You might have seen that The National Archives was among the latest batch of archive services to have reached the Archive Service Accreditation standard. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may also know that I’m very closely involved in managing the Archive Service Accreditation programme. So… how did that work, then?
National bodies are Accreditable too
Previous standards schemes in the UK haven’t been open to The National Archives. This time we are one of eight partners who developed Archive Service Accreditation, and that gives the scheme enough flexibility for us to apply. It was really important to us to demonstrate our sector leadership by getting involved with sector issues and programmes – Accreditation was a great opportunity to do that. We volunteered to be a pilot service, to test the draft Standard, and we have now gone through the full Accreditation.
Accreditation works through a principle called ‘scalability‘: archive services should demonstrate they provide a good service taking into account what type and size they are. So the expectation for national bodies is that, “They will offer visitor facilities appropriate to a national organisation, holding and developing a collection of national and international significance.” That is obviously not something we would expect of a small hospital archive or a private business collection.
- The first way an application is assessed is by trained assessors employed by the home nation’s assessor body. For England, that is The National Archives, and I lead that team. Needless to say, I didn’t lead this particular assessment though! Under the arrangements for national bodies who are also assessors, The National Archives was assessed by representatives from the Scottish and Northern Irish assessor bodies (Scottish Council on Archives and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland).
- Next, many applicants are site-visited as well as making an online application. Many of our site visits in England also incorporate a peer reviewer, recruited from the wider archives sector. It’s a great opportunity for archives professionals to get under the skin of archive services and contribute their own expertise to Accreditation. We had different peer reviewers in the pilot and the live application, and both found it a stimulating experience. The latest peer reviewer wrote to me after the visit:‘I have been meaning to get back to you to let you know what a fascinating time I had at The National Archives. I took a lot away from the day in terms of practice (have been experimenting with our air-con system ever since) and just experiencing the culture in a very different organisation gave me plenty to think about. Having been given an introduction to your website I have taken the time to find my way around and have become positively evangelical about it!’
- Lastly, all applications are reviewed at an Accreditation Panel, composed of members of the Accreditation Committee. These panels meet regularly to make the final decision on whether applicants have reached the required standard. They act as a check on the work of assessors and ensure the programme is consistent and reflects the real world in which archive services operate. Our awarding panel commented that:
‘The service is notably confident and outgoing. They felt that the application delivered all round on what would be expected from a national archive and sector leader. It was particularly notable that so much of the application linked to information freely available online already, demonstrating an open approach.’
All of which allowed us to enter The National Archives for Archive Service Accreditation knowing that we could be assessed fairly and transparently. My colleagues in Corporate Planning and Public Services Development led a team effort to make an application that represents The National Archives’ policy and practice. (Not that it stopped me feeling squeamish about being so close a part of managing the Accreditation programme when my own organisation was going through it. I didn’t even dare to read our application until after I knew we’d been successful.)
What does ‘Accredited’ mean?
Having said that Archive Service Accreditation is scalable, there are things that any Accredited Archive Service must have in common. They have shown that they meet (or in a few cases partially meet) each requirement of the Accreditation Standard.
What that means overall is that they have shown they are delivering, in line with what their service aims to do, across all three areas of the Standard:
- The first module, Organisational Health, asks applicants to show that they have a clear sense of what they exist to provide; that they have a clear basis for governance; that they plan for future improvement and that they have resources to deliver.
- The second module looks at every aspect of managing Collections. That includes how new items make their way into the archive service, how they are described and how they are cared for.
- The final module asks about Stakeholders and their experiences: how is access provided to records, is it legally sound, and does it meet the needs of people who make use of the archive service?
The National Archives was Accredited in the same round as three other pioneering archive services, all of whom contributed to the piloting of Archive Service Accreditation:
- Falkirk Archives: collecting and preserving local records from the Falkirk area, within a community trust that also manages heritage, leisure and culture
- Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University: the university archives are held together with collected material on the rich industrial, cultural and social heritage of Wales, and the eponymous collection which illustrates the life and career of Richard Burton as a world-famous actor on the stage and screen
- Unilever Archives and Records Management: managing the business records of a major international corporation to support brand management, compliance and the company’s heritage
Although as you can see these are very different types of archive service, with very different collections and audiences, we all have this in common, in the words of the Accreditation Committee Chair, Bruce Jackson:
‘These awards are a tangible recognition of the sector’s successes at preserving and making accessible the nation’s archive heritage. All of the services should be proud of themselves and of the difference they have made to people, communities and businesses across England, Scotland and Wales.’