Create a Historical Archive with Publicity, Planning

By Donald E. Skinner

The archives of First Universalist Church, Denver (609 members), used to be one of its best-kept secrets. Tucked away in boxes in a basement room, few knew the historical documents were there.

But they took on new life several years ago when a new-member class rescued them and began a process that has led to their widespread visibility and use. A member of that class was Mary Mallett, a former librarian who has become church archivist. Mallett and others informed the congregation about the archives with newsletter notices and through Archive Sunday, an annual service including costumed characters from the church's history.

The publicity generated a flow of information including a collection of papers from the estate of a 98-year-old member whose father had been the first clerk of the church in 1891. "Since then, it just amazes me the number of people who have given us things," says Mallett. "People are thinking twice about throwing things away."

"It just snowballed," says Edward Carroll, another member of the archive committee. "Once people figured out we were taking good care of the church's history, we got inundated.

"The most important thing to do when developing an archive is to have the support of the congregation," says John Hurley, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) archivist and director of information. "Get approval from the governing board for an archives committee which has a clear mission for its work." He notes it's often easiest to begin this work connected to an upcoming anniversary.

Hurley has presented a workshop at General Assembly on preserving church records and writing church histories. He says, "The very first thing to be done is to create an inventory of all archives and artifacts. Next, any items that are in danger should be considered for preservation work."

Other tips:

  • Take photos of "ordinary" as well as significant church events and make sure they're labeled, says Joyce Holmen, a lifelong member of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Community Church of Santa Monica, CA (421), who edited the church's history at the time of its 70th anniversary.
  • Include children and youth. Have them make scrapbooks of a class activity or other event, says David Nicklin, archivist at First Unitarian Church of Omaha, NE (255).

Records at First Parish, Needham, MA (202), go back to the early 1700s. The most valuable ones are kept in a fireproof room at the city library. Others are stored at the church in a safe and in steel cabinets, says Ruth Sutro, church historian. The archives committee meets weekly to file photographs, newsletters and other documents.

In 1980 the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, OH (226), enlisted the city's historical society to help catalog and preserve its records and to make them available to qualified users of their library.

That has made it possible for the church historian, Walter Herz, to undertake a project called Let Freedom Ring, First Church's Journey of Reconciliation, about the church's relationship with African Americans since 1830. Herz notes, "Local and/or county historical societies are the most appropriate resource regarding the why, what, how and where of record preservation. They are generally delighted to provide advice and assistance."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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