Accreditation conundrums? Help is at hand!


A Rubiks cube, unsolved, with very muddled sides

There is a solution to all puzzles. Even those that seem impossible. (Image courtesy of Hartlepool Museum

The new Archive Service Accreditation scheme has provoked a flurry of queries from the archive sector. Our expert Archives Agony Aunt is on hand to answer your concerns.

My service is really excited about accreditation, and we want to get started. But we’re going through a major service change, with a number of options on the table and nothing decided yet. It’s going to take years to sort out. When can we think about applying – or do we just wait indefinitely?

GH, Blogshire Record Office

I’m glad to hear you’re enthusiastic! There are areas you really can start working on for accreditation, which should support the service changes you are considering too.

If the service is undergoing major change, it’s a good time to be thinking about your mission and your stakeholders. In fact, it’s essential. What do you want to offer to your users, your depositors and your parent body? Work in this area will help you to meet section 3 of the accreditation standard, but it will also be essential to any decisions made about your service’s future. It’s a good example of how accreditation is about supporting services to improve, not just filling in forms.

Remember there may be other areas of the Accreditation Standard which are not core to whatever the change is, where you can also be preparing. For example, if your service change involves new governance, you can very likely still develop your collections management procedures and user services to a high level. If the change means moving to a new building, you can still work to confirm your governance, planning and staff training, even if the detail of your collection care has to wait till the new premises are known.

Lastly, don’t feel you have to wait until every i is dotted and t crossed to make an application. A significant part of accreditation is showing that you have considered the challenges facing your current service and planned realistically for the future. When you know what the change will be, and have concrete plans, you may be very well placed to make your application for accredited status. You will have thought through your service’s mission and its new role in a lot of depth, and you will know how the service will develop in the short to medium term.

I’ve heard lots of big archive services are applying early on. As a part-time archivist with a small collection, I’m daunted by the competition. Surely we aren’t top priority? 

PQ, Charity Archives Are Us

Your collections may be small, but that doesn’t mean they are insignificant! We’re keen to see a real mix of archive services benefiting from the scheme from the outset. Archive Service Accreditation is designed to work for institutions of very different size and purpose: make sure you refer to the scalability criteria and look at the guidance to see what is expected of an archive service of your size and type. It should be reassuring!

And remember, accreditation isn’t a competition – all services which meet the standard for their size and type will be accredited.

I thought we’d apply in the middle of the four year roll-out. It just feels more comfortable. Is that all right?

VX, Imaginary University Special Collections

That’s absolutely fine if that’s the right decision for your service. Applying when you’re not ready wouldn’t be productive. But do think about whether you’re putting off your application for good reasons.

For example, if your strategic plan expires in mid 2014, it makes perfect sense to think about your new plan alongside an application, and apply once the plan is in place. That way, you’ll have done the thinking required already, and your plans will be a real guide to Accreditation assessors about what your service ambitions are.  Equally, if you’re in the middle of a major move, that’s not a good time to be finding bits of evidence, and you’ll need all your resources to manage the project.

But if none of those apply, ask yourself why you’re thinking, “I’ll wait and see how the others do.” Are you proud of the service you offer? Do you have a good sense of what you do, why and what you plan to do to improve? If you’re nearly there, why not start work now? You might well find your application goes more smoothly and can be finished earlier than you thought – and the work you do for accreditation will help you to think positively about your service’s future development.

We’re never going to be accredited; our repositories are in bad condition and we have a huge backlog of uncatalogued material. We feel very depressed. What’s the point in spending time even thinking about accreditation?

IJK, Mythical Borough History Service

You have my sympathy – it’s not an easy position to be in. But I’d like to challenge a couple of your assumptions, to show that things needn’t be as bleak as you currently feel.

Firstly, archive services don’t need to be perfect to be accredited. That would be completely unrealistic. If your strongroom arrangements have some risks, but they are well known and well managed to minimise impact, it is not an insuperable barrier to being accredited. Your feedback will still note these risks, and also where managing those problems is taking up a lot of staffing resource, which may be useful to you in arguing for improvement works. Similarly, most archive services have a cataloguing backlog, but if you have a prioritised, managed approach to doing what you can with the resource you have, you won’t necessarily never be accredited.

Secondly, even if your service’s problems are so major that you’re currently not accreditable, there are actions you can take. For a start, use that: report upwards on what the key barriers are that prevent you from achieving a national accreditation standard. Meantime, why not use the Standard and guidance to identify what you’re doing well and what you can change within your current situation? Some pieces of work you’re already doing may fit very well with the Accreditation Standard, or you may be able to make small tweaks to improve your service at limited resource cost. Perhaps it’s time to review how you get user feedback, or how you respond to it? Perhaps it’s time your collecting policy is reviewed, or you’re planning an expansion of your volunteering which breaks new ground. This is all work which is worthwhile, improving your service for the longer term, even if for the moment you also face some big challenges.

Do talk to our Engagement Managers or Private Archives team about your options and how The National Archives can support you to improve and develop.

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