There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Joel Thoreson, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this entry, COPA member Anna Trammell brings you an interview with Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. 

Joel Thoreson 2019

Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

AT: How did you get your job?

JT: I was just finishing up a grant project at the Nebraska State Historical Society scanning glass plate negatives when I was hired here as assistant archivist for reference. We reorganized in 2005 and I took on additional management duties with the title Archivist for Management, Reference Services, and Technology. My M.A. was from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a double major in history and museum studies. My original intention was to work in museum collections, as I had worked in that department of the Minnesota Historical Society for nearly five years prior to grad school. We had some coursework in archives in the museum studies program, but I’d spent much more time in the archives while working on my history degree. I also had a Lutheran church background, growing up as a pastor’s kid, and attending Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where I’d done some work in church history. I also had library experience and worked with microforms and digital imaging.

TALC_1961_MLK_Q&A

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. answering questions at The American Lutheran Church Luther League convention, Miami Beach, Florida, 1961.

AT: Tell us about your organization.

JT: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed by a merger of three predecessor church bodies in 1987, with two of those bodies formed by mergers in the early 1960s of four church bodies each, several of which had even earlier mergers. Our archives collects materials from the headquarters (aka churchwide) level of the church, with the main building about eight miles away from the archives. The ELCA is divided into 65 synods, essentially districts, most of which have grouped together into nine regions with an archives serving each region. Those regional archives collect materials from the synodical offices as well as records from dissolving congregations. Each of the more than 9,000 active congregations are also charged with maintaining their own archives. We provide guidelines and advice to the congregations regarding both archives and records management, as well as to the synods and regional archives. The ELCA also has a long tradition of global mission work, so we work with international partner churches regarding their archival records, as well as with the Lutheran World Federation Archives in Geneva, Switzerland.

ELCA Archives indulgence

Papal indulgence, 1516. Presented to Lutheran Church Productions, producers of the Martin Luther film by German Lutherfilm, GmBH, in 1954.

AT:Describe your collections.

JT: When the ELCA was formed in 1987, the archives was also formed by merger of three predecessor archives, all with their own organizational systems. We now have nearly 16,000 linear feet of records, including a large amount of audiovisual materials, including photographs, audio records, video recordings, and motion picture film. The oldest material dates back to 1812 and the migration of Pennsylvania German Lutherans into Ohio. Older material resides at ELCA regional archives at seminaries in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Pa.

Our reference inquires tend to be divided evenly between genealogical, historical, and administrative, receiving roughly 2,000 inquiries per year. We are open to the general public and try and make our records as accessible as possible. Our main genealogical resource is a set of microfilmed congregational records that were filmed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. We have recently worked with Ancestry to digitize, index, and host the pre-1945 material. These records only cover congregations from certain ancestor branches of the ELCA, so quite a lot of work is also helping researchers find the right congregation to contact to locate records.

ALC Chaplain Conrad Walker - Communion Service in Viet Nam, 1967

American Lutheran Church Chaplain Conrad Walker conducts Communion service in Viet Nam, 1967

AT: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

JT: Since many of our predecessor church bodies were formed around ethnic identities, many of the records we have up to the 1930s are in various languages, including German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Finnish, Slovak, and Icelandic, with global mission records in an even wider variety of languages.

With the dispersed archives system in the ELCA of regional and congregational archives, much of our work at the churchwide level is to direct traffic, helping people find the right repository to find the information they are seeking.

Being isolated away from any educational institution, we also are limited in our supply of volunteers and students. We do have some on-site researchers, but we provide quite a lot of resources to remote users, as well. Since we are separate from our main churchwide offices, we also struggle with being visible to staff there and have to work at making our services and collections known.

Also, with declining membership numbers of many religious organizations, we’ve faced budget cuts, declining from a high of eight staff members here in the archives, including a couple of grant positions, down to the current three staff members. We also have taken on additional responsibilities for managing the records management of the ELCA churchwide organization, as well as managing the art collection.

BMD ULCA 61.5.5 b2 f9 deaconesses with biplane

Lutheran deaconesses from the Baltimore Motherhouse of Deaconesses pose with a biplane, 1920s

AT: What is your favorite part of your job?

JT: Handling the reference questions, I always say that my job is like detective work, finding the right answer or the right document for the patron. Every day there is some new inquiry with a new direction to explore. Perhaps there are fewer fist fights or car chases than on Mannix, but in some ways my childhood aspirations have been achieved.


Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

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