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The Importance of Creating Active, Vibrant Archives

Without historical records, we would be unable to tell the full story of our faith journey

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When most people think of “archives,” the image that immediately comes to mind is that of a dark, dusty room with old manuscripts and leather-bound volumes. While that is indeed a certain aspect of what you may find in archives, an active, vibrant set of records is much more than what you may think. A sustained archives program requires forethought, planning and proper execution to succeed in capturing the historical record of a community. For Catholic archives, the role is even more critical: not only are we attempting to document the history of a community, but also Mother Church. Without this historic record, we would be unable to tell the full story of our faith journey.

In most dioceses, there are two levels at which historic records should be identified, captured and preserved: the diocesan curia and the parish. Indeed, canon law proscribes archives to be established at these levels. Canons 486-91 specifically deal with the establishment of diocesan archives, while Canon 535 discusses the role of historic records at the parish level. The diocesan archives then becomes the official repository of the temporal and spiritual records of the local diocese. A parish archives fulfills the same role at the parish level.

Parish archives play an essential role in ensuring that the historic record of the local church is captured and maintained. The preserved written record can serve many vital functions for the parish community. Holding a parish activity such as a parish picnic? Research the planning minutes from previous years to learn what was done, what worked and the resources that were utilized. Is it an anniversary year for the establishment of the parish? Newsletters and photographs can provide a wealth of information for a parish history.

Looking to renovate spaces or make changes to parish facilities? Building records and preserved blueprints can provide guidance on how any new facilities would work with previous construction projects.

Sacramental registers are the written record of the sacramental life of the parish. They can assist parishioners with matters pertaining to their faith life, legal issues and family history (please note: due to privacy issues, parish staff should take care/caution of releasing sacramental information). Indeed, archives can serve multiple vital functions for a parish: spiritual, legal, administrative, financial and historical.

An archives doesn’t just happen. It is a defined and structured program. Policies and procedures must be implemented to identify and capture records from the moment of their creation, through the time they are in active use, to their ultimate disposition and potential preservation.

First, a definition of a record. For our purposes, “record” has a distinct meaning. Records are all recorded information, regardless of media type, that has been created, received, used, maintained or preserved by a diocese, parish, school or cemetery in connection with the transaction of the parish, school or cemetery business. More plainly, records are those items created that reflect the diocese, parish, school or cemetery’s mission and the operation and activities of its employees, offices, departments or councils. These functions can be served regardless of format: so electronic records are records and are subject to the same retention rules as paper records.

Specific examples of church records can include meeting minutes, invoices, budget reports, correspondence, photographs, parish bulletins, parish directories, cemetery plot maps, architectural drawings and sacramental registers (this is not an exhaustive list).

Marriage Record Books
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Records Management

Records management is the process that ensures the records of the diocese or parish are identified and retained for the duration of their life cycle. An effective records management program facilitates quick and easy records retrieval, ensures that records are kept for their legally required term (and conversely mitigates risk by not keeping records that have no legal requirement to be kept), and creates space savings by destroying records after they have met their legally required retention period. Finally, an effective records management program will assist administrators in identifying records that have an enduring and historic value that should be transferred to the archives.

To manage records effectively throughout their life and identify those records with enduring value, records’ staff should undertake a number of steps:

• Create a dedicated storage area. Ideally, there should be two storage areas: one for permanent (historic) records and one for inactive records that are awaiting their final disposition. If space concerns allow for only one storage space, inactive records should be stored in a separate location from permanent records to avoid any accidental destruction of historic documents. Avoid storing records in areas in which temperature and humidity conditions are difficult to control (ideal conditions are approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a 50% relative humidity), or in areas in which there is a flooding or water damage risk (under water pipes or in basement areas prone to leakage).

• Locate all your records. Any records that meet the definition described earlier and that have been executed for parish or diocesan business should be identified. These documents may reside in offices, storage areas, on servers or even in the homes of parishioners or staff (if this is indeed the case, they should be transferred to parish/diocesan property).

• Survey the records. When examining the records, you are looking for two major categories: the function of the record and the date the record was created. Group similar records together — canceled checks, bank statements, council minutes, etc., should be grouped together first, then in chronological order (for example, bank statements, 2000-10).

• Create records retention schedules. The retention schedule presents an inventory of the parish records in use and maintenance. The schedule should describe the content of each record’s series, how long records are retained and the legal/administrative citation for that retention, and what disposition is to take place after the retention term. Examples of a scheduled series of records:

    •  Bingo Reports. Contents: Quarterly reports and record of all games hosted. Legal Citation: MO RS 313.045.1. Retention: Current calendar year + 2. Destroy.
    •   Board/Committee Minutes. Contents: Record of discussion and actions taken by the committee. Includes handouts and addenda distributed to the committee. Retention: Permanent/Archival

• Destroy any records currently maintained by the parish/diocese that are beyond the defined retention period (also any non-records). Destruction should be documented by listing records (with their date range) destroyed, justification, a signature of authorization and date of destruction. If you destroy the records in-house, a crosscut shredder is the industry standard to ensure the complete destruction of confidential records. If you use a destruction service, a certified destruction service that can provide regular service and a certificate of destruction is recommended.

• Box any inactive records. Using standard-sized boxes (cubic-foot boxes are recommended), box-like records series together that are from a similar creation date and have a similar disposition period (for example, bank statements, 2012-13). You may wish to add the date of disposition on the box label as well for efficiency.

• Create an electronic inventory of your records. This will provide your staff with a tool to create efficient access to your stored records. At a minimum, they should include the box/file folder title, dates and location.

To ensure this process meets all legal, financial, administrative and canonical requirements for record retention, it is recommended that you consult with diocesan legal counsel, the chief financial officer, a canonist and a diocesan records officer/archivist. Additionally, diocesan archivists from established programs across the United States are willing to offer advice and assistance to establish archives and records programs.

Retained Files

Once a records management program is established, identifying records of enduring value can be part of a natural process. Nonpermanent records are eventually destroyed, while permanent records are identified early in their life, tracked and flowed into the diocesan/parish archives. Their permanent retention is dictated by a number of different factors: canonical, legal, historical and educational. The following are examples of record types that are often produced in parishes and have permanent retention that would require transfer to the archives (please note: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list):

• Sacramental registers: While databases, microfilm and scans of registers are acceptable reference tools, canon law requires that bound paper registers remain the record copy of the sacraments received by the people of the local church. They must be retained permanently.

• Prenuptial investigations: Like sacramental registers, these are canonically required to be retained permanently.

• Canonical parish documents: any documents regarding the establishment of the parish and its boundaries. The parish seal must also be kept permanently.

• Parish histories: any articles, anniversary books/programs or published histories.

• Parish administration: correspondence with the bishop/curia officials regarding the parish and/or the parish school, meeting minutes, parish annual reports, parish censuses.

• Parish bulletins or calendars.

• Parish organization records: articles of incorporation/bylaws of the organization, meeting minutes, lists of membership, annual financial reports, publications, records of special events.

• Photographs: photographs of parish buildings, parish priests, parish organizations and special events. Please note: Where at all possible, identify the subject and date of the image on the reverse side of it in pencil. Photographs can lose context over time if the persons and/or the events in the images are not identified.

• Financial records: account books and ledgers, insurance policies trust, estate, endowment correspondence and files, annual financial reports, annual budgets, pension records and audit reports. There may be other financial reports that are legally required to be maintained. Consult with the financial office of your local diocesan curia, as they keep copies of these records as well.

• School records: student transcripts, school histories, yearbooks.

• Legal records: articles of incorporation of the parish, deeds to parish property, contracts, blueprint, records regarding court cases in which the parish is involved.

• Artifacts: any artifact that may document some critical time or event in the history of the parish.

Once these records with permanent value have been identified, and they reach the end of their useful life, they may be transferred into the archives. Records should be grouped together with similar records by their office of creation. This is the archival principle known as “respect des fonds” — that is, records should be grouped first by the office by which they were created, then in the order they were created and used. So, for example, parish histories with parish histories, photographs with photographs, board meeting minutes with board meeting minutes, etc. They should be arranged chronologically, by subject matter. These guidelines should be followed regardless of format, whether the records are physical or electronic.


Life Cycle of Records

Records have a life cycle of usefulness. In general, there are four broad phases in the life cycle of a record:

• Creation: Records are executed, created or received.
• Active: Records are actively being used day-to-day and users need ready access to them.
• Inactive: Records are no longer needed for day-to-day usage, but there is a reference, administrative, financial or legal reason that the record must be kept. As they no longer have an immediate need, they may be kept in a storage area outside the office.
• Disposition: There is no longer an administrative, legal or financial requirement to retain the record, and it has therefore reached the end of its useful life.

When a record reaches the disposition phase of its life, one of two things can happen. If the record has previously been identified as nonpermanent, a record may be destroyed once it reaches the end of its life. If the record has been identified as permanent or potentially having historic value, they should be transferred to the archives for long-term preservation.


Catalog the Records

A catalog of the records should be created to provide efficient access to relevant records. Generally, the catalog records should follow the physical organization of the records. So, a typical catalog entry would be:

• Board Minutes
• Parish Council
•Parish Picnic Subcommittee
• Meeting Minutes, 2019


Once these archival records are organized, there are basic preservation steps that can be taken to ensure their long-term stability and survival. Physical records should be placed in well-marked, acid-free folders and containers. Electronic records should be retained in common, widely used file formats likely to exist for a long time. If possible, a duplicate copy should be created of the electronic record and stored offsite to avoid loss in a disaster. They should be stored in a climate-controlled facility or room with little exposure to sunlight. Direct sunlight and temperature and humidity extremes can damage records over time. Potential for catastrophic events within the storage facility should be assessed. Overhead water pipes can leak, causing water damage and mold issues. Fire protection is vital.

As archival records are unique and irreplaceable, access to them should be limited. Additionally, there may be canonical or legal reasons to review certain records before making them accessible. For example, sacramental records can have legal standing for identification, so records should be restricted to those receiving the sacrament or a direct family member for the expected lifetime of that individual. A good rule of thumb for sacramental records restrictions is to follow the U.S. Census rules for access to records (72 years from publication, so the current publicly available census is 1940). If the records in the archival collection are in poor condition, consider making access to copies of them via image scanners or photocopiers. This limits unnecessary damage from overuse. Reference requests for archival materials should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and appointments should be a requirement. This gives parish staff the time to review the question, prepare materials and ensure staffing is available to supervise their use.

Parishes, of course, are a community of the faithful. As such, that community plays a role in their history. They may hold newsletters, photographs, correspondence or other records in their own collections. Many are happy to donate those records knowing that they will be preserved. Others may be willing to serve as volunteers for some of the more time-consuming tasks involved in archival work that does not require expertise or extensive training, such as data entry or indexing. Additionally, putting out a call for records and encouraging parishioner involvement is an excellent way to create visibility and sustainability for the program.

Managing Archives

The establishment and management of archives may seem like a daunting task. Indeed, marshaling the resources to preserve and protect the history of the local faith community can be quite difficult. Fortunately, there are several organizations and services that stand ready to help. As noted previously, Canons 486-91 call for the establishment and maintenance of a diocesan archives program. In many dioceses then, there is a professionally trained archivist supervising the program. Of those, most have policies and procedures in place specifically aimed at outreach and assistance for parishes in the identification and care of their historic records.

For instance, the Archdiocese of St. Louis Office of Archives and Records created two manuals for parishes: one for records management, and one for management and care of sacramental records. Additionally, the archdiocesan archives attends parish administrator meetings to provide education and awareness for archives and records management. Archives staff visit individual parishes to provide direct assistance to parish staff. To date, the archdiocesan archives has provided services that range from preservation assistance and organization to digitization projects. So, diocesan archivists stand ready to assist parishes at any level of need.

If the local diocese does not maintain a professionally trained archivist, the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists (ACDA) provides several resources to those responsible for preserving the memory of the local faith community of the Church. They provide manuals, an email listserv and hold a biennial conference on the campus of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. The conference includes content for all ranges of experience and education, from those with none whatsoever to those holding a more sophisticated knowledge base. More information can be found at Finally, many times local libraries and colleges/universities have archives and special collections in their holdings, and the librarians/archivists responsible for these collections are happy to share their expertise.

Archival collections play a vital role in the life of the parish community. Not only do they tell the story of the sacramental life of the local faith community, but they can also provide documentation and support for legal, administrative and financial issues. Parishes are uniquely tied to the history of the community in which they serve, and these collections preserve that memory. An archives program does not happen spontaneously, but with proper planning, resources and support, a vibrant archives can prove to be a vital resource for the local parish for generations.

ERIC FAIR is director of archives and records for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.



Managing an archival collection can seem like a daunting task. Preserving historic records is important, and yet it may be difficult to find the necessary help. Fortunately, you are not alone. There are several resources available to help.

Canon Law 486 requires every diocese to maintain its historic records in archives. In the interest of sharing information and resources, several diocesan archivists in North America banded together to form the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists (ACDA). The ACDA is a great place to seek knowledge and resources for archives and historic records regardless of your level of expertise. Additionally, it provides a membership directory of diocesan archivists, and members can join an email listserv to ask questions and share information. Finally, ACDA hosts a conference every two years on the campus of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, which features a “beginners” track for those interested in learning how to begin and manage an archives program. Membership is $25 per calendar year.

More information is available on the ACDA website, located here:

In addition to the ACDA, there are several other organizations of archivists dedicated to assisting those with archival collections and sharing knowledge. They vary in size from the national level to the regional, state or even urban level. Most maintain a directory of members, meet periodically for conferences to share information or host seminars to assist in training those with archival collections and historic records. Membership fees can vary, but most of the regional organizational dues are quite reasonable.

The Society of American Archivists maintains a list of organizations in the United States and Canada on its website, located at

Each of the professional organizations listed above is an excellent resource for education and knowledge sharing. At the very least, representatives will be happy to point you to an archivist in your area who can assist you with your archival collection.

Once ready to begin work on organizing and storing your historic records, you will need the necessary supplies to house them in materials that are safe and will help preserve and stabilize your records.

There are two major suppliers of archives supplies: Gaylord Archival ( and Hollinger Metal Edge ( Both can offer products to support just about any archival material type.

Finally, feel free to reach out to the author with any questions or concerns.


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