It’s a Record, Right?

I’ve discovered that many folks have interesting stories about challenges they have encountered as part of acquiring and processing collections. I have several of my own, the most recent adventure being captured by the camera.


Part of the mission of the archives of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church is the collection of records of churches of the conference that are no longer in existence. Unfortunately, some of these churches closed in the years before the establishment of the current archives and many of the records departed to whereabouts unknown. The Commission on Archives and History for the Tennessee Conference is always on the lookout for “lost” records that may have found their way to other temporary homes. Finding them is sometimes just a small part of the battle.


Carroll Street U.M.C., in Nashville, closed some years ago, and many of its records are among the prodigals. I have had several research questions about Carroll Street,  so awhile back I decided to ask the incumbent archivist, Von Unruh, about missing records. He told me there was very little that had been placed in the repository. He did tell me that he knew of one record, in the form of a marble plaque bearing names of members of the congregation, that was in private hands. Arrangements were made to transfer the plaque to the Tennessee Conference Archives in downtown Nashville. (See photos.) The plaque was large enough that three grown men could not fully lift it off the ground. Thanks to the assistance of Sandy Swift, a courier who loves a challenge and a good cause, the job was accomplished. Several hundred pounds of church “record” are now firmly in place in the collection of the conference. The best means of processing and providing access have yet to be determined.

Jim Havron, current archivist, TN Conf. UMC



Unloading memorial tablet
Unloading memorial tablet
Continuing to unload tablet
Continuing to unload tablet
What do we do with it?
What do we do with it?
Moving Marble Memorial Tablet
Moving Marble Memorial Tablet




Tennessee Conference Oral History Project to Record Preachers and Preachers’ Spouses (Spice?)

The Conference Archives has long collected biographical information on clergy. Now they will be expanding the target of the information as they accept the donations of oral histories recorded as part of a new project to document the clergy through oral history. A small team of oral historians has decided to undertake the recording of both clergy and their spouses as part of a project that will produce broadcast quality, digital format, audio recordings of the interviews. Copies of the recordings will be donated to both the Conference Archives and Southeastern Jurisdiction Heritage Center for research purposes. The participants will get copies and the team will keep archival copies on hard drive and disk, planning on migrating the recordings to newer formats and storage methods as technology advances. The focus on the spouses of clergy is a new thing and will hopefully fill a gap in research material that has existed for some time.

On a related note, the SEJ will be offering its bi-annual preservation training November 14, 2009 at Lake Junaluska, NC. One of the sessions will be on oral history. Should you know of anyone who would like to start such a project, this might be a good opportunity to learn more about it. More contact information will be available here in the future or at the Tennessee Methodist Historians social network. Visit and join at

Tennessee Conference Archives News

That Their Wishes May Be Carried Out: Donor Forms and Other Paperwork In Church Collections

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I suspect that many people in the church today do not understand the importance of paperwork such as deeds of gift, releases and transfers of copyright forms. For some reason we think such things are unnecessary in a church environment. In truth, such things are nothing more than good stewardship. Such paperwork ensures that donations are available for research or other use and that such use cannot be curtailed by some person with a different agenda than the church and donor. These records also help identify the origins of items in a collection, becoming additional sources of information for researchers. Forms help communicate the thoughts, feelings and intent of both donors and the church at the time of the donation. Forms that document items in a collection can save a lot of unnecessary trouble, and can help keep well meaning folk from making mistakes they may live to regret. Examples forthcoming.

I am not, at present, able give names in these instances, but since they are just samples of things that happen frequently in the archives/museum/history world, just let them serve as illustrations of possible scenarios. Each of these has happened, but it is enough for the reader to imagine that they might have happened. Accept them as you will or will not, but they are all cases of which I am personally familiar.

1) A supporter of a historical institution gave a portrait of her ancestor to the institution on the condition that it be displayed in a public area. Later, a relative of hers claimed that the portrait had only been loaned to the institution and that it rightfully belonged to him, as he was her heir. (It was valuable, and this is the world of Ebay and auctions.) The institution fortunately had a donation form signed by the donor and could prove ownership. The wishes of the donor were carried out and the portrait remained. Ebay’s loss was the institution’s gain.

2) A series of portraits was donated to an institution. They somehow ended up in private hands and surfaced some years later in other institutions. The original institution had no donor forms. The portraits were never returned to the place that the original donors had intended for them to reside. The wishes of the donors could not be carried out.

3) A woman told the story of her faith conversion to an oral history interviewer. She bared her soul, telling of her battles with addiction and depression. The interview was very important to her because she wanted others to hear her testimony and perhaps learn from it. Hers was a strong witness and she hoped that perhaps it would even be part of a published work. She was, however, terminally ill. After her death, a sibling claimed that the interviewer did not have a right to make the story available to the public, either for publication or research. The sibling was embarrassed by the story. There was a problem with the release, so the interviewer will not use this powerful witness in the manner that was intended. Her wishes were not carried out

4) There are boxes and shelves of documents, photographs, audio tapes and objects in almost every historical institution where I have worked. In some cases the items have little meaning because no one knows what they are or where they came from. If we don’t know the source of items in our historical collections, we might miss some of their historical value. Additionally, we may not be able to use them as the donor wished because we do not have copyright or proof of ownership. In this world of litigation, we must be careful if we cannot prove our rights. The wishes of the donors may not be carried out.

5) An organization accepted an item from a donor who did not want to sign a donor agreement. It was later found that there was an argument in the family of the donor about where this item should be placed. The donor did not want to let anyone in the family know he was the one who had given it away. Apart from the fact that the receiving organization has become part of a family quarrel to which it should not be party, it cannot prove ownership of the item and could lose it to a family member or someone else at any time. What right does this organization have to the item? There is a difference of opinion among its members, but I would argue none. If a donor is unwilling to make an open gift of something, or in the case of an anonymous gift at least provide documentation of the gift in case it should later be needed, I feel it should be graciously refused.

These are just some of the reasons for obtaining and maintaining proper releases and donor agreements when accepting gifts of any kind. It is a matter of stewardship, as I said. A small amount of effort will make sure that the gift of an individual is used to its fullest value. The trick, of course, is persuading members of a church of that necessity. Maybe it would be best to start with discussing their wishes in regards to their gifts, then discussing how best to ensure that those wishes are carried out. It just might include paperwork.

Jim Havron