Occasionally the question comes up when I’m talking with someone about what I do in the archives. “So what do you do with all of those papers, files, books, and stuff? How do you catalog them or index everything?”
That’s a good question. When we get a collection, whether it’s a closed church’s records, the files of a conference agency, or the personal papers of an individual, it can take a lot of work to transform it from an unorganized pile of boxes and file folders into something a researcher can use.
Generally, the first thing we have to do is survey the collection. That means that we look through the files and papers, see what topics they cover and what kind of materials are there. From that, we begin to arrange the collection into groups – we archivists call them series – of like materials. Is there correspondence? Do we find biographical materials, or sermons, or financial records? Are there files that record the subject’s community service work, or church work? Generally, after looking through the boxes, an order begins to appear. If we can find some method to the way the person kept their files, we try to keep that – we respect the original order whenever possible.
As we gather like materials into useful groupings, we often will place the letters, photographs, and other documents into new, acid-free folders for better preservation. Once we have arranged the materials, we try to describe what’s in the groupings. Depending on how much time an archivist has to devote to the collection, describing it can get very detailed. Usually we make a list of all of the folders. We box everything up, label the boxes, and put them on the shelf. We write a guide to the collection – we call it a finding aid – that helps a researcher know what subjects might be covered in the collection, what’s in each series, any especially interesting items that are there, and then we add a list of all of the folder labels. That goes on our website, so researchers near and far can find it.
Some people wonder if we’re going to “just scan it all” or “digitize everything.” That’d be wonderful, but it would cost a fortune. We are digitizing more and more content, and we have a new software package that we’ve launched this month that will help us manage more electronic files. We should soon have all of our old Conference Historical Society addresses available for reading and downloading, and later, hopefully all of our ministerial directories, published histories, and conference journals. We already have photos of clergy from 1901 to 1961 on our website. What takes time is keeping track of all the digital files – you have to be able to find it once you scan it!
Agency and local church files are usually smaller collections than some of our personal paper collections. We’re looking to keep the things that are permanently valuable. For a closed church, that’s the membership records, the church council and charge conference minutes, and historical information about the church. For a board or commission, we’ll look for the minutes, reports, and materials that document their programs and activities. Often there’s correspondence and other related information, too. The process of arranging and describing work the same. We’re always looking to add to the collection of board and commission records.
We’ve had several large personal paper donations in recent years. A few years back, the Medlock Family donated the personal papers of the Rev. Melvin K. Medlock, a longtime clergy member of this conference. More recently, the Holler family donated the papers of the Rev. Adlai C. Holler, a former conference secretary. The Rev. Luther Rickenbaker, a retired member of the conference who volunteers in the archives, and I spent the better part of a year working on those files, because it seemed like the Rev. Holler kept everything. Even more recently, the Taylor family donated the papers of the Rev. Eben Taylor. That collection is quite large, and it’s going to take a while to work through, but it will be a great addition to the archives. All of these personal paper collections contain a mixture of sermons, correspondence, and materials that document these ministers’ conference service and ministry.
So, what do we do with all of those papers? We try, as efficiently as possible, to turn them into something that a researcher can use to help tell the story of Methodism in our conference and state, so that people in our future will be able to look back and understand their past.
(This was my Advocate column for October)