Memory Work:
A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History

Organizing Congregational Archival Material

People working with congregational records will eventually face the problem of the unidentified piles that they simply inherit. Their task is to bring order out of what appears to be chaos. Unlike business and governmental records where written disposition and retention schedules guide the process of organization, in most churches once the records have left the capable hands of a well-organized church secretary, they may or may not end up in the archives.

In most church settings, it is not all clear how one set of records relates to another or why the records have been retained in the first place. Determining what records are worth keeping is an appraisal function, but suffice it to say that the church secretary is a critical person to have on the side of the archives committee.

It is this person who is present when most record material is created. This person may see the bigger picture and can be helpful in determining the records' value. Sometimes. secretaries are formal members of the committees while at other times they are informally available to the committees for assistance. Whatever the arrangement, a good archives committee will do its best to maintain a fine working relationship with the office staff.

In earlier versions of this manual I suggested that congregational archives committees follow professional archival methods in organizing material. In recent years, having worked with many congregational committees. I no longer think that all of these functions are particularly helpful or necessary for congregational archive committees to worry about. One of these tasks is accessioning. This is the process of numbering and recording items, or a block of record items, for retention in the archives.

This separate function is not needed if some version of the alphabetized note card approach is used. It is important, though, to hold on to the idea behind the accessioning process, i.e., that all materials placed in the care of the archives are accounted for in an inventory that is straightforward and useable. Further, it should be made clear to donors that the archives is not a lending library; once materials have been given to the church archives they belong to the entire congregation under the care and supervision of the archives committee.

Appraisal of Record Groups/Categories

Having accessioned the majority of the inherited records it is necessary to begin organizing the record material. Historical material is of only limited value if it is not in a usable form. This means arranging the records in ways that make them retrievable. At the same time it is important to keep the records in their original order as much as possible. Archival records are produced by offices, divisions and individuals that fit together into an institution's organization. If records from one office are separated and placed in another group of material it is likely that the records will not make sense. If they have been pulled out of their context they will be of much less help to those who need to use them. The ELCA Region 3 Archives Suggestions on Congregational Record Collection gives guidance on the type of records that congregational archives committees might find. It is also helpful to consult an organizational chart for the church or to create one if the church council has not done one. This, along with the piece listed above, will help keep records that belong together in the proper place.

It is probably not surprising that there is a great deal of variety possible in organizational schemes. Some churches have been very technical as to arrangement of records, while others have simply gathered like material together and alphabetized it. Whatever is done, it is essential that the system be simple and consistent. Keep records that came out of the same office together. The ELCA Region 3 Archives Suggestions on Congregational Records Collection provides, in outline form, a list of the types of material a congregation should try to collect. Not every church will have all of the records listed, but the piece may be helpful as a guide to the categories of records most churches will have. It is important to recognize like material and arrange it accordingly.

Arrangement of Records

As indicated above, many churches organize records purely by alphabet in storage boxes or file drawers. This is a good start. However, you still need an inventory of what you hold. This can be done by writing on 3" by 5" cards the heading that corresponds to the folder you are describing. For example, you may have a large amount of material having to do with the choir, so you label your folder(s) "Choir" and fill the folder with old programs, bulletins, etc. See the examples of inventory file cards.

Then on your card place "Choir" as the subject in the upper left hand corner and begin listing the contents of the folder on the right side of the card. You may also need to indicate where these records are stored. Some people list each item in the folder. Others list the type of material in each folder and the years that the documents cover. It all depends on how specific you want to get. If you have more than one folder, number these sequentially. but use the same heading for all of the cards, You can do the same with bound material that would not be stored in folders or file drawers. For example, some churches own bound church council agenda and minutes. Simply make sure that the spine or cover of the book is marked (preferably in pencil) and that it corresponds with the inventory card.

You are then ready to place the inventory cards in a small drawer or recipe card case. The advantage of doing an inventory like this is that it is simple and straight-forward. Having done the cards you do not need to go to the folders themselves to see what they contain. This will save wear and tear on the historical material itself. You simply add cards and number them as needed.

It is important to mention the problem of inventorying material that does not fit, or should not be stored, with folders. This is the case with bound record books, photographs, and videotapes. These should be stored in the most sensible ways possible. The book material should be placed on shelves alphabetically. The photos (if they are not larger than letter or legal size) can be put in file folders in the filing cabinets alphabetically, but in a separate drawer from the paper records. The videotapes should be shelved like books. For preservation sake, it is advisable to keep photographs, papers and audio or video tapes separate from one another. The photo folders, books and tapes need to be labeled the same as the paper records of which they are a part. For example, choir photos need to be labeled "Choir" in pencil on the back of the photo itself and on the folder tab. As indicated above, the same idea applies to bound material, like agenda and minutes. These labels need to correspond to the headings in the card file inventory.

What is important in all of this, though, is to keep your system consistent. It is not so crucial that all like material be physically stored together as it is that your card inventory indicates where the various parts of a collection may be found. This is true of any material that presents special storage needs. You need to indicate on the card where it is to be found. It is still a part of that group of regular paper records, as in the case of the choir example, but for the sake of the good care of the record, it needs to be stored elsewhere. You may also apply this to the situation of important financial papers that are perhaps best kept in the church's vault or safe. Even though you do not physically control them, your inventory needs to tell you, and the people who will follow you. where the materials are to be found.

Memory Work: A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History is prepared by Paul Daniels, Archivist and Curator of the Luther Seminary and ELCA Region3 Archives. ©1991, Revised 1998, 2001 and 2003. Reproduction and sharing is permitted, provided this credit is included.