A new archives policy, sort of

A new Government policy on archives, Archives for the 21st Century (, was published in November 2009. It is based on an old archives policy dating back to the 1990s and some interim work, which were re-worked for a policy consultation document also called Archives for the 21st Century (see

The document's introduction makes the point that 'To survive for posterity, our archives have to be actively collected, well cared for and readily accessible' and that 'the availability of information is an essential part of a healthy, robust democracy (and) that archives help to empower people to participate in the decisions affecting their own lives'. So far, so good.

The policy says there will be Archives 'Action Plan' for England (Wales will have its own Plan) and that The National Archives 'will lead on negotiating national deals across the sector, such as the digitisation of catalogues and archival content'. It also envisages a role for archives in 'community engagement', local regeneration, education and lifelong learning. How this will happen is not explained. As a policy document, Archives for the 21st Century might best be described as 'woolly', but this is probably a good thing, as it leaves those who have to implement it with plenty of room when it comes to interpretation. This fact may also enable any incoming government to stick with the policy, in the short to medium-term at least.

Archives for the 21st Century has five core policies:

  1. Develop bigger and better services in partnership – working towards increased sustainability within the sector.
  2. A strengthened leadership and a responsive, skilled workforce.
  3. A co-ordinated response to the growing challenge of managing digital information so that it is accessible now and remains discoverable in the future.
  4. Comprehensive online access for archive discovery through catalogues and to digitised archive content by citizens at a time and place that suits them.
  5. Active participation in cultural and learning partnerships promoting a sense of identity and place within the community.

As well as the policy document, there is also information about how many people and organisations responded to the consultation. In some ways, the fact that just 1,400 people looked at the consultation document online and only 625 of us actually bothered to reply, either in writing or online, tells you just how little interest local (and family) historians actually took in the process. Just ten local history related organisations responded, including the British Association for Local History and Local History Online. Three of the remaining eight were friends of archives groups (Cumbria, East Sussex and Suffolk). As far as I could see, no county local history association bothered to reply.

Given that the big question asked in Archives for the 21st Century was: 'In the longer term, is there significant value in moving towards fewer, bigger, better archive services for a more sustainable future?', one might reasonably expect local historians to have a vested interest. Of the 625 replies, 50% supported the proposition and 36% disagreed. The policy document comments that, among respondents,: 'It was notable that co-location was the aspect of this section which caused the most concern' and that 'several described this as an “emotive issue” (and) some questioned how this recommendation fitted in with community engagement, as (this policy was) unlikely to be enhanced by having fewer larger services'.

The Government's response to these comments is that 'Fewer, bigger, better‛ was never intended to be either the strap line of the policy, nor a blanket imposition across the sector and that 'local determination should lead' in any circumstances where co-location is considered. It also suggests that other 'potential solutions for a service' might be considered. The Government also says that 'While there are circumstances in which co-location may be the most appropriate solution for an archive, this is by no means a “one size fits all” policy'. To clarify the intention of the original question, the phrase 'together, bigger, better‛ has been substituted 'to reflect better the intention to strengthen the sector through collaborative work, wherever possible and appropriate'.

Another question in the original consultation which seemed to question the quality of archive staff asked if 'Strengthened leadership and a responsive skilled workforce are necessary to raise the profession’s profile at both a national and local level?' Nearly everyone replying praised those working in archives, although among the institutional responses there was a recognition that 'the status quo is insufficient to meet all the current challenges facing the profession, and that this needs careful consideration'.

The Government's policy is that the archives profession should have a range of skills, from the traditional to those which have emerged more recently, with special reference to digital skills, as well as to promotion, outreach and advocacy. They also caution against over focussing on the digital skills at the expense of traditional archival skills..

So, what does this new Government policy mean for our archives, especially at a time when archives and libraries are likely to have their budgets frozen at best or, more likely, cut. I think the answer is we will have to wait and see. There is clearly scope for re-grouping services and more partnership working. There is talk of some kind of national accreditation scheme for archives, like the scheme used for museums. Being able to compare archive services is one thing, expecting them to all look alike is another thing altogether. Different places have different needs and different priorities. Having the confidence to believe in what is right for your locality is, perhaps, the real challenge facing archivists and councillors during the next decade.

Robert Howard

16 December 2009

Top of page