This column ran in the November issue of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.
Archives conjure up all sorts of image, and in the popular imagination, they usually involve dust.
You probably are thinking of scenes from a movie, maybe an Indiana Jones film where he dashes into a room with lots of shelves and old volumes in search of some bit of information, some item of lost knowledge. Or maybe you’re thinking of a warehouse of boxes, or a small, dark room with someone, probably of advanced age, there to help find some hard to locate bit of information.
The truth is, we don’t really like dust, and we try to keep the books and papers in the various collections as free of it as possible. Archives vary in size, from closet to warehouse. And the types of things in archives aren’t limited to books, but can range from paper files to audio recordings and video tape, from maps to computer files, and from yearbooks to photographs.
Technically, archives are the permanently valuable records of an organization, such as a college, a church, a state, or an annual conference. In our case, they include such things as the conference journals, the Advocate, conference board and commission minutes, agency files, and district records. An archives might also collect materials that relate to its mission, such as books by and about South Carolina Methodism or Methodists, pictorial directories, local church histories, and files on different churches. Taking a broader view, archives to some people are simply the place where the old stuff goes, or where one goes for information about the past.
Our primary focus is on the records of the Annual Conference, though we do have the records of some closed local churches. If you are looking for local church history, the best place to start is in the local church or in the community, though we may be able to help with some statistics, a list of pastoral appointments, and changes in charge lines. We’ve been trying to put pictures of clergy online so that local churches can download them. Some researchers call to ask if we can produce an ancestor’s baptism or marriage record, and anticipate that all of those records are on the internet, ready to be found with a quick Google search. I wish it were that easy. We don’t have the baptism or marriage records for active congregations, nor do we have their church council minutes. If we tried to keep all of that, we would need a warehouse, and anyone who has visited knows we don’t have that kind of space!
Why should your church have an archives? In part, because keeping local church history is the local church’s responsibility. That’s why you have a local church historian and a committee on records and history. The church historian’s job is to take care of the church’s historical records and to make sure that records being produced today – everything from the weekly bulletin or newsletter to the minutes of the church council – are being kept in a safe place.
You can find some help for these tasks on our website: http://www.wofford.edu/library/archives/methodist.aspx. There are links to the collections here in the archives and to resources that will help your church organize its own records. And you can always contact me for guidance. I’ll even remind you to keep the dust out.