Supporting archival biodiversity – welcome to the world of private archives
I wanted to bring you a flavour of what my colleagues in the Private Archives team do, because it really underlines the breadth of our work supporting the archives sector. Today’s blog is an interview with Philip Gale, Senior Adviser – Private Archives (Private and Institutional Owners). I thought you might enjoy hearing from Philip in his own words!
Philip has a particular focus at present on supporting the institutional archives of the voluntary sector, so I started by asking:
Q What is the value of institutional archives?
‘Institutional archives form a vital component of an organisation’s corporate memory – and identity. Good record-keeping supports good governance, and knowing our past helps us to avoid making the same mistakes or duplicating the same effort at a time when resources are scarce for us all. In the case of voluntary sector archives, there is also a particular value in supporting what I call “inter-generational accountability”: looking back to understand, and take responsibility for, the actions of predecessors. For example, the role of voluntary societies in supporting child emigration to the Commonwealth has been addressed in recent years.
‘Examples where you can see the value of institutional archives to the present include the Hidden Lives project by the Children’s Society which examines the lives of children in institutions, and the archives held at the Wellcome Library, especially those of the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre, which records medical developments of the past to help us to recycle their expertise and experience for the benefit of the present.’
Q What do you think are the key challenges for the private archives sector?
‘Many challenges, in several areas. Private archives are of course like all of us in a difficult economic climate, and inevitably in future less will have to deliver more! There are also increasing regulatory requirements affecting information in the private and voluntary sectors, from the Data Protection Act and Childcare Act to specific regulations around charitable status. Technically, the digital revolution is a challenge across the archives sector, and catching up with the techniques needed to manage archives is made harder by an uneven distribution of professional skills and knowledge across the sector. As a professional, the archives sector is not diverse, and it can be difficult to develop new skills and share them across the sector – difficult, but incredibly vital to ensure some coherence to the archival landscape in future. Gaining digital skills can’t eclipse the need to retain the ability to understand older records, however: we still need skills in medieval Latin, palaeography and diplomatic, to open up our collections for modern-day use. Lastly, there’s a cultural challenge, as we move into a more audio-visual and digital culture, barriers to accessing archives in traditional formats may increase. How do you interest someone in paper records if they have never so much as written a thank you letter?’
Q What is your role, and how do we help private archives?
‘I am a member of a small team that has responsibility for supporting archives of non-public bodies with appropriate advice and liaison: business, family, voluntary bodies, religious bodies, and almost anything else that can create archival material. (We also maintain the Manorial Documents Register, which deserves a blog post of its own!) My own area is family and institutional archives, which has led to working with archives as diverse as animal welfare charities, landed estates and learned societies.
‘Our support takes the form of selective bilateral advice and visits; encouraging sector-wide good practice with specialist groups such as the Religious Archives Group, Historic Houses Archivists Group and Charity Archivists and Records Managers; projects such as adapting The National Archives Archive Principles and Practice: a guide to archives for non-archivists to the particular needs of the voluntary archives sector; helping to maintain our knowledge of collections, particularly via the National Register of Archives and in supporting government schemes such as Conditional Exemption and Acceptance in Lieu. We work on specific strategies for targeted development areas. In 2010 we completed the Religious Archives Survey and are now taking forward its recommendations. I’ll soon be talking to the Exploring and Preserving History Workshop of Black churches as part of the Building on History project, which aims to develop the value of religious archives and their potential to document the changing face of Britain.’
Q Where would you like the private archives sector to be in 2017? What will help or hinder that?
‘In my ideal 2017, the accreditation scheme for archive services has settled in and is incrementally raising standards – and also raising the self-confidence of the archive sector. There is a stronger network of specialist sector organisations who are able to fine-tune advice and support in the areas where they have the expertise, and to be mentors for their own communities. Archives generally have a higher profile as a cultural and intellectual asset, and we are a more diverse profession, both culturally and technically.
‘The hindering factors are similar to existing challenges – pressure on funding, the pace of technical change, the cultural shifts which will make traditional archives less accessible and appealing. There are also real risks around an increasingly casualised workforce with few permanent posts, so archivists are not able to get to know their collections and be advocates for them. The sector is also fragmented, with lots of very small operations – collaborative working is ever more essential.
‘But there are helpful factors. The increase in regulation around information means that organisations are required to improve their recordkeeping, which can only be good for the future of their archives. Specific initiatives, like Accreditation and Opening Up Archives are addressing key areas of need, and making sure that The National Archives’ leadership role does directly support the sector. There are developing archival alliances building, bringing organisations together with researchers, administrators, archivists and volunteers who care about the value of archives and their potential to support transparent decision making. The reputational risk of being an organisation which is seen to be hiding something is a real danger: at a time of scarce resource, people expect more and more transparency about how decisions are made, and demand more from research and evidence. That’s a key spur to good record-keeping.’
Q Any final words about how you see your role?
‘I see archives as the ongoing consciousness of civil society, supporting the legitimacy of decision making. The role of non-public archives is to reflect pluralistic viewpoints, collecting archives from a variety of perspectives and via different service providers. A biodiversity of archives which complement but do not compete with each other supports the multiple narratives we have in modern society. It is our role to support that healthy diversity.’
Many thanks to the Children’s Society for providing the image for today’s post. You can find out more about Knebworth Cottage Home on the Hidden Lives Site. If you’re interested in this blogpost, you might also like to look at the Voluntary Action History Society, and especially their blog where you can find out more about third sector archives and their role in history and research.