time and their money to start their churches.
“We need to preserve our church records for the saints who went before us.”
Sumners advised churches with no history committee to start one. If the church has a library committee, the job might naturally fall to it, he said.
Next, he suggested designating “anybody who is interested” as the church archivist or church historian.
Traditionally, the person has been older, Sumners acknowledged, but younger church members or anyone with a love for history could fill the bill. In fact, younger people with technology skills might consider putting some of the information on the church’s Internet web page.
A third step in getting started, Sumners said, is to take any little bit of extra money the church might have and buy equipment or supplies in which to store archival materials, such as filing cabinets, special storage sleeves and boxes, and shelves.
A next step in gathering or preserving archival materials, Sumners said, is to actually identify and gather the materials.
“This can be a treasure hunt for your church members. Search the church. Make an appeal through the newsletter for any collectable materials members might have.”
A list of materials that can be archived, Sumners said, includes:
1. Charter, bylaws, property records, covenant
2. Legal documents
3. Architectural drawings and plans
4. Minutes — business meetings, deacons, committees, WMU
5. Membership records
6. Sunday school records and related records
7. Reports and studies
8. Pastors and staff files/sermons
9. Publications and programs
10. Scrapbooks and clippings
11. Photographs and audio visual material
12. Selected artifacts
13. Subject files on programs and ministries (church history file)
“Once you begin gathering the materials, the archivist needs to settle on a simple index system and catalog the items. It should be simple, because the people who come later may not have a lot of time to spend indexing,” he said.
Additionally, the system needs to be one future archivists can understand.
When preserving archival material, Sumners advised churches to be careful. “Never do something you can’t undo,” Sumners said.
For example, he said, remove paper clips, rubber bands, staples and tape from paper products. Never laminate or use adhesives. Instead, use plastic sleeves to cover fragile materials. Photocopy or microfilm newspaper articles.
Finally, Sumners said an adequate storage place should be found in the church for the archival materials.
“Most of the material, especially newspaper, is very fragile. We need to do all we can to make them last.”
Storage areas should be environmentally controlled, with air conditioning “all the time at best, and most of the time at the least.”
“Don’t store the material in places that tend to flood or in areas that might be in jeopardy.”
Churches interested in learning more about archiving can call Sumners at (615) 244-0344 or e-mail him at [email protected] Archival starter kits can be ordered by calling the same telephone number.