Save the Archives

We cannot write the history of Britain without recourse to the records of voluntary organisations. This will be especially true for those in the future wanting to understand social provision and policy as it operates today, given the increasingly blurred boundaries between public, private and voluntary sectors.

However, four persistent problems will make this harder than ever in the future:

  • difficulties for voluntary organisations in knowing what to keep;
  • a lack of resources in smaller organisations to maintain their older records properly;
  • new challenges of preserving ‘born digital’ records such as emails and webpages;
  • and inadequate legal protection for charity or voluntary sector archives.

The Voluntary Action History Society has a long-standing interest in charity archives. In the 1990s it conducted a survey of larger voluntary organisations that revealed a wide range of problems facing charities in preserving archives and making these available for researchers. Despite some progress since the 1990s, including the work of the DANGO project at Birmingham University, the current economic climate and shift to digital records present new problems. The VAHS blog has featured several articles on archives since it started in summer 2011, read more here.

In 2012 members of the VAHS including Georgina Brewis and Brenda Weeden were involved in forming a new Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives, which developed out of an action group hosted by the British Library. The Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives was launched by Tristram Hunt MP at the House of Lords on 15 Ocotober 2012. Its mission is:

The Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives raises awareness of the importance of voluntary sector archives as strategic assets for governance, corporate identity, accountability and research. Archives are also important as part of the sector’s wider public benefit responsibility. We encourage all charities, voluntary organisations, trusts and foundations to take responsibility for their archives by providing for their management, preservation, use and promotion.

In 2014 Georgina Brewis at the Institute of Education (IOE) won funding from the British Academy to help voluntary sector organisations preserve and digitise their historical archives. The five-year scheme ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare’ will reach across the UK and seeks to digitally preserve key voluntary sector records, particularly those dating back to the creation of the modern welfare state in 1945. It aims to ensure that records relating to welfare reform, which transformed the relationship between charities and the state, are not lost. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the project’s key link to the voluntary sector, is calling for charities to engage with their history and help keep vital records of post-war Britain safe.

If you would like to find out more or get involved please visit the Campaign’s own website or email Georgina Brewis at

The best way to stay up to date with developments is to sign up to the Voluntary Sector Archives JISCMail listserve. Join JISCMail here

On twitter you can use the #volsecarchives hashtag.

More about the campaign from around the web:

Georgina Brewis, Eight reasons charities should be interested in their archives (NCVO Blog, August 2014)

Georgina Brewis, Shelf preservation (Times Higher Education letter, July 2012)

Rob Baker, Not cluttering up the basement: Exploring the potential of the archives at Blind Veterans UK (VAHS Blog post, June 2012)

Melinda Haunton, Supporting Archival Biodiversity: Welcome to the World of Private Archives (The National Archives Blog post, June 2012)

Georgina Brewis, Wanted: Champions to safeguard the archives of our charities (Guardian Voluntary Sector Network post, February 2012)

Lesley Hall, Records of Voluntary Organisations (Wellcome Library Blog, February 2012)

Georgina Brewis and Brenda Weeden,  A New Campaign for Charity Archives (VAHS Blog post, November 2011)

Georgina Brewis, Voluntary sector archives: A hidden casualty of the cuts? (VAHS Blog post July 2011) and rewritten for Third Sector magazine (July 2011)

Andrew Cooper, Visiting the Rockerfeller Archive Centre (Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund post, July 2011)

Anjelica Finnegan and Georgina Brewis outline the case for charity archives at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in November 2011


Comments are closed.