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Why the UMC needs an archives—it’s not just about history.

Featured Why the UMC needs an archives—it’s not just about history.

BY DALE PATTERSON, UMC ARCHIVIST

The General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH) has been asked to respond to recent proposals on the placement of GCAH in a new denominational structure.

It is always a challenge to respond to a hypothetical, especially when the future overall structure of the denomination is unclear.  GCAH should respond to each petition at the appropriate place and time. 

To understand the purpose of GCAH requires more than reading the mission of GCAH as outlined in the Book of Discipline.  It also requires dispelling general myths about why and how historical records are stored and used.                                   

There are essentially two systems of Archives. Institutional Archives—an organic outgrowth of institutional activity and Special Collections—usually housed within a library, Special Collections actively collect and house records related to people and movements of some prominence related to a particular theme.  Public imagination often focuses on Special Collections.  The word “Archives” usually conjures up the image of a dry, dusty place storing the papers of important people or “great” movements.  In popular culture, archival discoveries that make headlines invariably focus on an individual.  For example, almost all of the historical images on display at a recent historical celebration were of individuals.  And yet, for that one person to be “great,” they were supported by an entire administrative system that made their work possible. An institutional archives illustrates that it is not just “great people” that affect lives and cultures, but the creative work of committees and communities which encourage and prepare the way for those great leaders.

That is why institutional archives are vital.  GCAH is an institutional archives.  Institutional archives are the oldest of archives, being found in all cultures dating back to the beginning of civilizations five thousand years ago.  The institutional archives collects the records of an institution and in so doing provides a memory for that institution.  It allows the institution to know what it has done, when it did it, and why.  Out of this flows history, transparency and accountability.  It gives the context for judgement and assessment in all three of the preceding categories: for historical judgement, for when we are accountable for what we do, and when others need to know and understand how our decisions were made and actions taken.  

Removing the Archives from the denomination will severely impact the denomination's records management function.  Without a mandated requirement for collecting or preserving records, the published material created by the denomination may, or may not be preserved.  Records which explain the purpose of its ministry and those which document its functions will likely be lost.   This also means that the denomination's history, along with transparency and accountability, will suffer.  Benign neglect of records carries a significant legal and fiscal cost.  It will be more challenging and expensive for researchers to access the church’s archival materials, wherever they may be.  Without active collection and deposit of the archival record to a central location (physical or digital—both require expertise and maintenance) researchers will need to visit and/or contact each individual agency as well as several universities.  The loss of accessibility will impact the hallmark of the records—openness and transparency.  These records are currently open and available to all. 

The archives is not ancillary to the mission of the church—it keeps the records of its actions and its context.  It documents what, how, and why various actions were taken and it crucially documents responsibility for those actions.