Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Deciding What To Keep Will Refine Church Archives

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 7, 2008

Parishes and church offices are going to keep a better watch of their records as the Atlanta Archdiocese strengthens its archives to tell the story of the Catholic Church.

Preserving the past in an age of e-mails and digital files that can be erased with a click of a computer mouse is fueling part of the initiative.

The first step in the effort was hiring a veteran archivist. The next step is to organize a system across parishes and schools in the archdiocese on what needs to be kept, what can be tossed away and how best to care for the records. And in the near future, an archdiocesan advisory board is to be formed to keep everything on track.

“It’s more the inconsistency than anything else,” said Deacon Dennis Dorner, the chancellor of the archdiocese, explaining the need to establish common protocols in parishes, schools and offices.

Valuable information about the Catholic Church in North Georgia is no longer simply paper records. Computer files, e-mail exchanges, digital technology all hold slices of the story of the local church that pieced together reveal the wider picture. The new effort is to preserve information before it is unknowingly discarded.

“A test for a good archivist is knowing what to throw out. If you don’t know for sure, don’t throw it out. Call me,” said Carolyn Denton, who started as the archivist in January. An assistant will soon be hired to help keep the records.

The church must comply with a host of legal mandates, from church law to federal law, and each have different requirements on preserving records. Baptismal records and others sacramental documents are kept as required by church law. Federal and state law covers employee files and contracts. Changes in court procedures have spurred other businesses to keep up-to-date records.

Most of the archive collection starts in 1956 when Atlanta became a diocese as the northern Georgia counties were split from the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta. Six years later, it became an archdiocese.

The archives were formed in the early 1990s, under the direction of the late Anthony Dees, a former assistant director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History.

In June, the vice chancellor for archives from the Archdiocese of Chicago came to look at the operations here.

John “Jac” Treanor found an archival system in its infancy and it was doing a good job keeping materials. At the same time, the archdiocese needs to build a system to preserve valuable material and discard the valueless.

“It isn’t left to the well-intentioned; we need a plan,” he said.

Record keeping for any organization with new technology can be overwhelming, he said.

“We can pretty much get crippled by that,” he said.

Instead, the archdiocese needs to adopt a how-to plan so the story of the Georgia church can be told in the future.

“We’re documenting the good works that the people do in their part of the Lord’s vineyard,” he said.

The responsibilities of record keeping fall to the chancellor of the archdiocese. Deacon Dennis Dorner said he wanted to get the project rolling since there hadn’t been a long-term plan on how to handle the influx of information.

The goal is to develop comprehensive policies down to the type of paper to use for church sacramental records, he said. (The answer is acid-free paper.)

“Our mantra is good records will make good archives,” said Deacon Dorner.

He said parishes would be getting guidelines for handling of records and the storage. The most important feature will focus on the sacramental records and the safeguarding of that vital information, said Deacon Dorner.

And similar suggestions will be made to schools since student records are so critical, he said.

An archdiocesan-wide records policy is a good way to ensure church offices are hitting the same benchmarks, said an executive with National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. The Catholic nonprofit organization serves the Catholic Church by bringing best business practices in management, finances and human resources’ development to the church.

Michael Brough, the director of planning, said the church is strengthened when practices commonly used by the business community are used in the church’s operations.

“It’s simply making sure it’s handled in the best possible way,” he said about the effort to preserve valuable information.

For more information about preserving documents, contact Carolyn Denton, director of archives and records, at (404) 978-0796 or