Voluntary organisations’ archives and records: Why do they matter?

The Translating Asylum project draws extensively on material from voluntary organisations held in established archives. This presents several challenges, not least how to locate materials relating to translation and interpreting when such terms seldom feature in archive catalogues. At the same time, accessing archival material raises more fundamental questions about how such archives came into being and what value they have for researchers and practitioners. In this blog post, Dr Annabelle Wilkins reports on a one-day event at the British Academy that provided a forum for reflection on these themes.

  • What are the challenges faced by voluntary sector archives in the context of austerity?
  • How can we preserve the records of small and non-traditional organisations?
  • How are archives relevant to the on-going work of voluntary organisations?

These questions were the focus of a conference held at the British Academy on 6th March 2019. The event was organised by the British Academy Research Project (ARP) Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain, led by Dr Georgina Brewis (UCL). Speakers from humanitarian organisations, higher education and public sector archives came together to discuss the value of preserving the past and drawing upon it to inform current practice.

The first part of the conference focused on the ways in which archives can inform current policy, practice and communication. Zoe Abrams, Executive Director of Communications at the British Red Cross, described organisational archives as a form of ‘corporate memory’, and showed how the organisation draws upon stories and images from its archive not only to commemorate anniversaries, but also to influence humanitarian policy on a global scale.

Mike Anson, Archive Manager at the Bank of England, explained why the Bank of England Archive is a valuable resource for contemporary economists and policy-makers researching the 2008 financial crisis, with the Bank’s archives providing vital records of how similar financial crashes were managed in the past.

Kate Burt, of Leonard Cheshire, discussed how the organisation is drawing upon its archive to inform its current work supporting people with disabilities. The archive was established in 1985, and contains the personal stories of people who were supported by the organisation throughout its history. It also reflects broader changes in attitudes towards disability within society. These discussions emphasised the importance not only of preserving the history of an organisation, but also making it relevant to current practice.

Key questions were raised about how organisations can address conflicts in their history, as well as what material should be preserved. Zoe Abrams explained that the British Red Cross is guided by principles of impartiality, meaning that difficult moments must be documented. It can be particularly challenging for small charities to store their material, necessitating tough decisions about what to keep and what to dispose of. Particular concerns were raised around the vulnerability of archives in conditions of uncertainty, as well as the challenges faced by organisations in preserving their history while prioritising front-line work.

The event also addressed issues concerning the governance, rights and responsibilities of organisations. Caroline Sampson, Development Manager at The National Archives, presented on the development of a national strategy for charity archives. Collaboration is of vital importance in this work, as shown in the partnerships that are being developed with the higher education sector, as well as with voluntary sector archives around the country. However, the first step for many organisations is to know what material they have. The National Archives has therefore launched ‘Archives Revealed’: a funding programme that aims to help archives assess and catalogue their collections, making accessible material that would otherwise remain hidden.

While good governance and record keeping are crucial to the development of archives, this session also highlighted the responsibilities of archives towards individuals and public bodies. Justine Rainbow, of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse, emphasised the crucial importance of voluntary sector archives to the Inquiry’s research. The Inquiry can request to view material from all agencies involved in children’s care. Good record keeping by organisations is therefore essential. Voluntary sector archives not only provide evidence of institutional failures, but also examples of good practice that can inform future work.

The theme of rights and responsibilities was also addressed in relation to the impact of archival material on individuals who have been in contact with organisations.  Darren Coyne, Project Manager at the Care Leavers’ Association, gave a powerful presentation on the vital role of records for people who were in institutional care as children. Many of these young people have few childhood memories, meaning that their records are key to their sense of identity. Despite having the legal right to consult their records, many care leavers face challenges in accessing them. The Association helps people to access their records, as well as providing emotional support to people who have received them.

The final panel of speakers addressed the themes of celebration, commemoration and recognition of the value of voluntary sector archives. Alasdair Brooks, Heritage Manager at the British Red Cross, and Dr Rosemary Cresswell, who is currently writing the history of the British Red Cross, discussed the value of academics and archivists working together. A clear understanding of the objectives, potential ethical issues and roles of all stakeholders involved in a project is key to maintaining a good working relationship. Academics can also act as ‘champions’ for archives, by sharing their research and promoting the organisation to the public. In the context of the 150th anniversary of the organisation, the discussion also raised questions concerning what such anniversaries are for and who decides what topics should be prioritised.

Introducing the Everyday Muslim project, Tanya Muneera Williams argued that ‘if people don’t see themselves represented in the past, they don’t feel they have a place’. The project challenges monolithic representations of Muslims in the UK through oral history projects and exhibitions, enabling people to connect with their heritage and increasing public engagement with diverse Muslim histories. The project ‘Exploring the Diversity of Black British Muslim Heritage in London’ resulted in the first archive collection based on the stories and memories of the Black, African and Afro – Caribbean Muslim community in Britain, now held at the George Padmore Institute and at Brent Museum and Archives.

In addressing the question of ‘whose histories are represented in our archives?’, Jack Latimer shared the work of the Community Archives and Heritage Group, which supports community archives around the UK, and Donna Maughan presented the ‘100 Homes’ project, which recorded the stories of Plymouth residents. Such projects are designed to ensure that diverse voices are preserved. While the project began with a small number of participants, it grew rapidly, with people bringing stories written on scraps of paper or recorded on mobile phones. Through sharing their stories, the project also led participants to re-connect with friends and family members in the local area. It has since been recognised by two awards from the Community Archives and Heritage Group.

The event closed with a public lecture by Sir Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who emphasised the value of archives as records of social history.

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