Developing collaboration between archive services and Higher Education

In summer 2018, The National Archives, the Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) and History UK launched the Guide to Collaboration for Archives and Higher Education 2018. This builds upon previous guidance co-commissioned with Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and explores practical ways to identify, develop and sustain cross-sector collaborations.

The guidance is supported by innovative case studies from across the archives and higher education sectors. It provides insights into the drivers, initiatives, support and language of both sectors, and offers advice on identifying organisational and project priorities. It also explains how to understand outputs and outcomes in mutually beneficial projects, offering advice on measuring impact in cross-sector collaborations.

We launched this guidance at an event at The National Archives attended by Katie Flanagan, Special Collections Librarian at Brunel University. Katie describes her experience of exploring the guidance on the day.


The previous guide was produced by RLUK in 2015, based on research done in 2014, so this is a much-needed update. It had been found that individual archives were being approached by academics keen to collaborate – but archives were unsure what REF2014 was, and the relationships that formed were not particularly resilient as they were often reliant on a single academic. From this, the DCDC (Discovering Collections; Discovering Communities) series of conferences emerged.

The new guide includes refreshed case studies and references to REFTEF and KEF, the 2017 HE BillUKRI and the Office for Students, all of which affect the landscape in which collaboration is now happening.

Several case studies were offered. These included Our Criminal Past, which brought together academics and archivists through engagement vehicles such as workshops, an advice forum and social media. They used HistoryPin to allow members of the public to add information about their criminal ancestors. I found the case studies particularly useful as they outlined the obstacles to collaboration that they had encountered. It was apparent that the same issues cropped up repeatedly:

  • Time/resources – without resources for an assistant, it becomes very difficult to keep the momentum of the project going
  • Maintaining relationships with the other collaborating organisations, each of whom may have their own interests/objectives that differ to yours
  • Collaborators have their own routines, working practices, lack of expertise and skills. There may well be several layers of processes that each collaborator has to work through internally before a project can happen
  • Managing a website, particularly the costs of developing and maintaining it
  • Copyright issues, particularly around using images
  • Lack of awareness of the amount of work involved – for example, the timeframe to produce an exhibition is usually years
  • Some funding streams aren’t available if you’re not an accredited archive service

The audience at this event was fairly evenly split between archivists (working in a variety of sectors) and academics. We weren’t allowed to just sit and listen either; there were several group exercises, including ‘speed dating’ where we had a few minutes at a time to talk to various academics in turn about what we were hoping to gain from a partnership. These were a great way to meet academics engaged in a variety of areas, as well as people looking after other collections.

The guide itself outlines the steps needed when instigating a collaborative partnership, and encourages the answering of some key questions. These include: who the key decision makers are, what is important to each partner and getting everything in writing. It also provides a complete project template to use.

The final exercise was to arrange a series of priority cards into a diamond nine shape, which encouraged us to explore in groups why others had different priorities and how they might align with ours. I particularly liked the diamond nine produced by another group, who had added an extra priority card for a cake and refreshments budget!

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A group of four look thoughtfully at a diamond nine exercise where cards are arranged by importance

Four people complete a diamond nine exercise

As a result of attending this event, I have

  • joined the HEAP (Higher Education Archive Programme) mailing list so that I can remain informed about developments in this area
  • begun looking into using HistoryPin to put our collections on the map
  • followed up with a couple of academics from other universities who are interested in using some of our Special Collections in their research and/or teaching
  • put a reminder in my calendar to check on work being done to track citations of archive services across published papers and journals

We were really pleased that Katie got so much out of the event. The guidance is now available on our website, along with more information about HEAP. Please do take a look and let us know what you think.

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