"We want to recognize one who's been so instrumental in preserving the history and heritage of the SBC," R. Albert Mohler Jr. said during the SBHLA report to the Southern Baptist Convention June 10. Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also is president of the Council of Seminary Presidents, which oversees SBHLA.
"Thank you for 30 years' service in commemorating the history and heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention," Mohler said to Sumners.
In an interview with Baptist Press, Sumners said he knew as a high school student that he wanted to do something related to history, but he didn't want to teach. He earned his master's degree in history and archiving at the University of Texas at Arlington and wrote his thesis on Southern Baptist history.
He was an archivist at Auburn University in Alabama when he was offered a position with the Southern Baptist Historical Commission. The commission was dissolved in 1997 under the Covenant for a New Century restructuring, and its holdings were passed on to the then-new SBHLA.
Located at the SBC building in Nashville, SBHLA today is a world-class center for the study of Baptist history. One of the major denominational collections in the nation, SBHLA serves as the central depository and archives of SBC records.
"A lot of what we do is help folks use our collections," Sumners told BP. "What I think we have done we have created the largest, most diverse and most accessible collection of Baptist material in the world."
SBHLA's holdings include a "superior collection" of Eastern European and Russian Baptist materials and a "good collection" of Primitive Baptist materials, in addition to an expansive collection of SBC-related items.
Among the holdings are books and pamphlets, archives and manuscripts, annuals, microfilm, periodicals, audiovisual materials and digital resources, including Baptist Press releases from 1948 to 1996, and Southern Baptist Convention Annuals from 1845 to 2013.
Churches, individuals and SBC entities are invited to submit materials for inclusion to SBHLA. One recent collection to be added is that of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists.
In 2013, SBHLA hosted scholars from several nations in addition to the United States, including Nigeria, Japan, England and Russia among others.
"What has happened for us is that five or six years ago we developed an online catalog," Sumners said. "We have 260 finding aids -- descriptions of what we have -- which has opened the visibility of our collection. Once we were online, our use began to increase significantly, and by a wide range of scholars.
"For me it's been a great privilege, honor and joy to do the work I do," Sumners said. "It allows me to meet so many interesting Baptists of all flavors.... When I look back, it's amazing I get to do what I do."
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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