The summer months are a favorite season at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives, a noticeable shift from the marathon of the academic year to the sprint of summer research visits. This year, the manuscripts reading room is eerily dark and quiet, while dissertations, articles, monographs, documentaries, and other research projects wait on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providing access to collections, however, is only one of many archival tasks. Long before researchers can scroll through finding aids, dig through boxes, or submit duplication requests, collections must be processed—a meticulous procedure of arranging, describing, and preserving historical documents. Depending on staff resources and the size and physical condition of the materials, some processing jobs can require years of effort.
This silent summer in the manuscripts reading room provided one unanticipated benefit for archivists—uninterrupted time for processing—and allowed us to put the final processing touches on a significant new collection.
This August, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives is pleased to announce the opening of Collection 640: Records of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) for research.
Following years of careful preparation and trading homes between two different Wheaton College archival repositories, the IFES records are now accessible to the public.
To introduce this significant addition to the Archives’ holdings on evangelism and missions, we interviewed the former Director of the BGC Archives Paul Ericksen, who spent three years arranging, describing, and preserving the paper (and photograph) trail of IFES ministry around the globe dating back to 1947.
How did the IFES records come to be housed at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives?
The IFES records were initially offered to the BGC Archives in the mid-1990s—we already had the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-USA records and were disappointed to decline IFES—but we could not accept them because we were quickly using up our limited storage space and were under a self-imposed moratorium on accepting any new organization’s records. IFES, on our recommendation, offered the records to Buswell Library Special Collections, which accepted them. In 2007, after we had acquired additional storage space, we reopened the conversation with Special Collections about acquiring the records as IFES had originally intended. The suggestion was agreeable to Special Collections, especially since the IFES records complemented our collection focus on global evangelicalism and missions. The transfer was officially made in 2008, and the records became part of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives. While the records have been accessible to researchers with special permission from IFES since then, the materials have remained largely unavailable for the past twelve years.
What kinds of challenges did you encounter while processing a large, text-heavy collection like IFES?
The collection came to us very well organized with a detailed inventory—every archivist’s dream! The first challenge was to reflect that organization for its 118 cubic feet in the description, box lists, etc. The second challenge was to unpack the collection’s broadest categories (e.g. Staff, Member Movements) to reflect all the rich diversity recorded in the files that capture the growth of the movement, the geographical reach of its many members, the emergence of Evangelical leaders in the Global South, and the theological reflection in a truly global movement. The third challenge was to find way to give the researcher access to the various trajectories into a given file—if a staff file with a given name, what country did that person correspond to; if a country file, which individuals’ interactions were recorded there. Finally, it was also a challenge to find that the first several decades of the organization’s operation were only very minimally documented, and that the files of its first and longest general secretary, C. Stacey Woods, only totaled .6 cubic feet of material. (Gasp!)
What unexpected treasures did you uncover while processing or what surprised you about the collection’s contents?
So many items come to mind, but some favorites include: 1) The minute book from the 1930s with handwritten entries that contain some of the earliest accounts of IFES’s predecessors, including constitutions, incorporation documents, meeting minutes, and conference files and message transcripts that record the process that led to movement’s founding in 1947. 2) The files related to the formation of China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship from the late-1940s in the People’s Republic of China when the Chinese Communists had seized control of the country’s government and expelled expatriate missionaries. 3) The many publications from many member movements across the globe in the Publications Series. These publications capture events and figures in each country, theological, political, and student issues they were addressing, and the cross-collaboration among other movements. The Publication Series is a rich composition of the many pieces connecting a worldwide mosaic of ministry.
In your experience, what is the best part of processing archival collections?
Getting to be the advance researcher, even if very superficial and at breakneck speed; seeing and reading documents for the first time in their archival context and then capturing and expressing in the description what researchers can expect to find (or not find) in the collection; giving them needed tools to uncover the many different trajectories of interest; and providing specific instances of documents to illustrate the rich diversity of the collection. Also discovering a document or thread or theme that makes it personal for me as the archivist; in this case, I even found a letter about myself from a short-term mission assignment in Asia! Who could have imagined that?
What kind of users will benefit from the collection or what research avenues could it support?
I expect there will be a lot of demand this collection, in part because researchers who know we have been working hard to process it have been asking, “When?” Because the collection provides a variety of different axes, researchers with very divergent interests will all find materials to deepen their area of study. Particularly wide avenues for research will be the emergence of Evangelicalism in the Global South, or those studying a particular leader or Evangelical community in a given country, or the relationships between Evangelical movements or between Evangelical and non-Evangelical organizations, or those exploring work among non-Western theologians, especially in relation to all the social and political issues that those countries were addressing. I hope that I will be only the first of many to uncover the resources this collection will yield, and look forward to the insights and perspectives that are added to scholarly work from the use of the IFES records.
Other IFES-related collections in the Archives include the recently released oral history series with Douglas Stewart, a long-time IFES staffer serving in Latin America. Those sound recordings are available in Collection 707: Oral History Interviews with Douglas W. Stewart.
For more information about Collection 640 or to make an appointment to use the IFES records, please contact the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org.