Why Archives are for Everyone

The theme for International Archives Week speaks directly to the work undertaken by the International Council on Archives (ICA) and the Forum of National Archivists in advocating the unique value and impact of archives of all kinds. It also goes right to the heart of the strategic aspirations of The National Archives.

When I came back to Kew in 2014, I was fortunate to return at the point when the organisation was looking to start out on a new strategy. The previous business plan, ‘For the Record, For Good’, talked about what archives do. Its successor, ‘Archives Inspire’ – our ambitious, audience-focused strategy completed in March of this year, articulated what archives are for. Our new strategy, ‘Archives for Everyone’, is about who archives exist to serve, and why archives worldwide are obliged to be the best we can be.

To be a 21st century national archive, we need to be: Inclusive, Entrepreneurial, Disruptive. The inclusive archive builds trust and tears down barriers to access, participation and understanding. The entrepreneurial archive is flexible and fearless, creating and realising value at home and across the globe. The disruptive archive changes everything, constantly adapts, rethinks and reshapes its practice to meet its contemporary and future challenges.

Like many national archives throughout the world, we believe that we are an essential resource that underpins our democracy. We are a public good and our collections are an asset for future generations. We also know that we have a lot of work to do to put people at the centre of what we do, and that this will take the collaboration of the entire global archive community. We also need to develop new skills and exploit emerging technology in order to become the institutions that truly represent everyone who encounters us.

The National Archives, created from the merger of the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 2003, has changed and evolved throughout its history. From our creation in 1838 to the present day, we have seen a progression towards openness and away from exclusivity and privilege. We’ve spent nearly 200 years realising that Archives are for Everyone. And in the year that the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) celebrates its 150th anniversary, it’s time to embrace that realisation and to make the institution a match for the mission! As we look ahead to the next four years, this commemorative HMC 150 year is a fitting acknowledgment of how archives and archival practice can transform what we do, and how we do it, for the future.

There is so much we can all learn from one another’s experiences, and I’m very glad to see that this year’s campaign spans an entire week. If you haven’t already done so, do visit the ICA website and get involved in #IAW2019.

This blog is published as part of International Archives Week, which explores the theme of ‘Designing the Archives in the 21st century’.

Jeff James is Chief Executive and Keeper of The National Archives, and President of the Forum of National Archivists.

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