Volunteers extend reach of Mennonite Church USA archives

By Rich Preheim

Archives volunteer Stan Voth of Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan., looks through transcriptions of obituaries from the Bundesbote that will be entered into an online obituary database at the North Newton archives. (Photo by Melanie Zuercher)

GOSHEN, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—Retiree Stan Voth of Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan., used to work in an historical library and archives. Goshen (Ind.) College senior Tillie Yoder is considering doing so. Both are volunteers at the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee’s archives—Voth in North Newton and Yoder in Goshen.

Voth, Yoder and 14 other volunteers are an essential part of the denomination’s historical ministry, says Goshen archivist Colleen McFarland. The archives have a staff full-time equivalency of less than five.

“Without our volunteers, we simply could not keep up with all of the work required to keep an archival program of this size in operation,” she says. “Our ability to connect with thousands of people worldwide is largely possible because of the labor of our dedicated volunteers.”

The two archives house the official records of Mennonite Church USA’s churchwide agencies and their General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church predecessors. The archives also have materials from congregations, area conferences, church-related organizations and individuals. The combined holdings number 20 million documents, photos and audio and video recordings. Each year, the two archives receive more than 1,000 research requests from around the globe.

Most volunteers are older and retired, like Voth. But Yoder, a 21-year-old history and English major at Goshen College, interned at the Goshen archives last fall and came back this spring to “get more of a feel for it, so when I do go to grad school, I have better grounding.”

Yoder is assisting archival staff in finding photos for a historical presentation. “I like digging through all sorts of things,” she says. “It’s fun to look around collections and make connections.”

Voth, a former employee in the North Newton archives, is the longest-tenured volunteer in North Newton, having served since 1991. He initially helped organize materials, including those from his parents, William C. and Matilda Voth, longtime missionaries in China and Japan. Voth, who was born and raised in China, learned much from the correspondence between his parents and the General Conference Mennonite Church mission board. “You realize there are a lot of headaches, and it’s not all easy sliding along,” said Voth, whose sister, Helen Bertrand, also volunteers in the North Newton archives.

Archives volunteer Nelda Nussbaum of Waterford Mennonite Church, Goshen, types information into an online database of archival collections at the Goshen archives. (Photo provided)

Goshen volunteer Nelda Nussbaum of Waterford Mennonite Church, Goshen, also made a familial connection. She found letters from her grandfather, David D. Zehr, a bishop at Manson, Iowa, who died before she was born. Nussbaum started volunteering at the archives after seeing a notice in her church bulletin asking for volunteers. “I thought, ‘Sounds interesting, and I’m interested in history,’” she says.

But learning about the past isn’t the only education for many of the volunteers. Technological advances have made it possible to serve researchers who may never set foot in the Goshen or North Newton archives. So volunteers who didn’t even grow up with television have had to develop computer proficiency.

When she started 21 years ago, Nussbaum’s first responsibilities were sorting photographs and labeling files. Now she is one of three volunteers in Goshen entering information into an online database that describes the records and manuscript collections in the two archives (https://mla.bethelks.edu/archon/). The database currently lists about 800 collections, with thousands more to go. Voth has spent the last several years putting into a computer database obituaries from the Bundesbote, a North American Mennonite German-language periodical published until 1947 (https://mla.bethelks.edu/mediawiki/index.php/Category:Christlicher_Bundesbote_obituaries).

Archives volunteer Don Blosser of College Mennonite Church, Goshen, and Colleen McFarland, archivist, discuss his project of organizing a set of congregational records at the Goshen archives. (Photo provided)

In Goshen, five volunteers digitize photos, while another uploads them to the photo-sharing website Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/mennonitechurchusa-archives/), which currently has more than 2,500 photos from the two archives.

Another Goshen volunteer, Thelma Martin of Yellow Creek Mennonite Church, Goshen, maintains one of the Historical Committee’s most successful initiatives: MennObits, a popular online collection of more than 82,000 obituaries, primarily from Gospel Herald and The Mennonite (www.mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/index.html). Like most volunteers, Martin works one morning a week, although she also puts in many hours working from home.

Other volunteer tasks include transferring materials to archival-quality folders and other containers, identifying photographs, translating German-language documents into English, and general clerical work.

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Images available:

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/Archives_Stan_Voth.jpg
Archives volunteer Stan Voth of Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan., looks through transcriptions of obituaries from the Bundesbote that will be entered into an online obituary database at the North Newton archives. (Photo by Melanie Zuercher)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/Archives_Nelda_Nussbaum.JPG
Archives volunteer Nelda Nussbaum of Waterford Mennonite Church, Goshen, types information into an online database of archival collections at the Goshen archives. (Photo provided)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/Archives_DonBlosser_ColleenMcFarland.JPG
Archives volunteer Don Blosser of College Mennonite Church, Goshen, and Colleen McFarland, archivist, discuss his project of organizing a set of congregational records at the Goshen archives. (Photo provided)