The ‘poor cousins’ of national collections? Considering the value of archives to the third sector

By Mary Wills, Wilberforce Institute 

As part of our ‘Archives into the Future’ seminar series (in collaboration with Performing the Jewish Archive and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ theme), the recent workshop at the British Library conference centre provided a forum for discussion and debate about the many issues facing archives in the third sector. Around sixty delegates from across the heritage sector, academia and third sector organisations exchanged ideas on the value of archives to the third sector, and how heritage resources can be utilised in modern day campaigning. This theme is prominent in our own Antislavery Usable Past project, with its focus on using histories and heritage as tools for creating a greater theoretical understanding of the issues we face in society, and also as practical aids for creating modern strategies and campaigns to tackle these issues.

The programme consisted of two panel sessions and break-out discussions. Speakers in the morning session addressed the relationships between archives and the third sector, with a particular focus on public policy and social activism. Philip Gale of the National Archives spoke about the need to move away from third sector archives being viewed merely as ‘country cousins’ of larger national collections. Stressing the ‘multiplicity of different narratives’ in archive collections around the UK, he encouraged the establishment of sector-wide strategies for conservation, interpretation, and promotion of smaller collections.

Dr Andrew Flinn explored the variety of relationships between archives, civil society and campaigns for social justice. His idea of a ‘useful past’ focused on social campaigns, knowledge production, and community based archiving. The latter offered mutually beneficial relationships: both in allowing communities to create and curate their own histories, and in enabling the archive to be part of contemporary community campaigns. The idea of creating archives of communities as opposed to archives of the powerful was continued by Dr Stephen Muir of the Performing the Jewish Archive project, who promoted the use of archives as a way of stabilising connections between past and present.

Dr Charlotte Clements discussed the challenges inherent in encouraging third sector organisations to understand the value of archiving their work, as part of the Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Great Britain project (which looks to make available materials which will enhance understanding of the role of voluntary organisations in society). This theme was continued into the afternoon session, which focused on experiences from the archives. There was much discussion about the idea of archives as strategic assets to third sector organisations, although this can pose a strain on the archivists that care for them. Matthew McMurray from the Royal Voluntary Service Archive reported on his own efforts to convince the charity of the value of their archive, in financial, historical and promotional terms. Speakers recounted the struggles within third sector archives to balance the needs and resources of organisations against the demands of academic and public researchers to gain access to their histories. Liz Sykes from the Together Trust argued that promoting the value of the charity’s archive was the key to its survival; she offered exhibitions, outreach programmes, and social media tools as ways to do this. Similarly, Ruth Macdonald from the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre discussed the idea of a ‘useful past’ in the use of the charity’s material in contemporary social campaigns – those against human trafficking, for example.

A further theme of the afternoon session was hidden histories. Nicky Hilton discussed the Bishopsgate Institute’s policy of ‘assigning value’ to its collections which would otherwise remain hidden, such as the extensive collection relating to LGBT history. Emphasising the importance of history ‘from below’, Nicky argued that more needed to be done within the professional archives sector in the way of offering free advice and support to third sector organisation in preserving their archives, to ‘ensure that everyday lives become everyday archives’ (a sentiment that echoed Andrew Flinn’s earlier presentation). Currently writing a history of the first 50 years of the Child Poverty Action Group, Professor Pat Thane spoke as a user of archives and stressed the cultural importance of a well-preserved archives sector for academic research.

The workshop also included break-out discussions to discuss the particular relationships and tensions between archives, public policy and social activism; and how repositories and third sector organisations can work together for the benefit of research and campaigning. Issues raised included the lack of resources afforded to these organisations, both in terms of funding and human resources. New opportunities were also discussed, in particular those offered by digitisation technologies (although opinion was divided on how helpful these developments were in reality).

So how best to ‘care for the future’ of archives in the third sector? Many delegates spoke of the necessity for collaboration, but also a need to instil a ‘record keeping culture’ across the sector. One overriding theme was the balancing act between repositories being ‘dynamic’ – whereby material is used as well as stored – while also protecting the reputation and ownership of the archives in question. There was much support for the idea of users of third sector archives engaging with social action and making something of the information they uncover; as one delegate said, it is ‘within our own rights to write our own history’.

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