I am now entering my second year as a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group. Initially I represented student users, but as I am now about to complete my PhD, I have moved to represent online users.
The group is designed to create the opportunity to learn and disseminate information about The National Archives’ plans. We are all users of The National Archives – working both on- and off-site on a huge variety of projects that require accessing information from early modern legal records and chancery records to nineteenth-century family history. The group offers us the chance to really get involved with future plans and decision-making, by representing the needs and views of members of different communities – in my case, those users who access the archives remotely – as there are many of us who live outside of London and are unable to come to Kew regularly, if at all.
Do I feel as though my contribution is valued by The National Archives? Yes, of course – or I would not be involved. I have queried the representation of gender in The National Archives’ commemoration of the First World War. I’ve also been asked to test new versions of Discovery, the catalogue, to see whether it works for me and others like me – can I find the information I need quickly? Is it logical? Are search results relevant? Staff developing new systems do not necessarily see or use them in in the same way as researchers do, and so seeing how we access information is useful for them, and helps increase understanding about what they are trying to do.
Not only have I met a lovely, diverse group of The National Archives’ users through the User Advisory Group – I have also welcomed the chance to get to know staff members and learn about their roles and projects through our quarterly meetings in Kew. These are informal meetings which provide the chance both to discuss issues and agenda items within the structure of the meetings, but also to raise other matters or to discuss research, over lunch. We are free to query decisions, to ask questions, and to discuss the areas of The National Archives’ work that impact on us and the people we represent.
So if you’re thinking about applying to become a User Advisory Group delegate, I’d thoroughly recommend it. It’s a chance to get your voice, and that of the community you represent, heard, and in return help to tell others about what The National Archives is planning, and what it can offer them. Oh, and they even provide us with jolly good cake.