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Organizing a Local Archives: Moving from a Necessity to a Passion

Oct 31, 2021

Course: How to Collect, Arrange, Maintain, and Promote a Bahá’í Archives (2021)
Faculty/Mentor: Roger Dahl

Editor’s Note: The history of many local Bahá’í archives, such as the one in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, parallels that of the National Bahá’í Archives in Wilmette, Illinois. The U.S. National Archives began as a collection of dusty boxes full of papers and an assortment of other items, including clothing, chairs, and jewelry, all of which were transferred from place to place. Before the National Archives hired a professional archivist, there was a National Bahá’í Archives Committee tasked with preserving the holdings of the National Archives. But the Archives did not begin to flourish as a center for research until the National Spiritual Assembly hired Roger Dahl in 1974. The National Bahá’í Archives had as part of its mandate assisting local Bahá’í archives and training local archivists, which can be challenging, given their high rate of turnover.

When the Wilmette Institute came into existence in 1995, it determined to make Bahá’í archives one of its courses. It took some time for the Archives course to come into existence, but since the first time in 2005, the course has been offered twelve times in sixteen years. The goal for the e-learning course now called How to Collect, Arrange, Maintain, and Promote a Bahá’í Archives is to train local (and also national and other Bahá’í) archivists in the basics of archival principles and practices. The course covers what an archivist does and what records, documents, and other archival materials a Bahá’í archives should contain. Moreover, it aims to share the skills, training, and materials needed to properly acquire, organize, preserve, and make available Bahá’í archival holdings.

The goals and Personal Learning Assessment below are from Tracy Gee, a budding and determined archivist living in The Netherlands (she has now taken eight Wilmette Institute courses). Her hopes for the Archives course are as fascinating as her assessment at the end of the course about what she learned. We are sharing both.


The timing of this course was a great synchronicity as the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, was confronted with tackling its archives. The physical boxes had moved from house to house, and due to a family being stuck in another country during Covid lockdown, we needed to find a new home for the boxes. Temporary storage was found in our new institute building. This urgent transfer made the Spiritual Assembly very aware that the archives were not suitably boxed, labeled, or even organized. At a following meeting the Assembly also realized that the various secretaries over the last ten years had kept all documents such as minutes and posts on their personal computers but not collectively stored or archived. This led to more questions than answers, so when How to Collect, Arrange, Maintain, and Promote a Bahá’í Archives popped up, I volunteered to deepen on this subject on behalf of the Spiritual Assembly. 

My Personal Learning Plan has a number of goals. I want to find out what types of physical documents and items should be archived; how the different items need to be recorded and stored; in what conditions should they be stored; and how to store digital information, such as on the cloud, on a hard drive, and so on. 

I will use this information to create a handbook for the Spiritual Assembly (and probably for the National Spiritual Assembly of The Netherlands, if it supplements information already shared by them) to assist further consultation.

Since the Spiritual Assembly is responsible for personal affairs of the whole cluster, and as this is becoming increasingly complex, the Assembly also understands the sensitivity toward names of individuals and their situations, all of which needs careful consideration. So I also wish to learn how such information should be recorded and safeguard sensitive information.

A further learning objective is to be able to form and train a task team to go through the archives and assess what is to be kept, recorded, ordered, and stored appropriately within a timescale of one year.

Finally, a more permanent home needs to be found for the archives, one that will allow (future) access for research. So I wish to learn about accessibility, safeguarding personal information, and historical referencing as well as appropriate storage conditions. A proposal will be presented to the Spiritual Assembly for consideration on relocating the archives.

As you can see, Tracy had ambitious learning
goals when the archives course began.
Now read about what she learned
and what she is doing now.

My personal learning goals were to be able to discover what exactly archiving entailed and to be able to assess how the Amsterdam archives are being maintained and whether this was adequate or what needed to be changed, planned, and accomplished. This is directly in line with the needs of the Spiritual Assembly of Amsterdam to rehouse its archives.

The understandings and insights I have gained are many. The archives handbook, Guidelines for Bahá’í Archives is a mine of information. I like the fact that nothing was held back and that we got a full professional view of archiving. The insights I gained were mostly that we have until now not had any idea of what true archiving is. I found myself referring over and over again to the handbook while making an inventory of the Amsterdam archives just to see what potentially needs to be done.

I have acquired many skills: the vocabulary used by archivists; a knowledge of necessary practical requirements; an understanding of the role of the archivist; and the importance of sharing this knowledge and training other members of the community to have these understandings and skills.

I have developed a deep respect for professional archivists and for those members of the community who have taken on this role, often as amateurs. I have been talking about the merits of the Wilmette course on Bahá’í archives to everyone I meet and have included in my proposal to the Amsterdam Spiritual Assembly my feeling that more Spiritual Assembly’s should take this course.

I have always had a deep love for the history of the Bahá’í Faith, but now I am also realizing we are making that history in our local communities. Archives are where Bahá’í history is kept. Also now I have come to understand the value of our older members of the community who have such valuable knowledge that needs to be shared now and preserved for future generations. In addition, I have a new appreciation for the plans the Universal House of Justice is unfolding at a more personal level as we begin to realize our small but none-the-less-significant roles in the unfoldment of the Faith.

Now that the course on Bahá’í archives has ended, I have made a commitment to the Spiritual Assembly of Amsterdam (whether or not I still live here) to work on its archives with a team for the coming two years. Meanwhile, I will continue to deepen my knowledge of the role of archivist. Who knows this could be my new calling!

Contributors

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Tracy Gee

I was born in rural England, UK, though I now live in the suburbs of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with two of my three sons (the other is at college), and an exuberant Labrador. I have been a Bahá’í since 2007 and love serving my community, being on this amazing learning curve of spiritual life, and constantly trying to adapt to incorporating the love of Bahá’u’lláh into my daily life, work, and occupation. I am currently serving on the Spiritual Assembly of Amsterdam, which is the oldest Assembly in the country. It was formed in 1948, with a mix of pioneers and Dutch Bahá’ís, there being only eleven in the country at that time. Delving into its history is both humbling and a great honor.

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