Archives and Records Management for Congregations
The primary purpose of the Presbyterian Church Archives and Records Office is to ensure that accurate, authentic and reliable records documenting the life and work of The Presbyterian Church in Canada are properly managed and preserved. With this in mind, we hope the following quick tips and answers to some of the more frequently asked questions we receive, will help you ensure that the life and work of your own church is documented and preserved.
"8 Easy Steps"
  1. Do an inventory of the records held by your church. List them according to type and date, i.e. Marriage Register, 1876-1904, or Annual Reports, 1935-1950. Focus on the minute books (Session, Board of Managers, Congregational Meetings, etc.) and on the registers (Baptism, Marriages, Deaths), but also look at Members Rolls, Communion Rolls, Legal documents (property deeds etc.), Annual Reports, General Ledgers/Yearly Financial Statements, Newsletters, etc.
  2. If there are gaps in the records (especially the minute books or registers) try to locate the missing ones. Contact previous clerks or congregational officials if necessary.
  3. Place each book or series of documents in a file folder and label the folder with the type of record(s) and the date range.
  4. Keep all the records together and find a suitable location to store them (see Frequently Asked Questions below for more information).
  5. Records with confidential or personal information should be maintained separately in a locked filing cabinet or vault, ie. Session minutes less than 50 years old.
  6. Consider having the "vital records" of your church microfilmed (see Frequently Asked Questions for more information).
  7. Gather together and label photographs that document the life and work of the church through the years. Careful storage of photos is important. See our information sheet on this topic for more information.
  8. Establish an Archives and Records Committee for your Church that will have responsibility for the following: managing the historical records of the church; for ensuring that the "current" records being generated by the church are safely managed; for making sure that the current activities of the church (outreach events, picnics, special services, etc.) are photographed and/or recorded; and to promote an awareness of the history and heritage of the congregation.
Greenock Presbyterian Church, St. Andrew's, New Brunswick
(PCA #G-3977-FC)
Information Sheets

Information Sheets are available on topics such as records management, proper storage and preservation methods, microfilming your church records, and depositing your records with a local museum, library or archives. These are all available electronically as PDF files (click here for more information) or contact the Archives and we can send them in the mail to you.

Frequently Asked Questions
  1. Who is responsible for managing the records of our church?
  2. What records need to be preserved?
  3. Where, and how, should the records be stored?
  4. Can we send our records to the Archives and Records Office at 50 Wynford Dr.?
  5. Can we store our records with a local archives, museum or library?
  6. What is the Archives microfilming programme?
  7. Why is microfilming important?
  8. Why does the Archives still encourage microfilming in this digital age?
1. Who is responsible for managing the records of our church?

Section 20 of the Book of Forms states that the Clerk of Session is responsible for the safe keeping of the records of a church. The Clerk should therefore have a complete list of the official records of the congregation, know where they are located, ensure that they are being properly created and maintained, and be aware of the need and reasons for having them microfilmed.

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2. What records need to be preserved?

Certain records must be preserved. These we call "vital records". They are vital to the on-going operation of the congregation. If your church was destroyed by fire, which records would be needed to begin work again and to prove what had been done in the past. These generally include:

Session minutes
Board of Managers minutes
Annual Congregational Meeting minutes
Baptism, Marriage and Death/Burial registers
Communion Rolls/Registers
Membership Rolls/Registers
Personnel/Staff files
Legal documents (deeds, mortgages, property titles etc.)
Insurance documents
General ledgers and journals and the audited financial statements

Other important records include: annual reports, minutes of congregational committees and organizations, architectural plans, congregational newsletters, church rental records, photographs, and scrapbooks of congregational activities, events and special services.

This is a general list. Think about what records your church generates, and maintain those which you feel best document the life and work of the congregation. These are the archival records.

Some financial records should be preserved for 7 years, after which they may be shredded. These include weekly givings envelopes, cheque stubs, receipts, bank statements or passbooks, etc.

Other records that do not necessarily need to be preserved as part of your archives include:

-Duplicate copies of newsletters, annual reports
-Orders of Service
-Copies of National Office of The Presbyterian Church in Canada records (i.e. copies of the Acts and Proceedings,
educational resources, mission resources, evangelism literature, reports etc.). You may wish to keep these as
reference items in your office or in the minister's study, but they shouldn't be preserved as part of your own

If you have any questions about what records to keep, or if you are not sure about a particular type of record, please don't hesitate to contact the Archives staff. We will be happy to assist in any way we can.

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3. Where, and how, should the records be stored?

Records should be housed in a secure and stable environment. Ideally the minutes, registers and other documents of your church should be maintained in acid-free file folders, within acid-free storage boxes and placed in a lockable room on the main floor of the church. Temperature, humidity, light and air-borne pollutants can have an extremely harmful effect on records over time. Place a newspaper in the sun-light for an afternoon and you'll notice how quickly light can damage a document. Excessive temperature and humidity is also dangerous: mildew and mould can begin to develop on paper materials at temperatures above 29 or 30 degrees when the humidity is high. Large fluctuations in temperature and humidity over time also have a detrimental impact on paper. Basements which are often extremely humid, and attics, which are often very hot in summer and very cold in winter, are not ideal locations. The main floor of the church is usually the most stable, and is therefore often the best place to store the records.

Acid-free file folders and storage boxes are ideal as they help buffer records against swings in temperature and humidity, and at the same time protect against ultra-violet radiation from light. They are available from several different archival storage suppliers. The company we generally purchase our storage supplies from is Carr-McLean. They are located in Toronto, but deliver across the country. For a catalogue, please contact them at 416-252-3371 or 1-800-268-2123.

If you are unable to store the records in acid-free folders or boxes, the second best method of storage is within a metal filing cabinet or on a metal shelf. Wooden shelves are not ideal. Wood is acidic, and the acid within can migrate on to the records. Acid not only yellows the paper, but it increases the brittleness and accelerates its decomposition. It also increases the susceptibility of the paper to mildew and mould. Regular card-board boxes are also not ideal for storage as they too are highly acidic.

In general, it is best to house your records in archival storage supplies, within a metal filing cabinet or on a metal shelf, and in a lockable room on the main floor of your church.

If you have any questions on where and how to store your church's records, please don't hesitate to contact the Archives.

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4. Can we send our records to the Archives and Records Office at 50 Wynford Dr.?

Unfortunately, the Archives at 50 Wynford Drive is simply not large enough to store the records of every congregation across the country. We therefore cannot take in records of "active" congregations. We do, however, store the records of dissolved, or closed, congregations. For active congregations it is encouraged that they have their records microfilmed. We then store the microfilm copy in the Archives, and the originals are sent back to the congregation for safe-keeping and storage.

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5. Can we store our records with a local archives, museum or library?

Some congregations have been approached by a local museum or archives asking if they would like to deposit the church's historical records with them. Some congregations may simply feel that they cannot adequately store their records themselves and turn to a local museum. It is possible for congregations to deposit their records with a local museum or archives, however, there are a number of extremely important terms and conditions that should be met if this is done (Book of Forms, Appendix G-2.1.1). First and foremost is that any records deposited with a local museum or archives must be copied to microfilm by a licensed microfilming company, with the microfilm copy being deposited in the Presbyterian Church Archives at 50 Wynford Dr. Other terms and conditions that must be met deal with ownership of the records, access restrictions, use and display, and preservation, among others. In order to assist congregations in knowing what conditions should be met, the Archives has produced a sample "Deposit Agreement" form. This form is an example of the type of legal agreement that should be drafted if you decide to deposit your records in a local museum or archives. It can be used as a template, or as a guide, but remember, each of the terms and conditions in this agreement should be met. Your church's records are not just historical, they have important legal, administrative and fiscal value to your congregation and to The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and they should be managed appropriately.

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6. What is the Archives' microfilming programme?

This is a programme that the Archives operates in order to assist and facilitate congregations in having their "vital records" microfilmed. The cost of having your congregation's "vital records" microfilmed is borne by your congregation, however, it is not unduly expensive. The security of knowing that a certified copy of these legally, financially and administratively valuable records exists, far outweighs the relatively small, one-time cost of having them microfilmed. Once these records are microfilmed, the original records are returned to the congregation for safe-keeping, storage and on-going use, while the microfilm copy is maintained within the Church Archives at 50 Wynford Dr. Click here for more information about this programme.

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7. Why is microfilming important?

Microfilming ensures that a legal and certified copy of your congregation's vital records will be available if the originals should ever be lost or damaged beyond repair. Microfilming is in essence a type of insurance. As mentioned above, the records of your congregation act as evidence of the life and work of your church. As such, they can be vital to the on-going operation of the church and have long-term legal, administrative and financial value. If a disaster were to occur, and your church had a fire, what records would be needed to act as evidence of the assets and liabilities of the church; what records would be needed to act as evidence of the baptisms and marriages that took place in the church; what records would be needed to act as evidence of membership; and what records would need to be kept to act as evidence of the decisions of the congregation, of the managers, of the session? These are the vital records. These are what we encourage congregations to have microfilmed.

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8. Why does the Archives' still encourage microfilming in this digital age?

To some, microfilming may seem like an "old" technology. Wouldn't it be easier if we just put everything on computer? This is a complex issue, however, and one which the archives' staff is continually researching and monitoring. Computer software, hardware, and storage media are changing all the time. There are some promising technologies that may in the future be used for true "archival" storage, however, at the present time the benefits of microfilming still outweigh those for digital storage. The cost of microfilm (especially in the long-term) is also more efficient.

Once microfilmed, you can be assured that a certified and legal copy of your official records will exist for generations to come (tested under laboratory conditions, microfilm stored in optimum conditions has been proven to last hundreds of years). The expense of microfilming may seem like a burden at the time, however, once filmed, the records will not have to be filmed again. The cost itself is quite inexpensive, especially if you think in the long-term.

It is important to remember that it is the "official" records of the church with which we must be concerned. The "official" records are the signed, attested, examined, original documents; these are the records which have legal weight. We have to be concerned with proving the authenticity, accuracy and reliability of these records, which is why they are signed, examined and attested. When we microfilm these records, we have a true and certified copy of the "original". Minutes are often maintained on computer now, but it is still the printed copy of the minutes that have been signed and attested, which act as the "official" copy. It is this copy that needs to be preserved, and it is this copy that should be microfilmed. The ease with which computer records can be altered, deleted, or re-arranged, makes proving authenticity, accuracy and reliability very difficult. That is why simply storing them on disk, or printing off an extra set, is not ideal. It is important to have a certified copy of the "originals" themselves.

You may ask, why not just scan the "signed" originals then, and save them digitally. This presents its own complications: the time it takes to scan what in some cases will be thousands of pages, the need for extremely high-quality resolution in the image, quality control and verification of the information, and what type of format to use? The JPEG format is not high quality, while TIFF images require vast amounts of storage space. The PDF/A format offers promising technology, however, it is still proprietary. We want to be sure what is copied today will still be readable in 10 or even 5 years, otherwise the process will have to be done again.

As an Archives our mindset also has to be fixed on preserving the original records (and the microfilm copies) forever. Preserving the originals is straight-forward, so too is preserving a microfilm copy. We have the temperature and humidity controlled storage facility to do so. Preserving digital records over the long-term is truly another matter. The rate at which computer software and hardware becomes obsolete causes a great deal of problems when you have to be concerned with preserving records for decades, if not a hundred or more years. As software changes, as newer versions are released, as the types of storage mediums change from 5¼ inch diskettes, to 3½ inch disks, to CDs, to DVDs, to whatever will be next, records have to be migrated. Sometimes this migration isn't even possible, especially if you change from one type of software to another. Even if it is possible, there will inevitably be some change to the record itself. Maybe not in the content (although sometimes there is), but often in the structure and layout. With each migration, therefore, the record changes, which makes proving authenticity, reliability and accuracy of the records much more difficult. Will the software and the file formats used to scan and digitize your records be obsolete in 5 or 10 years, let alone 50? Who will be assigned to continually monitor the changes in computer software and hardware and storage media to ensure your congregations records will be accurately and authentically migrated? Even with the best of intentions, these types of things are forgotten after a few years. By then it may well be too late.

If, however, you have your records copied to microfilm you don't have to worry about all these things. That legal and certified copy (that insurance) will be preserved and available if you should ever need it. And remember, if in the future an obvious and reliable method of storing records digitally comes along, it is far easier to convert from microfilm than from the originals.

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