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Who collects charity archives? Mapping collecting practices in England

In a previous blog post, I introduced my PhD research examining the risk to records in charities and voluntary sector organisations in England. As part of this AHRC collaborative doctoral partnership, I am currently undertaking a three-month placement with the Regional and Networks Team at The National Archives (TNA). Responding to a call to action from the recently-published Charity Archives Development Plan, this placement aims to better understand what types of charities and voluntary sector organisations are being collected by archives services in England.

According to TNA’s Discovery database, there are approximately 200 archives services in England that collect the archives of charities and voluntary organisations. The collections held in these repositories represent the rich diversity of voluntary action in England. They range from mutual aid societies and international NGOs (such as the Save the Children Fund archive held at Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham) to branches held in local record offices across England and large national charities, such as Mind at the Wellcome Collection. Yet, despite the archives of charitable organisations making up a significant portion of the archival collections in England, little is known about trends in collecting practices and what gaps in the national record might have been overlooked. There is a real need to move beyond anecdotal evidence.

Previous attempts have been made to understand what subjects are being collected by archives services. In 1989, for example, the Society of Archivists and SCONUL published the findings of a commissioned survey into university repositories across the UK. This research showed that records relating to voluntary action were in fact the most common type of archival collection acquired by archives and special collections services in universities. In 2017, this topic was revisited in the Collecting Drivers report which examined collecting in relation to subject matter (such as education or women’s history) rather than type of collection (such as those created by organisations or the papers of individuals). Expanding upon the Collecting Drivers report, this placement research aims to provide a more detailed picture of charity and voluntary sector archival collections in England.

This project emerged as a key recommendation of the Charity Archives Development Plan steering group. It aims to create a tool for TNA’s Regional and Networks Team to use to identify potential repositories for archives that are at risk of loss. The tool will be created using a database drawing on data held by TNA, as well as information from a wide range of online and published finding aids. In addition, this research will provide new and innovative insights into archival practices in England by considering both current and historical trends in collecting.

In order to help preserve the records of charities and voluntary sector organisations, it is essential to understand what types of archives are being collected and which ones have been overlooked. In mapping the collecting practices, we hope to better understand current collection development priorities and how these have shifted over time. I very much hope that my placement will support the ongoing work of TNA to reduce the risk to records in charities and voluntary organisations.

Poster showing the logo of Keep Britain Tidy campaign
Keep Britain Tidy campaign poster (The National Archives, EXT 1/121)

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