Save the Archives

As historians of voluntary action we rely on historical materials held by organisations across all sectors – government departments, local authorities, NHS, voluntary organisations and businesses as well as individuals – to provide the foundation for our work. Most of these materials are held in archives, whether in hard copy or in digital or some other format. Without access to these materials we would be working in the dark and without access to a broad and representative range of these materials we would be working in the shadows.

Given the complexity of voluntary action over time – the variety of actors and actions and the vagaries and costs of record keeping – it is not surprising that producing, selecting, managing, maintaining and accessing documentation on the history of voluntary action is problematic, a litany of “disasters, near misses and small triumphs”. The main reasons for this across all sectors are “internal politics and money” (McMurray, iii, 34). In many organisations, particularly outside the voluntary sector, there is reluctance to allocate resources to documentation of voluntary action, because it is seen as having a more peripheral role and lower priority than other subjects. In many organisations, including those in the voluntary sector, there is reluctance to allocate resources to documentation of voluntary action because using resources for “non-core” activities is likely to be seen as frivolous or potentially damaging to reputation.

Problems arise in all aspects of documentation of voluntary action:

Producing relevant documentation: This is particularly an issue for the very large number of small organisations, especially those community organisations run on a shoestring by volunteers. Most of these organisations have no interest, resources or skill to document their progress, and as a result, unless there is a fortuitous intervention, they leave no record of their aims and activities or even of their existence.

Selecting relevant documentation: Organisations cannot and should not save all the documentation that they generate. Rather they should consider their operational, legal and other requirements for information and then select documentation for preservation accordingly. If they do not do this, the resulting muddle will be costly and not very useful and will tend towards radical bureaucratic solutions such as skip hire.

Managing relevant documentation: Once organisations have selected relevant documentation it should not be left in a heap in the basement but managed through such procedures as sorting, boxing, listing and indexing so that it can be located and used quickly and from day to day.

Maintaining relevant documentation: Once organisations have selected relevant documentation and given it a home and a shape, they should maintain it long-term in good condition. This involves both preservation in optimum conditions and conservation through technical procedures. There are additional challenges in preserving digital records such as e-mails and web pages and visual and oral media in evolving formats. There are many horror stories of documentation destroyed by being in unsuitable conditions and more recently horror stories of documentation made homeless by the cash-strapped archives in which they were deposited supposedly for all time.

Accessing relevant documentation: Once documentation has been generated, selected, managed and maintained, it should be made available internally and externally, for inspection by researchers and others. There are a number of issues which affect availability – for example, time-elapsed rules (30 years or 100 years), exclusion of certain types of documentation (those bearing personal or politically-sensitive information), restricted viewing times and excessive costs of access and reproduction.

VAHS has long been aware of the critical importance of archives for the history of
voluntary action and involved in activities to promote their care and maintenance.

  • In the 1990s VAHS proposed a National Archive for Voluntary Action and carried out a survey of larger voluntary organisations that revealed a wide range of problems faced by them in creating and managing their archives and making them available to researchers.
  • In 2012 VAHS was involved in forming the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives, which developed out of an action group hosted by the British Library. Its mission is to raise “awareness of the importance of voluntary sector archives as accountability and research…. [and to] encourage all charities, voluntary organisations, trusts and foundations to take responsibility for their archives by providing for their management, preservation, use and promotion.”
  • VAHS has ensured that its seminars, conferences and blogs have featured archival issues.
  • VAHS has also supported the Institute of Education’s five-year scheme “Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare” which aims to preserve digitally key records dating back to the creation of the welfare state.

Some key texts for information:

Baker, Rob et al. (2010). Making Charity Records Matter: a strategy for charity and
voluntary sector archives and records. London: Charity Archivists and Records Managers Group (CHARM), version 2.5.

Brewis, Georgina (2017). ‘Filling in the blanks: Why charities must take records
management seriously.’

Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives (2013). Keeping it simple: Introductory
archival guidance for voluntary small sector organisations, v.1. London: Campaign
for Voluntary Sector Archives (CVSA).

Clements, Charlotte (2017). Records Management in Charities: A Toolkit for Improvement. London: UCL Institute of Education.

Demb, Sarah R. and Teuteberg, Samira (2010). Records Management Toolkit.
London: London Museums Hub.

McMurray, Matthew (comp.) (2014). Charity Archives in the 21 st Century. Cardiff:
Royal Voluntary Service.

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