Four things academics can do to help preserve charity archives

This week’s new that the Black Cultural Archives is to receive £200,000 stop-gap funding from government is a moment to celebrate, although the organisation’s future is far from secure. This results from a wide community campaign of support, including an important letter from MPs Helen Hayes and Chukka Umunna to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that was backed by over 100 parliamentarians. But academics played a part too. The Social History Society wrote a letter, as did the Records at Risk steering group, and we know of a number of behind-the-scenes interventions from learned societies which all had an impact.

After much work over the past few years in developing tools and guidance for voluntary organisations (watch this space in 2019 for some new announcements), we have recently turned our attention to ensuring greater advocacy for archives. For example, we are part of a newly formed Records at Risk steering group, which is ‘an independent advisory body for England and Wales in liaison with the other regions of the United Kingdom that will consider and co-create with The National Archives (TNA) appropriate steps to better manage the risks and challenges faced by vulnerable archive collections’. We also think academics from across the disciplines can do much more to help records at risk. In light of this we would like to offer our university-based friends and colleagues some suggestions of four things they can do to promote the use and preservation of the archives of voluntary organisations. 

  1. Write money for archives into grant proposals – we should not be relying on voluntary and community organisations to be able to facilitate access to records in the same way as more formal repositories can. Contact organisations well in advance of your research and have an open discussion about what you need to see and what it will cost them – this could be costed staff time to enable access or funds to support preservation, cataloguing or digitisation. Such financial support can help demonstrate the value of archives to senior management or trustees within an organisation.
  2. Draw up a written memorandum of understanding between you or your project and the organisation(s) whose archive you hope to use, such ethical best practice protects both parties and helps maintain a good relationship. It should cover details such as access, ethics, intellectual property rights, copyright and outputs. 
  3. Disseminate guidance – do you come across organisations that might benefit from learning more about record keeping and archiving policy and practice? Direct them to our resources, to TNA’s extensive guidance or to specialist resources provided by Charity Finance Group for instance.
  4. Champion the archive collections you have used – let trustees, staff or volunteers know about your research, write a blog or item in a newsletter, offer to do a talk for the organisation. The archives of voluntary and community organisations have a unique social value, and academic researchers can be vital intermediaries in sharing that with a wider public. 

Charlotte Clements and Georgina Brewis

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