Guidance for researchers

There is currently a lack of easily-accessible information for those seeking to use the records of voluntary organisations, charities and NGOs in research. The project team are currently working to address this through production of specialist guidance.

So how do researchers track down the archives of the voluntary and community organisations they want to use? Any researcher of charity needs to understand that those bodies with catalogued and accessible institutional archives – whether kept in-house or deposited elsewhere – represent only a very small minority of voluntary organisations in the UK. Unsurprisingly these tend to be the larger, better funded and longer-established groups such as the British Red Cross or the Children’s Society.  However, there is no guarantee that even the largest charity will have made provision for preservation and conservation of its records (aside from the limited financial data required by the Charity Commission) let alone for cataloguing or access.

Researchers and students are advised to start with the National Register of Archives. Another useful database is DANGO, which identifies the locations of the papers of several thousand non-governmental organisations, and was put together by a team at Birmingham University, although is no longer being updated. Searching the Archives Hub will find records of voluntary groups where these are deposited at an institution contained on its database – Hull History Centre, SOAS Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham and the LSE have all built specialisms in this area.

Many researchers will have to seek access to records by contacting an organisation or group founder directly, with variable results. Once you’ve had success accessing the records of one organisation, it may be easier to open communications with others in a related sector. Learning how to negotiate what we can call ‘informal archives’ is a key challenge for researchers. There are multiple ethical considerations and practical concerns that come with using informal archives. How do you track down such records? How do you negotiate access? How do you reference sources? What do you do if you’re concerned about the physical state of records or what might happen to them when a group’s founder dies or in charity office move? How should you reconcile your obligations as a historian with the fact that a particular organisation has trusted you to look at their materials? We recommend drawing up a memorandum of understanding to frame the relationship between researcher and organisations.

It is also worth remembering that records relating to charitable activities can turn up in unexpected places, for example in the archives of private companies. The records of a charitable Trust or Foundation may well contain better sources about a particular charity than the organisation itself has preserved, although again there may be problems of access.

Further resources

DANGO, the Database of Archives of UK NGOs since 1945, is an online, free-to-access searchable database produced by a team at the University of Birmingham. Reading lists for specific areas are available, as are guides to sources and particularly interesting archives, alongside advice for NGOs looking to deposit and preserve their papers.

The Archives and Special Collections department of SOAS Library has a growing collection of archives of internationally important nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), charities and pressure groups who work or campaign on issues relating to the developing world. produced a useful online guide to its collections.

The Voluntary Action History Society aims to advance the historical understanding and analysis of voluntary action. Its website contains a number of useful resources for anyone researching the history of charity, voluntary action or NGOs including past papers and podcasts of seminar papers and conference presentations, information about upcoming conferences and events and a blog.

The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund produced a report in 2011 mapping Trust and Foundation Archives provision in England.