Starting an Archive within a Parish

November 12, 2007


Masqueray drawingArchives traditionally are involved with the records of an organization – in the case of a parish, with the sacramental and administrative records which document its history. But the documentary record of a church is often told by objects, as well as minute books. Sacramental vessels, vestments, and works of art, generally referred to as ephemera within the archives community, have an important place within a parish archives. Within our collection at the Basilica of St. Mary, for instance, we have a three foot tall plaster camel, the last remnant of a crèche set from the 1920s that was winnowed away over the years by incidents of vandalism and neglect. The camel helps to tell the story of where and who we have been.

antique vestmentIt is vital for a parish to provide care for its historic records and artifacts, because these items are the property of the parish, as much as the church building itself. Archival documentation of works of sacred art, vestments, vessels and the like serves several purposes:

» Provides documentation for research and insurance valuation purposes;

» Understanding the nature of the object helps to provide proper handling techniques, storage, and conservation (if needed);

» Proper care of objects may encourage donation of other items of sacred art to the collection.

Choosing a Caretaker for Your Collections

War memorial chaliceMany parishes lack the resources to hire a professionally trained archivist to catalog and oversee their collections. If this is the case, the individual chosen should be educated in basic archival principals and about the types of materials in his/her care. Training opportunities are available through organizations such as:

»   The Archivists of Religious Collections section – Society of American Archivists. This national organization offers a newsletter, links and training opportunities specifically geared towards religious collections.

»  Catholic Library Association. This international organization sponsors workshops and an annual conference.

»  Upper Midwest Conservation Association. This regional organization provides educational opportunities and other resources in the areas of art and conservation.

»  Also check with your local diocese/archdiocese for training opportunities in archival and records management.

Especially if a volunteer or untrained staff member is placed in charge of the archives, it is advisable to form a History or Arts Committee. The Committee should oversee the general activities of the archives, notably any decisions relating to accessions or deaccessions.

Basic Needs for a Basic Archives

» The Space

Painting of the MagiThe ideal environment for an archives is a secure space with a stable climate – the general ideal being 67 degrees Fahrenheit (+/- 2 degrees), with 47% (+/- 2%) humidity.  (Different mediums – paper, photographs, paintings, textiles, metals – vary slightly in their ideal environment). This may not be achievable, but at least aim for stability. Fluctuations of temperature and/or humidity levels cause greater and more immediate damage than long-term existence in a less than ideal (but stable) environment. Collections should be protected from other environmental dangers: exposure to light and airborne pollutants, insects, and human negligence or mishandling.

» Preservation and Conservation of Objects

* Do nothing (marking with pen, gluing, removing pages) that cannot be undone.
* When in doubt, consult a professional conservator.
* Educate yourself on the care of different types of materials. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has a number of excellent online resource pamphlets.
* Store objects and records properly. Two reputable suppliers are University Products (for textiles, paper, photographs & display aids) and Hollinger Corporation (boxes and other storage materials).
* Decide what the value is to your parish – the information contained within, or the object itself (though in many cases, both will be equally important) and base your level of care upon this decision.

» Documentation and Technological Needs

Asian MadonnaAn archives catalog makes items easier to organize, easier to locate, and easier to document. Even a basic Access or Filemaker database can sufficiently document the items in your collection. General categories could include: Title, Description, Acquisition/Donor information, a discrete ID number, Location.

Given the variety of materials usually found within a parish archives, museum collection software provides the best option for those interested in a more complex database. Costs range between $1,000 - $3,000, depending on the needs of the archives. Two reputable programs are Past Perfect and Minaret.

Before investing in technology, assess the needs and resources of your archives (and your parish):

» What kind of collection do you have, and what may be added?
» Who will access/use your collection?
» What (if any) is your budget?
» Who will be entering information in the database? (If done by a team of volunteers, safeguards should be built in to prevent duplication, as well as standardization of terms to ease searching.)

Do not rely wholly on electronic files. Donation receipts and ownership documentation should be kept on paper as well. Remember that the permanency of electronic storage is still a matter of debate. Migrate any electronic files into updated formats whenever the system changes.


Confronted with a storage room full of piles of paper, boxes of vestments, and envelopes of unidentified photographs, the task of starting an archives may seem overwhelming.  It is important to keep the end goal in sight -- a safe, organized, searchable and documented collection of objects and records pertinent to the history of your parish.  Generations to come will thank you for your foresight.

[For a more complete treatment of this topic, see also: "A Brief Guide for Archives of Congregations" from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

Heather Craig serves as archivist at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Photo credits: The images are from among the art and artifacts that are preserved through the efforts of the Basilica of St. Mary Archives; photographer: Mike Jensen, Minneapolis

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