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Charity archives in a time of crisis?

Charity records and archives are always at risk, but the multiple and intersecting crises of 2020 are adding to this strain. The need to understand the voluntary and community sector’s contribution to British society has never been more needed. Charities and community groups are on the front line of the response to the COVID-19 crisis as well as being lauded for their work in tackling racism and inequality. There is a growing acceptance that charities’ records are vital for examining the contribution of communities and organisations to past crises.

The renewed interest in what we might learn from the history of voluntary action is very welcome. I raised some of these issues in a recorded talk for the British Academy’s Summer Showcase, which you can watch below, as well as in a talk to the the Social History Society’s 2020 online summer conference (recording available soon).

I think there are four key challenges for archivists, historians and others concerned about voluntary sector archives and records right now:

1. The UK voluntary sector is facing unprecedented challenges as organisations are deprived of their usual income streams, while at the same time being asked to offer greater support to communities. The threat of staff redundancies, office relocations, merger and even closure places charity archives and records at greater risk.

What can we do? Get in touch with the project via the contact form if you are concerned about a particular collection. At TNA, the Archives Sector Development Manager – Charities is closely monitoring the risks to existing archive services run by voluntary groups. The Records at Risk group is also available to help.

2. There is currently a ‘collecting COVID’ mania, but is the voluntary and community sector’s response and experience being adequately recorded, either within individual organisations or more broadly?

What can we do? Many local and national repositories are collecting general stories of COVID-19 and will welcome the perspective of voluntary and community organisations as part of this. There is a google docs document that lists active documentation projects on COVID-19, though many of these have a US focus. In the UK, the May Day Rooms has initiated a Pandemic Notes project to document social movements. The Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) has launched a ‘Research Repository‘ to collate research projects being undertaken to understand the impact of coronavirus on the sector.

3. The pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol as part of wider protests of the Black Lives Matter movement has renewed interest in the connections between philanthropic income, slavery and empire (along with way income from the slave trade underpins many other areas of British society, culture and business). How can we use this moment to ask pertinent questions about the preservation and accessibility of the archives of charitable trusts and foundations?

What can we do? Many trusts already have accessible archives, including a recent project to deposit and catalogue the records of the eight trusts and charitable companies created by Barrow and Geraldine Cadbury and their son Paul at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography. We are planning an event on this topic with the UK Philanthropy Archive at the University of Kent in autumn 2020. Any trusts/foundations interested in preserving their archives as part of this new archive can get in touch with specialcollections@kent.ac.uk.

4. The Black Lives Matter movement has also raised awareness around the lack of representation of such ‘Black lives’ in museums, libraries and archives, and of the pressing need to ensure that the records of BAME voluntary and community organisations are preserved and accessible.

What can we do? There are a number of specialist repositories and projects collecting BAME experiences in Britain including the AIU Race Relations Resource Centre in Manchester, the Black Cultural Archives, the George Padmore Institute, the Everyday Muslim Project and the Living Refugee Archive (LRA). In recent years, more general collections have also moved to collect BAME histories, including the National Museum of Wales which has appointed at Curator of Black History.

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About Georgina Brewis

Associate Professor in the History of Education, UCL
View all posts by Georgina Brewis →

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