Preserving your charity’s archives: first steps

charlotte-clementsCharlotte Clements is a Research Assistant at the UCL Institute of Education and a PhD student at the University of Kent. She researches the history of youth clubs since 1945 and is interested in youth welfare history and social policy. Charlotte is the Research Assistant on the British Academy project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’.

The archives of voluntary organisations are vital assets – and they are at risk. In 2014, the British Academy adopted a new five-year project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’. To date, the project has received many enquiries from organisations large and small, but we need your help!

Archives tell your organisation, supporters and donors who you are, why you are here, and what you want to achieve. They are crucial to your sense of identity. They are also huge strategic resources; outlining how the organisation has been governed, what it has achieved so far, and how its aims have been embodied in the work that it does.

Your archives are under threat

Yet we also know that the archives of many charities are vulnerable, and that many of you feel you need some support and guidance in dealing with your records. In times of financial constraint and change for the sector, prioritising the preservation of archives is difficult and many organisations simply do not know where to start. This situation was recognised by the British Academy in 2014 when it adopted a new five-year project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’.

Now we need to make a start on figuring out what to do about helping charities preserve their archives. I’ve just been appointed as a part-time researcher on the project and I want to work with you in the voluntary sector on where we go from here.

1. Save the date (5 June 2015)

Firstly, we need you to save the date! On the afternoon of Friday 5 June 2015 we will be holding a launch event with our partners at the British Academy in London. The event is aimed at voluntary sector organisations of all sizes, especially those who need some advice about managing their archives.

We want people in charities – particularly those who might be interested in or responsible for archives – to come along to find out more about the project, hear about recent initiatives and case studies, and most importantly to tell us what they hope the project can do for them. You can register for the event here.

2. Make a list – what do you want to know about archives?

Secondly, we want to hear from you. What are your questions about looking after archives? Do you know where to start? How far have you got? Are you stuck? If so, how can we help you? We know some organisations have deposited or catalogued their archives, fewer have started digitising them, and many have boxes in basements and storerooms that they simply do not know what to do with. Whatever stage you are at, we want to hear about your experiences and – more importantly – the questions you need our help to answer.

3. Think about the barriers and challenges you’re facing

In order for this project to be a success we need you to talk to us about what your needs are, to help us shape the project in a way that will be of most benefit to voluntary sector organisations. We have experts from The National Archives, the British Library, Heritage Lottery Fund, academic institutions, existing charity archives, and many more lined up to offer their support and guidance. We want to use it in the best way possible, so tell us what we need to ask them!

4. Tell us what you need help with

Different sizes of organisation, working in many different areas, will have a variety of questions and needs. We want to know about them so we can prioritise the areas of most urgent need. By sending your questions and views now, we can look to work some of them into our launch event and really get the project off to a great start.

If you want to send your questions, express an interest in the launch event or tell us about what you have been doing with your archives, please contact me. The archives of our voluntary organisations are crucial, yet they are vulnerable. With your help I hope we can begin the difficult task of preserving them for the future.

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4 Responses to Preserving your charity’s archives: first steps

  1. Bobbie Carnegie says:

    As a retired London Art & Design teacher now continuing as an assistant (Art & Design) in an Academy (London Secondary) school I often wonder about schools compiling and preserving their own school records. I am, particularly, thinking about school ventures/initiatives/photos about all sorts of school enterprises/Etc. all of which are of the moment and then ‘deleted’ as of no ongoing relevance.

    Schools could be a hotbed where education about ‘archiving’ might produce amazing results – with pupils and students at the ‘school keyboard’ and scanner archiving their school heritage.

  2. monica lang says:

    I went to a free workshop at the Devon Heritage Centre. They archive anything relevant to Devon. They dry, preserve and catalogue. They were looking through the archives of a club, which were so extensive that they had filled a transit van. Every council in the UK has such a department… I think. So I’m puzzled as to why charities might need help with preserving their archives.

  3. monica lang says:

    meant to say that I was attending on behalf of the new Starcross History club.

    • Thanks for the comment Monica. It provides a good opportunity to reiterate the need for the project.

      Firstly, I would say that it is not always appropriate for councils to take this material. Current guidance is for organisations to keep the material as a strategic asset if they possibly can. There are several reasons charities benefit from keeping their archives that my colleague, Georgina Brewis, has written about elsewhere on this blog.

      Also, organisations do not always fit geographical boundaries or the collections policies of local archives, so even if it were desirable to deposit with a third party such as a council archive, this is not always possible and nor are councils obliged to take these deposits. It is also clear that capacity is not uniformly available across the country. Not all councils have the resources to take these archives and indeed even large repositories are running out of space in some cases. Sustainability of archives is partly an issue here and leaves the archives of many organisations at risk. In addition, single issue regional or national charities may not find a natural home for their archives in an external repository, even if this is desirable.

      The launch of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives in 2012, the funding of this project and the keen partnerships we have built across the archives and charity sectors shows that there is a clear demand for this project. Many organisations lack the expertise and resources to know what to do with their archives and researchers are finding it hard to gain access to these valuable research materials.

      Charities come in all shapes and sizes and have a wide variety of needs when it comes to preserving, digitising and using their archives. While some councils and external archives have done excellent work in this area, there is much more to do, and our event brings together relevant expertise for those interested in doing it.