Managing Mennonite Memory, Mennonite
Central Committee, 1920- (Fifth in a series)
by Irene Leaman
The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) collection at the Archives
of the Mennonite Church continues to beckon me. During a recent
visit, Dennis Stoesz, archivist, asked me to write an article
on MCC records management. I readily agreed. MCC historical records
have intrigued me for the past 20 years. Preserving MCC history
concerned the Executive Committee from the beginning. Only the
method has changed. Begun as a small collection of files in the
homes of administrators, the collection has grown into a centralized
electronic system maintained by the Records Department.
For the purposes of this article, I will address only the
MCC Binational and MCC U. S. records. Although MCC also has some
MCC Canada records, MCC Canada preserves its official records
in the Mennonite Heritage Centre on the campus of Canadian Mennonite
Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
EARLY HISTORY OF MCC RECORDS, 1920-1945
MCC was born in 1920, responding to an appeal from the Russian
Mennonites suffering from war and famine. The records for this
period, 1920-1935, were kept by the secretary, Levi Mumaw, in
his home in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Most of the correspondence
was carried out by the secretary at that time. The files were
During the following years, in the 1930s and 1940s, MCC relief
for victims of war and natural disaster spread from Europe to
Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. MCC headquarters
followed the next secretary, Orie O. Miller, to his home in Akron,
Pennsylvania. From this modest beginning in the large white house
on the corner of Main and 11th streets, MCC headquarters today
consists of five buildings in the Akron and Ephrata area with
about 200 staff members.
In 1937, the year MCC was incorporated, the Executive Committee
pondered what would become of the old files. The December 30,
1937, Executive Committee meeting recorded the following action.
It was voted to take over all the official records and correspondence
of the old Mennonite Central Committee and its officers and place
them in the custodianship of the secretary-treasurer. The active
material shall be placed in the hands of the secretary and made
a part of the corporation records. The remaining material is
to remain the property of the Mennonite Central Committee but
shall be deposited in the Mennonite archive to be established
in the new Goshen College Library building. The officers and
members are requested to deposit with the secretary for incorporation
in the archives any documents or correspondence in their hands
relating to the official business and activities of the committee
or which may cast light on the policies and activities of the
In the early 1940s, MCC became involved in administering the
Civilian Public Service Camps. The Executive Committee discussed
the voluminous files created from Civilian Public Service (CPS)
camps in December 1945. H.A. Fast, at the request of the executive
committee, studied the problem of handling the CPS files and
made the following recommendation:
(a) These files should remain under M.C.C. supervision and control.
For the present they should be housed at Akron, Pennsylvania,
in a fireproof structure. Permanent housing of C. P. S. files
should await permanent location of M.C.C. headquarters.
(b) Supervision of the files and access to them should be under
the administrative control of the Executive Secretary.
(c) Access to files should be under the following conditions:
Written registration providing all necessary information about
the person seeking use of files including a statement describing
his purpose and giving assurance that the information gained
will be used to a constructive purpose and that confidential
matters, legal and otherwise will be respected as confidential.
(d) Duplicate copies in M.C.C. files may upon request be made
available to N.S.B. (National Service Board) - C.P.S. files if
needed there to complete its records.
At the same meeting, the committee acted on the larger set
of CPS files created by the National Service Board for Religious
Objectors. This organization acted as an umbrella for the three
peace church groups who administered the CPS camps: Friends (Quakers),
Church of the Brethren and MCC.
(a) These files should be kept intact, located in a site acceptable
to the cooperating peace church agencies and left in the hands
of a competent archivist and accessible to the public under conditions
set forth by the Board of Control appointed by these groups.
Expenses shall be shared on an equitable basis by the three groups.
Temporarily it would appear best to gather these files at the
N. S. B. office in Washington until a permanent location can
be agreed upon.
CENTRAL FILING SYSTEM ORGANIZED, 1946-1975
A major shift in record keeping occurred in 1946 when a central
filing system was organized. Department directors desired a more
unified filing system and the research section of CPS needed
to coordinate the activities of each department. Consolidating
the files seemed a good option. In May 1946, the Executive Committee
authorized the Executive Secretary to engage a filing expert
to set up a filing system. The 1946 MCC workbook reported the
Mr. Bennie Bargen, of Bethel College, a filing expert, came to
headquarters the first of June, 1946 to set up a central filing
system. On August 1st the actual work of filing current material
Bargen reported his findings to the Executive Committee in
September, 1946. He noted that there were 200 file drawers in
the office. Some of the material was of great value, he commented,
and some was of no value. He attached a table of obsolescence
to his report as a guide to disposition of the files and recommended
assigning two full-time file clerks. He also recommended indexing
all Executive Committee minute actions to be undertaken
The 1961 Revised Central Files Manual included the following
The purpose of the Central files is to bring together in one
place and in one system for the entire organization all material
of a general nature accurately and neatly arranged for prompt
reference.....It cross-indexes material so fully that all material
of a given topic or related subject can be found easily....
According to the manual each department had its own set of
files until 1946. Filing was not consistent and letters routed
from one department to another were often lost. The manual outlined
in detail all procedures and practices of the Central Filing
Although central filing and the manual were an excellent beginning,
implementing the decision was difficult. Confidence in the Central
Files department was low. If a letter could not be found, where
was it? Was it the problem of the department who neglected to
send it to Central Files, or was it misfiled? Who could know?
In 1975, at MCCs request, Miriam Weaver from Eastern
Mennonite College, evaluated the central filing system. Weaver
noted in her report that nothing indicated filing had a very
high priority in the MCC office. She added that many administrators
considered their departments an exception to the requirements
of central filing guidelines. Weaver introduced the concept of
records management. This concept evolved slowly. The name change
from Central Files to Records Department did not happen until
FROM CENTRAL FILES TO RECORDS MANAGEMENT
Records management includes managing the entire paper cycle
from creation to disposition. The methods of records management
vary according to the needs of an institution. However, records
management always involves the monitoring of records, regardless
of type or format throughout their life cycle.
When I came to MCC in 1979, we had some 300 files in the Central
Files department divided into two sections. The correspondence
section consisted of both incoming letters and copies of outgoing
letters. The data section had reports of various types. Each
week the different departments sent to the Central Files department
a folder containing their correspondence and reports of that
week. The central files staff coded this material and filed it
into appropriate files. If any of the documents were needed again,
the file clerks located the document.
Active files are kept in the center of the office where they
are easily available. After three years they are considered inactive
and moved to the basement. During this time, the files are still
nearby if needed, but do not take valuable office space. The
inactive file area is something like purgatory. It is a place
where files are kept until their value is determined and they
are sent to their final destination
The Executive Committee decided that the files should be transferred
to the archives after a period of ten years. Each year the ten-year-old
files are weeded by the Records Department manager for materials
of passing value. The remaining materials are placed into acid
free file folders and sent to the archives. With this method
about a third of the collection is saved.
Bargen and Weavers recommendations worked well at a
time when there were only a few hundred files each year. However,
as the organization grew, we had more than 1,000 files for each
year. The simple filing system of alphabetical filing became
a problem. How could anyone scan 1,000 file titles and know where
to place a document?
In 1986 I completed an archives course at a local university.
This provided the knowledge I needed to change our filing system.
I changed our previous A-Z filing method to filing by department.
I realized this method could create the need to have similar
files in different departments. Consequently, I created project
files in addition to the usual correspondence and data files.
The files were placed under the department responsible for the
For example, creating project files meant that any letter regarding
a hurricane in Honduras was filed into the Honduras Hurricane
file regardless of who wrote the memo. If the Latin America Department
assumed responsibility to address the needs of Honduras at this
time, the file was placed with the Latin America department files.
If Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) assumed responsibility for
the work, it was placed with the MDS department files.
We maintained an organizational chart each year to note administrative
changes. This created an organizational history. In addition,
we maintained a subject authority list. We noted what project
names were currently used as well as project names no longer
used. This list was useful, and still is, when programs change
their names or restructuring places them in different departments.
The Orphan Support Program, for example, began in Korea in
the 1950s. Various sponsorship programs emerged which were later
combined into the Child Sponsorship Program. In 1976 the name
was changed to the Sponsorship Program. In 1988 the name changed
again to become the current Global Family Program.
COLLECTION POLICIES AND DISPOSITION SCHEDULES
With the filing system organized, the next step meant creating
a collection policy. According to the policy adopted the
purpose of the MCC archival collection is to preserve the historical
and legal documents of MCC. The objectives are to provide
access to information for current administration, for research
and to provide for posterity, the historical accounts of
MCC policies, programs and activities. MCC does not archive
materials from other agencies even though various materials are
received regularly for the purpose of sharing information.
Using the collection policy, we already have the beginning
of a disposition schedule. Bergan referred to the disposition
schedule as a table of obsolescence in 1946. What
to keep and what to discard requires a thorough knowledge of
the institution and its programs and is the most challenging
aspect of archival or records management.
MCC records are divided into 25 specific departments. I met
with staff to create a specific schedule for each department.
The collection policy can clarify materials that are found in
every department. We keep all minutes, program plans, administrative
trip reports, policies, contracts, semi-annual worker reports
and published materials permanently. Disposition schedules further
address each departments unique files that need individual
Creating a disposition schedule is challenging work, but equally
challenging is deciding how to keep information. In 1958 the
Executive Committee agreed that the CPS files would be microfilmed
and the paper discarded.
Microfilm is expected to last several hundred years. Some
predictions are 500 years. Much depends on standards for filming
as well as methods of storing. The CPS film began deteriorating
forty years after filming. Examining the microfilm carefully,
our current microfilm provider concluded that a chemical residue
had remained on the film. All 129 reels of film needed to be
MCC continued microfilming personnel files after the CPS files
were filmed, but it was not until 1989, when archival storage
costs began to climb, that MCC decided to microfilm the majority
of its materials.
Like all mediums of preservation, microfilming has its own
special problems. Microfilming is permanent. It is difficult
to add forgotten files after filming. Files must be in perfect
order before filming and the film must be checked for the three
Cs: Is it clean? Is it clear? Is it complete? After one filming,
we discovered the camera was out of focus. The entire collection
needed to be reassembled and refilmed.
Some materials, such as posters, packets, blueprints, and
certain legal documents, retain their intrinsic value only in
their original form. Consequently, MCC keeps a small collection
of printed materials. There is no doubt, however, that microfilming
is an excellent way to save space and at the same time preserve
information when filming and storing meet archival standards.
ELECTRONIC FILING, 1998-
Today e-mail is the preferred method of communication. Nearly
all correspondence between MCC Akron headquarters and other MCC
offices, including MCC overseas offices, is done by e-mail. Frequently
secretaries asked, Do you really want us to print out all
our e-mail? Until 1998 we said yes, but with
some hesitation. I knew that eventually electronic filing must
We already used the computer for administrative functions
in the Records Department. We put all of the file titles, including
those already at the archives, on computer so that we could search
for file titles. We scanned all of the Executive Committee meeting
minutes into the computer. The ISYS text retrieval system enabled
us to search the minutes for information. (I used ISYS to find
information for this article.) Filing by computer was only a
When part of the overseas department moved to Winnipeg, electronic
filing became a hot topic. Phil Horst, manager of
MCC Computer Services, had been exceptionally helpful in our
previous applications of computer technology; I knew I could
count on him again to provide the technical assistance needed
for electronic filing. Well, Phil I said, I
think were being forced into it. We decided to use
the Africa department as a pilot project.
The first attempt was disappointing. I wanted to continue
keeping the files organized by department. Otherwise, I reasoned,
we would get too many hits using word search that would be more
confusing than helpful. However, we discovered that we had too
many layers and needed to do too much scrolling. Filing was time
Phil tried again and this time reached a perfect solution.
Using Lotus Notes, he created separate databases for each department.
Clicking on a database, we have various options. We can choose
from the in box to see if any new e-mail needs filing,
or we can go directly into a file. Clicking on all
allows us to see everything in that database. Using word search,
we can quickly locate a document.
E-mail from departments in the MCC Akron office, regional
offices and overseas offices in Winnipeg have a blind carbon
copy that automatically sends their e-mail directly to their
database in the Records Department unless it is manually deleted.
Word Perfect documents can also be transferred to a database.
Obviously, we still have mail coming into the office. At this
time, we are keeping incoming mail in its original form.
Many questions remain. Will we weed the electronic files after
ten years as we do the paper files? Should we scan incoming mail
into the computer and discard that paper also? What about confidential
materials? We solved the latter question by printing confidential
materials and deleting them from the database. Also, by having
separate databases for each department, persons in each department
have access only to their own records.
FILES FROM MCC OFFICES AROUND THE WORLD
In the past there have been a few times when overseas offices
closed and the files sent to the archives. In recent years, I
have been making a concerted effort to gather files from overseas
In Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, with
the help of staff, we separated the files into three categories.
Current files and files needed for continuing administrative
work stayed in the overseas offices. The remaining files were
separated into discard piles or placed in boxes to ship to the
MCC Akron headquarters.
I have found that overseas files not retrieved within ten
to fifteen years are victims of rodents, cockroaches, silverfish,
ants, humidity and dust. Most dangerous, however, are well-meaning
staff who see no need for keeping all this old stuff.
At the present time, we use three forms of preservation: print,
microfilm and computer. My predictions are that after we have
microfilmed all the inactive files now stored in the basement,
microfilming will become an obsolete method of preservation.
The small amount of paper left can easily be scanned into the
computer. I may be wrong. We do not know if the computers of
the future will be compatible with present day computers. We
also know that information on the computer can be altered. On
the other hand, we know that microfilm will always be readable.
And we know that it is permanent; no one can alter it. It is
reassuring that either of these mediums can be converted to paper
at any time if desired.
The theory of records management is simple, but practice is
not. Organizational structures change. Names of departments change.
Technology changes. And perhaps most important are personnel
changes. Any of these changes will bring new possibilities, new
ideas and new problems. Today, records managers not only collect
files and decide what to keep, they must also stay abreast of
current technology and preservation practices.
At MCC, the Records Department is administratively lodged
in the Administrative Services Department. We still function
with the equivalent of two full-time staff. If Miriam Weaver
evaluated the Records Department today, I hope she would see
evidence that preserving MCC history is an important part of
MCC administration. And indeed it is.
Irene Leaman is the Records/Library and
Archives Manager at Mennonite Central Committee, Akron, Pennsylvania.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April 2000