Archivists as Connectors – or what I did at SAA

A week or so ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, the professional association for archivists of all types in the United States. The meeting is always filled with talks, panel discussions, section meetings, and the like, and it’s where we get together to exchange ideas. I always come back with some new idea for how to handle some issue related to what I do, or with an idea for something new to try. 

This year, for the first time ever, I was actually on the program. Some colleagues in the Archivists of Religious Collections section proposed a panel on spirituality and the archival enterprise, and we all gave short talks about how we combined faith and our work. My talk was about archivists as connectors – since we Methodists are a connected people.  Here’s what I said:  

Methodism is all about the connection, and the church’s structure is part of what binds Methodists together. Use of the term “the connection” to refer to the church goes back as far as John Wesley, an Anglican priest whose Methodist societies started out as a revival movement within the Church of England. He envisioned an organized system of classes, churches, and Annual Conferences, which are like dioceses, as part of the body of Christ.

Archivists, like Methodists, are connectional.  We sit at the intersection of the past, the present, and the future.  The records that we hold today connect people to their collective past. And as we collect today’s records for tomorrow’s researchers, we connect the present to the future.

Being a connector fits in with my own theology and my own personal and professional ethos. Connectors sometimes have to cross boundaries to bring people and collections together.  I am both a professional archivist and a professional historian. At the college, I’m both professional staff and adjunct faculty. I both maintain and interpret records. I work with laity and clergy alike, trying to anticipate their needs.

Methodists, like some other denominations, have deacons, who are ordained for service, with a mission to connect the church to the world.  Archivists are sort of like deacons – we connect our collections to the broader world. I asked whether the chair of our order of deacons thought archival work would qualify as part of this ministry of a deacon, and she told me that she believed it would.

Professionally, I try to connect people to the best records to aid their research.  As religious archives, we serve the needs of our institutions, of church members researching the history of their congregation, and of course we all want to help them tell the story of their faith. We also have family history researchers who are trying themselves to connect to their past.

Whether it’s in outreach activities like speaking and writing about the collections in the archives, my hope is to give people a sense of that which connects them to the institution – college or church.  Whether it’s trying to tug on the heart-strings of alumni or to give Methodists a sense of their shared history, I want to try to draw them closer to their institutional heritage.

        It’s important not to lose sight of the stories that abound in our collections – and these are the things that can be the most rewarding to share. We all know how documents such as these can give our readers a powerful sense of history. One letter tells the life experience of a slave in South Carolina named Sancho, who was converted to Methodism by the pioneer bishop Francis Asbury. It tells of harrowing treatment at the hands of several masters who didn’t care for early 19th century Methodist zeal. It also recounts one slave owner who allowed him to practice his faith. Written near the end of his life, the letter is a testament of grace and forgiveness; it concluded: It is my prayer day and night that God would pour out his spirit and that he would revive his works abundantly and that it may extend to all people both white and black.  It moved the retired clergyman who helped me transcribe it recently to tears.  Letters like this tell us something about humanity and faith, both then and now.

So maybe some small part of what we’re doing in denominational archives is connecting people with the divine.

The Sancho letter will be featured in my September column in the SC United Methodist Advocate and I’ll blog about it later.  

By Phillip Stone

I've been the archivist of Wofford College and the South Carolina United Methodist since 1999. I'll be sharing college, Methodist, and local history, documents, photographs, and other interesting stories on this blog, which I've been keeping since December 2007.