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Developing an Archival Program

It is the commission’s task to direct and develop the conference archival program. This does not mean that the commission is responsible for the day-to-day operations of its archives. Rather, the commission sets the overall policy and direction of the archives, monitors the archival program, and maintains appropriate contacts with necessary personnel and institutions. The commission can accomplish these tasks most effectively with a series of policy statements and by-laws that set the tone and direction of the commission’s work.

Policies and Forms

Mission Statement

One of the first official statements you should develop is a mission statement. A mission statement should be brief, usually no more than a few paragraphs. It states why the archives program exists. If you prefer, the mission statement can be broadened to state the rationale for the entire program of the commission. This statement should always be concise and clear. It is helpful to begin with language from The Book of Discipline, which you can summarize or expand upon. Perhaps your commission has a special interest in the personal papers of clergy, or religious periodicals, or denominationally related schools – that is to say, in some specific aspect of your conference’s history. This can be included in your mission statement.

The mission statement is the guiding principle in your work as a commission. This document should be placed before the conference, included in the conference journal, and referred to whenever the opportunity arises. Below is a sample mission statement that you may wish to adapt for your purposes.

    It shall be the duty of the commission to collect and preserve the historically significant records of the Annual Conference and its agencies, including data relating to the origin and history of the conference and its antecedents.

Collection Policy Statement

The next document you should create is a collection policy statement. A collection policy statement is built from the mission statement. It is a detailed description of how the mission will be carried out. The mission statement helps the commission and others understand what the commission does, while the collection policy statement deals with how the commission does its job.

The collection policy statement assists the archivist with the acquisition of materials. While it is clear that conference agency records will go to the archives, the policy will clarify which records will be collected, and if conference publications will be collected along with personal papers, books, periodicals, and audiovisuals. In short, the collection policy statement describes how broadly, or narrowly, the commission will collect. For example, if the commission collects personal papers, there should be guidelines as to what will be accepted. The commission may not wish to accept every deceased clergyperson’s Bible. The collection policy statement is a tool which enables the archivist to accept or reject material in a consistent manner, and to focus on the collection priorities mandated by the commission. A sample collection policy statement follows:

The Annual Conference Commission on Archives and History

1. Shall collect material relating to the origin and history of the conference and its antecedents. This will include:All official publications of the conference,All minutes of the conference boards and agencies,Records of the conference office,Reports of the District Superintendents and conference camps and conference schools,Published and written histories of the Annual Conference and its antecedents2. Maintain the historical records of all abandoned or discontinued churches in the bounds of the Annual Conference and its antecedents [and the historical records of any active church that so requests it].3. Personal papers of clergy, missionaries, deaconesses, and lay people associated with the conference and its activities may be donated to the conference archives. The archives will accept manuscripts and printed material related to the history of the Annual Conference, United Methodism, and their antecedents.

Access and Use Policies

Another important set of statements are the access and use policies. These documents amplify ideas found in the mission statement. It is important to remember that the archival profession and The United Methodist Church are both in favor of open access to open records balanced with an appropriate level of concern for privacy. The Code of Ethics for Archivists states, “Archivists…encourage use of [their holdings] to the greatest extent compatible with institutional policies.” The Book of Discipline in paragraph 722 states that all meetings of all agency boards are open, with the following exceptions: “real estate matters; negotiations, when general knowledge could be harmful to the negotiation process; personnel matters; issues related to the accreditation or approval of institutions; discussions relating to pending or potential litigation or collective bargaining; communications with attorneys or accountants; deployment of security personnel or devices and negotiations involving confidential third-party information.” It further states, “Documents distributed in open meetings shall be considered public.” This means that those records are open to researchers. At the same time there must be a fixed time limit for closed records. Personnel records, if saved, should be closed for 75 years, or until the death of the individual. Other closed records should be closed for no more than 10 to 25 years.

The following access policy is used by the General Commission on Archives and History:

 1. Researchers need to contact the General Commission on Archives and History in order to arrange their visit.  

2. Administrative records of a general agency are closed for a twenty-five (25) year period. Agency personnel files are closed for a seventy-five (75) year period. Non-agency collections are governed by their individual restrictions. For individuals wishing to look at more current documents, an appeal, in writing, must be made to the Archivist at the General Commission on Archives and History.  

3. Permission to quote from material in our collections must be obtained by the researcher from the General Commission on Archives and History. The researcher is responsible for compliance with all copyright regulations.  

4. Permission to photocopy depends upon the condition of the material and the number of items requested. There are photocopying charges. All reproduction will be done by the archives staff.

The Use Policy describes what the researcher is allowed to do with the records once access has been gained. It discusses how much material can be used at any given time; whether photocopying is permitted; proper procedures for getting permission to quote or otherwise use the material; whether coats, packs, cases, or purses are allowed in the reading room; and, of course, prohibits food and drink in the archives. This document can also list photocopying and other reproduction charges, though that is perhaps best left to a separate handout. The Use Policy is the conference archives’ most “practical” document. It details the expectations of researchers’ behavior and states what the commission will permit to be done to its material. While you may wish to leave the actual crafting of this document to your archivist, the commission should be aware of, and give approval to, its contents. The General Commission’s policy is as follows:

Policy on the Use of Records

   1. One volume or one container of records will be issued to each patron at one time. When the use of that volume or box is completed it will be returned to the reference desk and another volume or box obtained. A patron may request more than one container or one volume; these will be held at the desk with only one container or volume in use at a time. 

2. When the patron has completed his or her work or is leaving the room temporarily the container or volume shall be returned to the person in charge. 

3. Manuscripts may not be marked or otherwise altered or defaced. 

4. Only pencils may be used when taking notes. 

5. All manuscripts and volumes are to be placed on the tables. They are not to be held in the lap or propped against the edge of the table. 

6. Only one container or one folder of loose papers may be opened at one time in order to avoid mixing. 

7. Papers are not to be rearranged under any circumstances. If a patron thinks something is out of order, she or he should call it to the attention of the archivist. 

8. Brief cases, coats, notebooks, envelopes, and folders may not be taken into the Research Room. They will be stored in lockers. 

9. Smoking, eating, or drinking is not permitted in the Research Room. 

10. The patron is responsible for compliance with all copyright regulations. 

11. Anyone who violates these regulations may lose access privileges to the Archives.

I agree to abide by these regulations.


Job Description

A job description for the archivist is a useful and necessary tool. If your conference has a personnel manual or list of jobs, then it is wise to get your archivist’s job description included in that manual. The job description, like your collection policy statement, needs to be specific enough to give the archivist direction in doing her or his task and to allow you to have a reasonable gauge of job performance, but should avoid being too prescriptive (e.g. archivist must turn out lights when leaving at end of the day).

The job description should also state some of the important job qualifications you want your archivist to have. It should include qualifications, relationship to the conference structure and staff, expected general archival duties (e.g. acquiring, processing, and managing collections and record groups in an approved archival manner; creation of finding aids), the type of reference work expected (e.g. dealing with conference offices, genealogies, general research, technical preservation, or conservation matters from the local church). The job description will vary according to your local needs and should be flexible enough to accommodate change and growth in the archives program. It should be reviewed often.

Even if the archivist is employed by a local college or university it is wise for the commission to create such a document, if for no other reason than to be able to have informed discussions and negotiations with the school when necessary. The example below should not be thought of as comprehensive, but rather as a starting point.

TITLE: Archivist

REPORTING RELATIONSHIP: Commission on Archives and History

PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITIES:Administer the conference archives: develop/implement records management plan for conference agencies, offices; solicit/receive collections; arrange/describe collections; create finding aids.

Administer reference service: provide research assistance to conference staff, local church historians, family historians, others; assist local churches in establishing and servicing congregational archives.

Administer routine activities of the commission: prepare for meetings; prepare mailings of notices, membership lists, minutes, etc.

Administer special activities and projects of the commission: preparing publications; naming/marking historic sites; organizing workshops, tours, etc.

Represent the conference’s archival interests in United Methodist connectional activities, particularly the [name of jurisdictional Commission on Archives and History or historical society].

Represent the conference and denomination in regional archival circles, particularly organizations and gatherings of archivists of religious institutions.

QUALIFICATIONS:Certification by the Academy of Certified Archivists OR bachelor’s degree plus advanced archival training either in a master’s degree program or archival workshop OR bachelor’s degree plus two years or more of archival work experience that encompasses both processing and reference service.

HOURS: [list number of hours per week ]

Deed of Gift

A variety of forms are needed in an archives. The design of some, such as the accession register, are best left to the archivist. However, the donor form, or deed of gift, should be designed by the commission and reviewed by the conference’s legal counsel before it is put to use. A deed of gift is used when someone gives personal papers or items to the archives. It provides for the complete transfer of ownership to the archives. Such a change in ownership is necessary in order for the archives to make the collection available to the public in a timely and convenient manner. Before any gift is formalized, the archives should provide potential donors with information about the implication of their gift. The Society of American Archivists has prepared a helpful brochure for donors (see below for address).

Note: a deed of gift is never used with conference records. This is because all records created by any conference agency are owned by the conference, not any individual, and the records are not given to the archives. Rather, the custodianship of the records is transferred from one agency to another, as provided by The Book of Discipline.

The following form is used by the General Commission on Archives and History:


State & Zip:

conveys without reservation to The General Commission on Archives and History and its successors and assigns the following materials:(Description ) (Or, see attached) as an unrestricted gift, and transfer(s) to The General Commission on Archives and History all legal title, copyright, literary property rights, and all other rights in the materials I/we hold in them except as noted below; the said gift to be administered by The General Commission on Archives and History.(Restrictions or exceptions, if any)

I/we agree that any items in the materials described which are believed to be inappropriate to the holdings of The General Commission on Archives and History shall be disposed of by the Archivist/Records Administrator as he/she sees fit.

The General Commission on Archives and History in return undertakes to house, care for, and otherwise administer these materials in the best interest of impartial scholarship, subject to the conditions specified above.

Signature of donor(s)
Title (if rep. of organization or business)
Signature of Archivist
Date of receipt of gift

The Archival Facility

The commission needs to address the relationship of the archives and the archivist to the conference. The two major issues are where will the archives be housed and who will employ the archivist. Three different arrangements exist in Annual Conferences across the denomination:

  • The conference provides space for the archives (usually in the conference office) and hires the archivist.
  • The conference contracts with a local college (usually the conference school, but not always) for storage space and the college provides the archivist. In this case the conference needs to reach an agreement with the college on costs, storage of archival materials, access to the collection, and the amount of time the college’s archivist will be assigned to work on the collection. Often the commission’s original wishes may need to be modified during the negotiations, so it is important to have a preliminary collection policy and job description in place. If such a relationship already exists then it is necessary to review the contractual arrangement on a regular basis as well as to maintain open communications between the conference and the school.
  • Often the archives is stored at a local college and the archivist is employed by the conference and allowed to work with the collection. While this type of arrangement is necessary in some cases, it is not ideal; the lines of responsibility are too easily blurred and confused.

As you think about storage space for the archives, consider the following:

1. General considerations for archives facilities:

    a. The archives should be located in a fire-resistant or fireproof building and equipped with fire extinguishers.

    b. Temperature and humidity conditions should be maintained as constant as possible. Since most archives store many different types of material together, each with different optimum storage conditions, it will be impossible to provide ideal conditions for all material. Suggested ranges: Temperature: 60-70F (16-21C). Relative humidity: 40%-50%.

    c. The doors to archives areas should have locks; access to keys should be strictly limited.

    d. The archives should be equipped with a heat and smoke detector system and preferably a water detector system.

    e. The archives should be protected by a security alarm system.

    f. If there are windows in the archives, they should be covered with ultraviolet screening and heavily curtained.

    g. If fluorescent lighting is used in the archives, it should be covered with ultraviolet filter screens, particularly in display areas and areas in which archival material is stored on open shelves.

    h. The archives should be located near a loading dock.

    i. The archives should be located near running water.

2. Considerations for a reading room where access and use may be supervised and restricted:

    a. The reading room should be near the stacks.

    b. The reading room should accommodate several users.

    c. The reading room should be well lighted and appropriately furnished for quiet study. The furniture should not have places where persons can conceal archival material.

    d. The reading room should also contain guides to the collection; a desk and chair for supervisory personnel; an area for checking book bags, briefcases, and coats; and an area for registering visitors.

3. Considerations for other area requirements:

    a. Archives require a stack area where access can be limited to archives personnel. The size of the stacks will be determined by the present size of the holdings and the number of annual accessions.

    b. An area must be provided for processing unorganized collections. This area should be separated from both the reading area and the stacks. A regular office may serve this function. It should have shelving, a large flat table, a chair, and enough space to accommodate the staff and supplies used for processing.

4. Equipment

    a. Shelving should be provided for present holdings plus five years’ projected accessions.

    b. Shelving should be metal with adjustable shelves of adequate width and load-bearing capacity.

    c. Special storage equipment for oversize items such as large photographs, maps, and blueprints should be provided, as well as appropriate filing cabinets as needed.

Resources to accomplish the task: Membership in various professional organizations will give you access to published resources and training opportunities.

The Society of American Archivists, 17 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60602-4061  (312) 606-0722. Write or call for a catalog. 

Titles published by the SAA include:

  • Keeping Archives, second edition edited by Judith Ellis (Now on Amazon)
  • Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives, edited by Gregory S. Hunter

Archival Fundamentals Series II:

  • Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts, by Kathleen D. Roe
  • Managing Archival and Manuscript Repositories, by Michael J. Kurtz
  • Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts, by Frank Boles
  • Preserving Archives and Manuscripts, by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler
  • Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts, by Mary Jo Pugh
  • Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, by James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Cox
  • A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, compiled by Lewis J. Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo

The American Association for State and Local History, 1717 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37203-2991 (615) 320-3203; FAX: (615) 327-9013;; Write or call for a catalog.

The AASLH publishes a wide range of books, pamphlets, and technical leaflets that address a wide range of issues in the historical community, including archival management, oral history, fundraising, public relations, collection care, and exhibit design.

State, county, and other regional historical organizations frequently provide training and resources for archival management. Contact your local library or historical society for further information.

The General Commission on Archives and History offers occasional skill-building workshops for archivists. Workshops are publicized on the commission’s website.

Sources for archival supplies:

Conservation Resources International, Inc. 5532 Port Royale Road, Springfield, VA 22151Telephone: 800-634-6932 FAX: 703-321-0629

Hollinger Metal Edge 9401 Northeast Drive, Fredericksburg, VA 22408Telephone: 800-634-0491FAX: 800-947-8814
or 6340 Bandini Blvd., Commerce, CA 90040 Telephone: 800-862-2268FAX: 888-822-6937

University Products, Inc.  517 Main St., Holyoke, MA 01040 Telephone: 800-628-1912FAX: 800-532-9281 

Archival Methods,         Rochester, NY,   Telephone: 866-877-7050,  FAX: 585-334-7067,

Records Management

In order that our future may have a past, we need to be concerned about preserving the records of today. Preservation and selection of current records is the heart of a records management program.

A records management program is much broader in scope than an archives administration policy administered by a conference commission. Records management provides directives to manage records from the time of their creation through their distribution, use, retention, storage, retrieval, protection, preservation and ultimate disposition. Within the context of records management policies, archives administration procedures would activate as a result of retention schedules identifying the permanent non-current records and papers.

Needless to say, such a program, to be successful, involves a premium commitment of time on the part of conference staff (both paid and volunteer), and the design and receipt of a budget to assure the completion of the tasks assigned both to keep current and active records in a professional way with the application of filing techniques, forms analysis and correspondence management; and to prepare the records for their proper and legal destruction and/or their permanent retention storage and preservation in an archives under the supervision of the conference Commission on Archives and History.

Your conference Commission on Archives and History can be instrumental in creating a conference-wide task force to study the feasibility of establishing a records management program to select what facets are best suited to manage the records of the Annual Conference. Such a task force will involve representatives of the major records creators of the conference. This includes the cabinet, the full time conference staff, the standing boards and commissions as well as the directors of benevolent homes and camps. However, the most important resource persons on this task force will be lay persons presently working within the bounds of the Annual Conference as professional records managers. In this way, the unmistakable need dialogues with professional expertise. As a result, the task force will generate a procedures policy to address all segments of records management including the writing and enforcement of retention schedules for all conference records.

The General Commission on Archives and History functions as a clearinghouse to keep the various Annual Conferences informed of the up-to-date activity among the Annual Conferences currently designing a program. The General Commission has created guidelines for establishing a conference records program. Contact the commission to obtain a copy of these guidelines, titled Guidelines to Managing Records for the Local Church and Annual Conference or click this link to access a free online version. However, each conference is responsible for its own program.

Resources for records management:

Contact ARMA International, The Association of Records Managers and Administrators, Inc.,11880 College Blvd., Suite 450, Overland Park, KS 66210. Telephone: 800-422-2762; Fax: 913-341-3742; E-mail:; This association can provide you with the most current bibliography for reading as well as information about a correspondence course on records management.

Library Guidelines

Each Annual Conference should establish a library as part of its historical center at the conference office or at the site of its archival depository. A full-scale United Methodist research library ought not be attempted. Within the boundaries of each jurisdiction, the libraries of the several United Methodist theological seminaries, colleges, and universities fill this need. Commission members and staff should be acquainted with those collections and know how to refer persons to those libraries for assistance. If your conference archives is housed at a college or seminary, your library needs will be different than for an archives housed in a conference office.

Whatever your circumstances, the following guidelines can help you design a coherent library collection policy:

There are several important denominational resources:

    * The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions. Try to acquire these materials for all of the predecessor denominations that were active in your conference as well as for The United Methodist Church.    * General Minutes of the Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church.    * As space or need allows, General Conference journals and the Daily Christian Advocate. Try to acquire these materials for all of the predecessor denominations that were active in your conference as well as for The United Methodist Church.

It is also essential to collect those publications that document the history of your Annual Conference (and its predecessors). These include:

    * histories of your Annual Conference and region, including regional studies written by secular historians.    * journals of your Annual Conference and its predecessors.    * journals of Annual Conferences contiguous to yours. It is not necessary to collect full sets of all Annual Conference journals across the denomination.    * also, books written by and about episcopal leaders, clergy, and laity in your Annual Conference and its predecessors.

Periodicals are an invaluable resource, providing detailed information about the ministries of your Annual Conference and its churches that often is not available anywhere else. Titles to collect include:

    * your Annual Conference newspaper. This is a must!    * denominational magazines and periodicals, if space and need permit. Some titles are NewscopeInterpreterCircuit RiderMethodist HistoryNew World Outlook, and Quarterly Review.    * journals and newspapers of historic interest, if space and need permit. For your information, the following are available on microfilm:      Christian Advocate (New York), [Methodist Episcopal Church]      Christian Advocate (Nashville), [Methodist Episcopal Church, South]      Methodist Recorder (Baltimore), [Methodist Protestant Church]      Evangelical Messenger (Cleveland), [Evangelical Association/Church]      Religious Telescope (Dayton), [United Brethren in Christ]

Finally, it is your responsibility to encourage every local church in the Conference to send your library a copy of its most recent history, yearbook, directory, and charge conference report, as well as any previously published copies that may be available.

Through GCAH’s website and other channels, let your needs for specific items be known. In turn, publicize lists of duplicate items you are willing to share with others. Consider working with other persons in your jurisdiction to arrange an exchange program.

For further information in implementing your development policy, write the Librarian on the staff of the General Commission on Archives and History, P.O. Box 127, Madison, NJ 07940;  The librarian can help you locate sources, addresses, prices, and other information.


You may wish to develop exhibits at the archives, conference headquarters, or other denominational locations. You may also be asked to do an exhibit for Annual Conference, a local church’s anniversary celebration, or another special event.

You do not have to spend money or be an expert technician to create a good exhibit. The smallest one-case exhibit can be very successful if it makes the artifacts on display relevant to the visitor. A good exhibit stimulates the imagination and challenges the intellect. It uses basic facts (names, dates, and places) as the building blocks of historical interpretation: comparison, contrast, insight, explanation, and evaluation.

The first step is deciding what story to tell. You may decide to display a collection of photographs, commemorate a specific United Methodist anniversary, or profile women clergy in the conference. The choice of theme depends on the strengths of the collection and the needs and interests of your audience.

How can items from the collection (documents, photographs, books, newspapers, artifacts) tell the story in a creative way? A saddle bag is more than a saddle bag. Who used it? Why was it used? What was its function? What does it tell us about its owner?

Labels are a vital part of the exhibit. They are the visitor’s main source of information and interpretation. Objects seldom speak for themselves. They must be placed in some sort of historical and cultural context; this is the function of the labels.

A label should be readable! Use short declarative sentences. Keep your longest labels shorter than seventy-five words. Avoid the passive voice or convoluted language. Make your language specific and personal. For example, a label accompanying a saddle bag might read: “Saddle bag used by John Smith, a circuit rider in western Kentucky.” However, a visitor would learn much more from a label which reads: “A circuit rider was always on the road, never stopping long in one place. His saddle bag was his suitcase, library, bank, and closet, convenient enough to carry on horseback. John Smith travelled his 400 mile circuit in western Kentucky from 1820 to 1840 with his horse and this saddle bag his constant companions.”

As you ready the exhibit, remember the old adage that less is more. Don’t clutter the case(s) with artifacts or labels; visitors will be confused, not impressed. The eye travels most naturally from left to right. Remember this as you decide on the placement of the exhibit items and the labels. Balance creativity and artistic impulses with logic and practicality.

Consider the effects of light, dust, handling, and other environmental factors on the display items. Do whatever you can to protect fragile and valuable artifacts. In the case of documents, you may wish to display a good-quality photocopy instead of the original. With rare or very fragile photographs, consider having duplicates made by a professional photographer. Use archival quality (acid-free) mats with documents and photographs. Avoid the use of tape, paper clips, or other visible fasteners when placing labels in the case(s).

If you do not have any exhibit cases, or if you are designing a table-top exhibit for a meeting or special event, try to make sure that the material will be as safe as possible from inquisitive hands, cups of coffee, cookie crumbs, bright lights, dirt, and smoke. You do not want to put barbed wire around the exhibit, but it is important to take sensible precautions. In these instances especially, consider using reproductions instead of originals.

The American Association for State and Local History has many helpful publications for persons doing exhibits on a shoestring. Write for a catalog: 1717 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37203-2991 (615) 320-3203; FAX (615) 327-9013;; .

Oral History

An oral history project is an exciting way to preserve the personal stories of women and men and give them the chance to tell you “what it was really like.” Thanks to modern technology – tape recorders and video cameras – future generations will hear people’s words in their own voices, with the shading, nuance, and emphasis that give language its emotion and richness. In the process, you will be adding invaluable data to your conference archives.

An oral history project can be a brief, one-time effort. An anniversary celebration, the installation of a new seminary president, or the dedication of a conference camp are events that draw large numbers of people who may be willing to spend thirty minutes with an interviewer. It is more likely, however, that you will want to do some in-depth interviews with selected subjects. This may well be a long-term project requiring some special funding for equipment and training.

How to begin? First, you will need to answer some basic questions. Who should you interview and why? What are the goals of the oral history project? How will it be funded and what will be the end result? What is the timeline for the project? Who will do what tasks? A good oral history project needs solid, thorough planning.

Set goals for each interview: What should the interview accomplish? What issues should the interview address? What will this interview add to the historical record?

Next, recruit your interviewees. You may wish to concentrate on retired clergy, but consider including lay persons who have been active in the Annual Conference. Missionaries and deaconesses, clergy spouses, and “pioneers” (first Hispanic clergyperson, first male clergy spouse, first youth delegate to General Conference, etc.) are all appropriate subjects for interviews. Make the initial contact by letter, if at all possible. Outline the purposes of the oral history project and give some details about the process, particularly what is expected of the subject. Follow-up with a telephone call. This allows each person to react to your letter and ask questions about the interview.

It is imperative that you know your history! With good preparation, you can ask pertinent questions, untangle inconsistencies, and confidently guide the interview. Your own conference archives has resources which will be useful in your preparation, particularly Annual Conference journals and Annual Conference newspapers. For persons who have served the general church as missionaries, bishops, or other prominent positions, you may wish contact the General Commission on Archives and History to supplement your own sources. Your subject may also have scrapbooks or other memorabilia that she or he will permit you to study in preparation for the interview.

It is also important to be well informed about the history of your town, your region, and the country so that you can put questions into historical context. Begin the interview by simply stating your name, the date, the subject’s name, and the general subject of the interview (Rev. Jones’ career in the ministry, for example). The first questions should be easy ones, such as date and place of birth, family background, and so on. Ask one question at a time, and give the interviewee plenty of time to respond. Be an active listener; pick up on what gets said and ask follow-up questions. Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer, but remember that you are in charge of the interview – don’t let the conversation get sidetracked. It is valuable to hear individual stories; it is also helpful to hear different people’s answers to the same questions. Allow your interviewee to talk about the negative as well as the positive; you want a full picture of a situation, not just “happy history.” Try to strike a balance between personal reminiscence, opinion, and fact.

The interview process is a sensitive one. The person you interview may reveal more than she or he intended; it is good to feel so comfortable that you both forget the tape recorder is on, but make sure that the interviewee is aware that the conversation will be preserved for others to hear. Avoid “off the record” comments.

Oral history and printed resources complement each other, and tape-recorded recollections often contain information not found in the written record. However, all documents have strengths and weakness as tools for reconstructing the past. An oral history interviewer has a special responsibility to the historical record, for he or she is helping to create an historical document. It is important, then, that the interviewer’s attitudes, opinions, and feelings be kept out of the interview process.

Technical Details

Test your equipment before going to the interview and again after you arrive. If you are using an outside microphone, do not pass it back and forth while recording. Use good quality, sixty-minute cassette tapes. Longer tapes are more likely to break, and shorter ones do not provide enough time on each side. Remember that cassette tapes have a few seconds of “lead time,” so do not begin recording the moment you turn on the machine. When a cassette reaches the end of a side, turn it over to side two without rewinding it. Store the cassette in its case to protect the tape from dust. Never use the same tape for interviews with more than one person or for more than one session of an interview with the same person. Label the tapes: write the narrator’s name and the date on each side of each tape (for example, “Josephine Brown, October 16, 1999, tape 1, side 2.”) If one side of a cassette is blank, write “blank” on that side. Do not store used or unused tapes in a hot, cold, humid, or dusty place. A car’s back window or dashboard, for example, is not the best place to carry tapes to or from an interview.

Remember that an interview is not complete until you have a valid certificate of gift or a release form granting research access to the tape. An example follows this section. An interview is also not complete until a concise summary of the interview has been made. Somewhere, perhaps on the gift form, summarize the contents of the interview in a paragraph. Mention your name, the subject’s name, the date or dates of the interview, and events, times, people, and places discussed. Be specific in the description. See the example form that follows this section.

Resources for an Oral History Project

Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1987.Baum, Willa K. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977.Moss, William. Oral History Program Manual.Oral History Association. Oral History Review. (a periodical)Thompson, Paul. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Oral History Interview Summary Sheet

Date: 7/12/88Subject’s Name: Mary BurtonInterviewer’s Name: Dale PattersonSummary of the interview: (mention the following – events, times, people, and places discussed)Tape: 1 Side: 1ChildhoodEarly educationCollege work at University of DenverTape: 1 Side: 2Preparation for missionary workOverseas work in China and India (1930-1938)Return home and further educationWork of the BoardEND OF TAPE / INTERVIEW

ORAL HISTORY CERTIFICATE OF GIFTGeneral Commission on Archives and HistoryThe United Methodist ChurchP. O. Box 12736 Madison Ave.Madison, NJ 07940973-408-3189

We, the narrator and interviewer, do convey without reservation to the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, its successors and assigns, the tape recordings of interviews recorded on
the ___________ day of __________, 19_____
at _______________________________________, as an unrestricted gift, and transfer(s) to the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, all legal title, copyright, literary property rights, and all other rights, including transcription and publication rights, in the materials we hold in them, except as noted below; the said gift to be administered by the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church.(Restrictions or exceptions, if any)We agree that any items in the materials described which are believed to be inappropriate to the holdings of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church shall be disposed of by the Archivist as he or she sees fit.The General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church in return undertakes to house, care for, and otherwise administer these materials in the best interest of impartial scholarship, subject to the conditions specified above.
Signature of donor(s)
Date __________ 
Subject   ________________________________________ 
Address  ________________________________________
Date __________                    

Interviewer  _____________________________________ 
Address Title ( if rep. of an organization or business)
Signature of Archivist
Date of receipt of gift _________