Memory Work:
A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History

Preserving Archival Material

One of the challenges facing many congregations after they have made a commitment to collecting and using their church’s stories is the task of preserving them for years to come. The following recommendations for the care of various types of records are intended as an introduction. Additional assistance from the ELCA Region 3 Archives is available.


Separate paper items from other types of records, for instance, photographs and audio and video tapes. Even though newsprint is paper, its high acid content makes it necessary to separate it from other paper. If newspaper clippings are to be saved, it is best to photocopy the items on acid-free paper and discard the original newsprint.

Carefully pull paper clips, staples, rubber bands and any other fasteners from the papers. Eventually, these fasteners will damage the paper by rusting, and by tearing or cutting the paper. Plan to store documents that need to belong together in small units in their own well-labeled acid-free folders.

Carefully open and flatten folded items, humidifying fragile or tightly rolled or folded items before flattening them. Please contact the ELCA Region 3 Archives for assistance on the humidifying process.

Air musty items. This applies to all types of records, paper, photographs, and objects like textiles.

Invest in the right materials for permanent storage. Use the listing of archival supply companies included in this guide to purchase archival quality acid-free folders and clear polyester (Mylar) sleeves for photographs (see section on photographs below). Use the same supply houses for the purchase of acid-free storage boxes in letter and legal size.

Consider having church records microfilmed in the ELCA Region 3 Congregational Record Microfilming Program. This will ensure that there is more than one copy of essential records in case of fire or loss. It also saves "wear and tear" on the paper records themselves.


Consider having old, fading and fragile photographs (for example, confirmation pictures) professionally reproduced. If this is not possible, photocopying the original and using the copy for display and research is preferred. Avoid displaying original photographs in sunlit or overly bright spaces. Use copies for this purpose instead. The point is to endanger the original as little as possible.

Separate print photographs, slides and negatives from each other. The different types of chemicals used in the various development processes make it unsafe to store all of these together. Prints may be stored in acid-free folders or envelopes or in Mylar sleeves. They should be kept in a cool, dark place. Slides may be stored in acid-free envelopes or Mylar sleeves. Negatives should be kept in the same sort of storage as the others and with the same cool, dark setting with relatively low humidity. With all of these forms of photo image it is critical to identify and cross-reference them to each other. On the back of print photos use a #2 pencil or the type photography stores sell for this purpose. Slide and negative Mylar sleeves allow labeling. Also, if one is careful, a special pencil is available for labeling directly on the frame of the slide and on the blank area of the negative.

8mm and 16mm films should be cleaned, repaired and transferred to videotape. Do not discard the original films. They have a longer life span than do video tapes.

Audio and Video Materials

Both audio and video tape recordings use magnetic tape for the storage of information. Consequently, their shelf life is not considered very long. It is necessary to rewind the tapes at least twice a year in order to break the magnetic impulses that tend to erase the tapes.

Store audio and video tapes in their plastic cases on wooden shelves upright like books. Metal shelving may speed up the loss of information on the tape.

Plan to transfer the information on the tapes to other new, high quality types periodically. Also, do not assume the types of machines used now will be available in the future. If tapes are an important part of your collection try to keep informed of changes in technology so that tapes may eventually be transferred to the new format.

General Storage Considerations

Storage climate has everything to do with the preservation of archival materials. A space that has minimal temperature variation (tending towards cool is preferred), minimal light and relatively low humidity is ideal.

Access to the congregational archive should be limited to the archives and heritage committee. The space should be locked when not in use. Ideally the space is fire proof with a fire door and double cinder block walls. Check with your local authorities to see what makes a room fire proof. If such a space is not available, fire retardant filing cabinets are satisfactory.

Every church seems to have problems with space. Most churches do not allocate adequate, safe, dry storage for archives. It is the archives and heritage committee's task to encourage the church council and others that the permanent records of the church lost.

Consider applying for regular budget allocations for preservation supplies and equipment. Also, consider asking the memorials committee to suggest the archives and heritage committee for memorial gifts. What preserves the memory of a person’s life better than the stories of that person’s congregation?

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.