Event- Keeping the Faith: Family History Research in Nashville’s Religious Archives

The form for this is here.

If you don’t have time to get the form in, email Jim at archivist@tnumc.org by the deadline and he will call the organizer and get you on the list.
Keeping the Faith: Family History Research in Nashville’s Religious Archives
Saturday, November 7, 2009, 9:30 am – 4:00 pm
Bellevue YMCA
The cost is only $5.00 and includes a boxed lunch. Speakers include McGarvey Ice (Disciples of Christ Historical Society); Taffey Hall (Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives); Greg Poole (Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee); Jim Havron (Tennessee Methodist Conference Archives); Jim Hoobler (Downtown Presbyterian Church); Carol Hansen (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family History Center); Mary A.E. Dickerson (African American Records); and Annette Ratkin (Jewish Federation Library and Archives). To register, complete the lower portion of the informational flyer and mail, along with $5.00 for lunch, to Taffey Hall / SBHLA / 901 Commerce Street, #400 / Nashville, TN 37203. Registration deadline is October 23.


Update:  Google Map link to YMCA, which is at 8101 HWY 100, Nashville (Bellevue) 37221:



Though I May Be Found Wanting, Let Me Not Be Found Clueless

I would like all to consider the effects on both our study of history and attempts to preserve it that have been brought about by what “appears” to a very rapid change in technology and its use in business, government, education, and occasionally, even the church. I have, over the years, read many books and attended many seminars on growing the church, defining mission, preserving our past and integrating our past into our present worship. One thing I have often heard, and in fact it was recently reinforced by a statement made by my current pastor at a meeting, is that the church is about 30 years behind when it comes to utilizing technology. I find this to obviously be true in spirit, if not provably so in the numerical value.

The odd thing for me about that statement, is that so many meetings I have attended at the church on all levels (I serve, locally, at conference level and at jurisdictional level) seem to be almost identical to those I attend in my professional organizations, at least with regards to technology. At one meeting of a board of professional archivists, a friend and mentor, Jay, said “Jim is trying to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.” I responded, “No, I am trying to drag us kicking and screaming into the 20th Century! The 21st would be biting off more than I can chew.”

For those of us involved or interested in the stuff of history within the church, we should remember that it is necessary to at least be aware of the current means by which information is created, stored and accessed if we wish to be able to preserve it, understand it, or use it in our research. As Tennessee Conference Archivist, I regularly explain to people that the information they want for their research does not exist in our collections, at least not in an accessible format. They, in their turn, regularly fail to understand why not. Why did people not save the records in a manner in which they could later be accessed? Why are the records in a form one cannot understand? What does this document mean? (This last usually a question about the group that created the document, the structure of the organization, how it held its meetings, kept its minutes, communicated, etc.) The ability to preserve, interpret and make information available to researchers of the future requires that we have some understanding of the answers to these same questions regarding records created today.

Does your church use PowerPoint, video, recorded audio in its service? Does it have a Website, a listserve, use Twitter, Facebook, or other social media? How do you save e-mail correspondence for future generations? Do you distribute your newsletter by e-mail, put it on the Web, send messages by phone tree? I know that there are those who communicate by Skype, send files via fttp protocols, and create documents collaboratively through online software such as Google Docs (no endorsement should be implied here.) Thank goodness there are people who choose to put their ministries online in podcasts, through Webcasts and on Youtube, where people who would never have otherwise been exposed to them can now be. The question is, will anyone looking back on these days know about it?

Many churches are not interested in the mindset of those who use such media. The mindset is there, however. Although a relative few people have joined our TN Methodist History social network and those who view this blog are not legion, more than half of those who contact me with reference questions expect me to be able to use a digital index to find the records they request and expect me to be able to transfer the desired records into some form that they can readily use with my computer. Easily a third dos not understand why our records are not online and available for them to search for themselves. They do not understand why the records are not available in a way that they desire.

Of course, many churches do not use the new technologies that are available, mistaking them for just tools that someone designed to provide different means of communication where the present ones are just fine, rather than seeing them as new media and tools designed because of the new ways that people choose to communicate and form relationships. If you are with one of these churches, I encourage you to examine some of these new methods and look for ways in which your folk might choose to use them. By that, I don’t just mean look at, for example, Facebook or Second Life, and try to think of how you can effectively use them to spread your message, though that may certainly be a good idea (and one I have advocated elsewhere.) No, I mean also look at them and get a feeling for what they are, so that, should someone else choose to use them, you will be familiar with and to some degree understand them.

As I posted earlier, I was thrilled to have a chance to see a representation of an archival document in Second Life a few weeks back. This may not be the way that relationship and communication will go, but I have little doubt that during my professional life I will have to deal with some type of document that requires my understanding what virtual interactive technology is. I will likely be found wanting, but hope not to be found clueless.


TN Conf. Archivist

Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at archivist@tnumc.org

My Experience in Second Life Archives

The other day I had a fascinating experience. During my lunch hour I created an avatar ( a computer generated image that represented, but did not look like, me,) visited Second Life (not heaven but a computer generated world inhabited by such avatars, controlled, of course, by “real” people,) and examined “documents” in virtual document cases in a virtual archives/special collections library. Sound exciting to you? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I found it so.

You see, I work in a special collections division of a public library as well as work as the TN Conference archivist. I have become very aware of the desire, in many cases demands, of patrons to have their research needs met in a manner that they can understand and find useful. In the case of the Conference archives we can offer them only what we have, which often means we can help them when staff is available and often means they must go away disappointed. We are trying, at both locations, to find ways to make our collections more accessible and to do a better job of reference through the use of technology. We are also trying, to varying degrees at both locations, to find ways to make our collections more accessible and to do a better job of reference through the simple method of trying to see things from the viewpoint of the user. We live in a culture where methods of communicating and interacting are rapidly changing. Requiring our users (not just those who make use of our archives but also those who make use of our church facilities; e.g. our congregants and community) to approach us on our terms only is more and more a case of asking them to use languages they do not understand and enter places where they are uncomfortable. Some may argue that this is a good thing, and I can see how it may be sometimes, but on the whole I would say not.

That is what I found impressive about Stanford University’s (CA, west coast, definitely not from around here) use of Second Life(SL) as a means to offer a new way to demonstrate its special collections to folks. I was totally unaware of their presence in SL (despite the search engines that many in the church tell me will turn up Websites that will then direct me anywhere I want to go; like church) even though I have researched use and users of public history institutions for years. I had missed, (okay, overlooked, sorry,) the post about their open house in one of my favorite blogs and stumbled back upon it the morning of said open house. I quickly took my laptop to the Conference library, activated the software I had downloaded awhile back, set up my avatar and went to visit the archivist in OZ. Or so it seemed. She explained to me that the SL archives was, in part, a way to introduce folks unfamiliar with closed stack material in a way that was less intimidating than the real thing. Great idea! Wish I had thought about it.

I don’t know how many folk use SL. It may be that few people will see the archives. I do know a lot of folk play video games. I know that many homeless folk who come into the public library I work at are unhappy that SL is blocked from our computers, so I know they use it when they can. I know youth regularly use technology that the church ignores and that there is affordable technology that can let people who would otherwise be out of reach of churches’ libraries, archives, and missions out there and using it might make sense from the point of view of the “user” should we choose to look through their eyes. I have said elsewhere, including this blog, that I am an advocate of use, of facilitating communication and knowledge, and try to advocate for those on the other-side-of-the-desk. As an archivist I struggle to balance the traditional needs of maintaining traditional records with the more modern needs of maintaining modern records. At all times I look for ways to increase the value of those records by facilitating use. Stanford’s work has shown they are also focused on finding ways to increase the value of their collections simply by providing new means of access. More access, more use, more who judge the items to be of value. Simple. Brother Occam would be proud.

Jim Havron

TN Conference (UMC) Archivist

(Note: Since posting this originally, I was asked about the last comment. Occam’s Razor, in one popular form: When 2 competing theories produce the same outcome, the simpler of the 2 should be preferred. I don’t mean to imply that this applies specifically to the above situation, but it might in a larger context of what makes records valuable and why we should keep them. I was also suggesting, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that the “simple” was by definition the friend of William of Occam – Jim)

Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at archivist@tnumc.org

Possible Change in On-Site Access Hours for Tennessee Conference UMC Archives

The bad news is there have been staff and hour reductions at my “real” job. The Nashville Public Library Special Collections Division has had funding reduced (along with all of NPL, of course) and will close on Mondays. My hours have not been reduced, I will have to work longer days.

The good (somewhat less bad than it could be?) news is that I was not among those cut (good from my perspective, pray for the others though) and the Nashville Public Library Special Collections Division will be closed on Mondays.

The change in hours in my “real” job will allow me to be available more often on Mondays. My hours have not been decreased, so I will still have to do things on Mondays that I used to do in the mornings or evenings of other days, but will no longer have the time for on those days. Additionally, I will be working more weekends at my “real” job.

That being said, I will have larger blocks of time in which to work at the archives. Please note that this does not mean the archives will be regularly open on Mondays or that everytime I am there I will be able to allow folks in to do research. On site research will still be by appointment only for the time being. (We will still do our best to answer research questions by phone, e-mail, social network, USPS, etc.)  It does mean, however, that there will be more opportunities to make appointments. I also hope to be able to use some of that time to recruit and train staff that may be able to provide services at other times in the future.

Stay tuned as things develop.

TN Conf. Archivist

Heritage Events: Research and Present vs. Celebrate, Share and Record

People on occasion contact me hoping to get information to present as part of a Heritage Celebration at their church and are disappointed if I cannot give them the information they request. Unfortunately, we only have records at the archives if someone has donated them to us in the first place. Such donations have often not occurred.

What I usually suggest they do is have a Heritage Celebration where they invite folks to bring in records, photographs, memorabilia, and the like. Ask people to tell stories of their memories of the church. Record those stories. Start an archive. Start a history project or Web site. Get the youth involved (older folks often love to tell their stories to younger ones and are pleased that the young ones are interested.) In other words, rather than present the church’s history to the congregation, have the congregation (and invited locals who are not members but might have something to contribute or celebrate) present the history to be recorded.

Heritage events do not have to be programs where a learned researcher presents the history of the church to its membership or community. They can be celebrations of the past that eventually brought everyone to the place they are today. Testimonies. Witnesses. And if recorded, those testimonies can be shared with and added to by future generations. So if you don’t have a history recorded– celebrate, share and record.

Of course, the Tennessee Conference Archives will always be happy to take copies of any such materials related to our Conference or its constituent churches, organizations, etc. that might be produced in such a venture.

Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at archivist@tnumc.org

Researching Your Church Family Tree #2: In Search of the Local Pastor List

I frequently receive requests (and since I’ve been at this particular job for a very short time, for something to be considered “frequent” says something) for a list of all the pastors of a specific church or charge. This request is frequently part of an individual’s desire to write a church history or a congregation planning a special event. A few of those who have contacted me have done so because, as new Church Historians, they wisely feel that they should have such a list handy. Unfortunately for these researchers, such lists are not always available at our archives. Just as in the case of individual church histories, family trees, or for that matter any compiled history, a repository or library generally has such things only if another researcher has compiled one. We do, of course, have many of the resources needed to do the research for such a project, but many of these resources have yet to find their way to the Archives and Library.

Should you be interested in compiling such a list, here are a few tips on doing the necessary research. Some are specific to Methodist archives, but most apply or can be adapted to other institutions. The list is by no means exhaustive, and there may be more tips forthcoming on this blog at a later date. I hope readers will comment with their own tips as well. Also, as with all things historical, don’t assume that because someone else wrote something down and published it, their research is necessarily accurate.

  • This may seem obvious, but I have discovered that many do not do this. Start locally! Check your local church resources. There may be an old church history that will give you what you want, up to a point. If your church has old Conference Journals, the appointments will be in there. (Always remember that appointments can be changed in mid year.) There are memoirs of pastors in the later ones as well. Any charge conference records or records of committees where the pastor might have served or made reports might mention a name you have not yet found. Baptism, marriage and funeral records may also list the pastor.
  • Talk to older people and get their stories. Many times folks have trouble with exact dates, but will at least recall the names. Many of these members have wonderful memories. They may also have family records or pictures that include a pastor (baby book, certificate of marriage or baptism, Sunday school graduation certificate, etc.) They may have some old records of the church if they served on a committee in the past and these could augment the church’s collection. Don’t forget the home bound. They are great potential resources and often glad for the chance to visit and remember.
  • Community and state sources are good places to look. If you can establish that a member died or was married in a specific time, you may wish to look for a public record of the event that may include a pastor’s name. This is particularly true of marriage records. Just be careful; many folks had marriages or funerals performed by clergy who were not their local pastors.
  • Genealogical sources, on-line bulletin boards, social networks, etc. are also good places to look for information on pastors. Network with other researchers who might have information you do not.
  • If your church maintained a parsonage, old city directories, tax records, even maps, might help determine the resident of such a parsonage. Census records can sometimes help here, though they were only recorded every ten years and it is sometimes hard to pinpoint specific locations with them. If a church owned real property subject to taxation, the pastor might be mentioned
  • Although records of the individual churches legally belong to the church or conference, many have found their way into local historical societies, libraries or archives. Look there as well. Sometimes the institutions microfilmed such records with the permission of the church, making it possible to search many records more quickly than if they were in paper files.
  • Don’t forget local or church newspapers. Particularly in small towns and in the “old days.” Appointments to local churches and church events were often covered in newspapers.
  • Don’t forget other denominations or confessions. In some places and at some times, a church newspaper served much the same role as a community newspaper. (I have some copies of my great-grandfather’s paper, the Cumberland Presbyterian Banner, published at just such a time. He sometimes wrote about general community news and listed the subject of the sermon and Sunday School lesson for the local Baptist and Methodist churches on occasion.)
  • Always note the source of your information. I have seen several inaccurate lists of appointments. I received a memorial roll from an official of the church that is supposed to be itself official, but has some obvious errors in it. If you have conflicts or errors, noting your sources may help to resolve them.
  • Remember that there were divisions in the church at times in our history, and a congregation may have belonged to a different branch of the now United Methodist Church. Those records may or may not be readily available to the Conference archives. We will, of course, do all we can to help put folks in touch with the appropriate source for your research.

Remember, this is research and takes time. You are putting together a historical jigsaw puzzle. There will be gaps in the record, but do your best. If you can’t find it, note where you looked. Someone else may later be able to fill in the gaps. If you find a “piece” but don’t know where it fits, note that as well. That piece may connect with one found at a later time. And as always, the Archives and Library of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church will always be happy to accept copies of research relating to the Conference, its predecessors or constituent parts.


Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and  with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at archivist@tnumc.org

Researching Your Church Family Tree #1

I receive a lot of interesting research questions in both my job as archivist and as a special collections library associate (a job I hold based in part on my education in history and archives management.) I was contacted by someone the other day seeking to confirm the date that her church was founded. She stated that she was involved in the planning of the church’s 175th anniversary, a statement similar to those I have heard many times when I have discussed church history with others (100th, 150th, 175th, the number isn’t what is important.) This lady asked “How do you determine exactly when your church was founded?” This is a question that is a bit rarer than a simple statement of the church’s age as fact. Usually the founding date of the church is not questioned if there is a tradition regarding it. I recently was asked to provide information about the founding of a church “X” many years ago in an area that was not settled until about “X” minus 50 years ago, obviously a difficult task. I have found two separate histories of the same church with entirely different stories and dates of their founding. I have also found lists of pastors and membership rolls that are obviously not connected to the church in question. It occurs to me that perhaps more folk would have benefitted by asking that question “How do you know?”

Church history is much like genealogy. Congregations rely on volunteers to keep records, many of whom do, in fact, keep them; forever. Minutes are lost or not kept. Records are just not a priority. This is similar to when family records get thrown out, shoved in the attic, or just misplaced. Years later, someone in the family, church or biological, decides they want to know the history of their forebears. Someone collects the memories as best they are able, interprets what records are available, and fills in the gaps with seemingly sensible, if un-provable, narrative. The story becomes the history of the church or family, and over the years accepted as proven fact. Woe to he who questions it.

The problem is that there are often errors in the histories, as with all other types of history. Only, with family and church history an unusual, if understandable, amount of emotion is invested in the traditional version. The identity of the family member is somewhat based upon that tradition. Just as my great-grandmother was convinced we were descended from Charlemagne, a man who has been proven to be mathematically unable to have fathered the quantity of progeny necessary to develop the number of descendents that claimed his ancestry in the early Twentieth Century, many folk are convinced that they “know” their church and family history based on no evidence whatsoever. Sometimes they are correct, sometimes not.

As an archivist, I dread the times when someone comes in and asks me for the proof (usually expecting it to be sitting on a shelf within easy reach or in a searchable database) for a story that no one has ever researched. What they fail to understand is that non-fiction must be researched by someone before it is accessible in a published form to others. The answer to the question I was asked regarding how you know when your church was founded is the same as how you know your other family history; research. Like genealogy, the answers are often long and hard in coming. Records may not exist or may remain long hidden. The rewards can, however, be great.

Current church members can do their part to help future researchers by checking Aunt Gertie’s attic for records or memorabilia, starting an archives or donating their records to their conference archives, and collecting memories through oral history, photographs, and memoirs. Personal genealogies also may help flesh out a church history, just as church records may help fill in a piece of an individual’s family tree. And by all means, a church should collect copies of all legal documents, court records, deeds, and bequests that might be on file at a local archives.

I was able to help the lady who asked me the question about how one “knows” because I have a copy of the page in the record book where the deed to their church was recorded at the time of its founding. I cannot help the one who wants to find evidence of how his church was founded years before the area was settled. I do hope that more folk will participate in research and question the traditions of their church rather than accepting them blindly. The truth might be far more interesting and enlightening than a legend of dubious origins. Truth is what it is about, after all. Oh- and when you find that truth, send a copy to your conference archives. They will appreciate it.