Charity archives: A hidden casualty of the cuts?

The history of charity is
perhaps a hotter topic today than it has ever been, so it is ironic that
voluntary organisations face greater challenges than ever before in preserving
their records and making these available to researchers.

The British Records Association and Charity Archives and Records Management Group (CHARM) have recently had to
cancel a training day on charity archives for of lack of registrations. There is mounting anecdotal evidence
that third sector organisations are struggling to hold on to their own archives
and publications, let alone plan for long-term storage and access.

Office moves, often
precipitated by funding cuts, are the most vulnerable time for charity
archives. That box of dusty minute books or stack of old pamphlets can all too
easily get left behind in a corner of the office or end up being shredded to
save storage costs. As a researcher of charity archives, I have become very
used to finding handwritten notes attached to documents: ‘rescued from the
skip – may be of some historical interest?’

One notable success story
is the transfer of the Volunteer England Collection to the LSE, as reported in
Third Sector in March
2011. This achievement required forward planning – up to
a year before the cuts to the Office for Civil Society’s strategic partnership
programme were announced – and the support of the charity’s chief executive,
Justin Davis Smith.

My colleague Anjelica Finnegan, a student volunteer
recruited to help catalogue the collection, and I were unfortunately not
able to stop the break-up of the organisation’s library, which contained books
donated by leading figures in the history of volunteering such as Alec Dickson,
founder of VSO and CSV.

However, there are now welcome
signs that historians and archivists are coming together to help stop more
records being lost and make third sector organisations aware that there are a
number of options.

A key problem is that the diverse network of archive
repositories makes it very tricky for charities easily to identify institutions
that might be interested in receiving their archives. The National Archives’ Archives Sector Development is
currently preparing some new guidance for small and medium organisations, much
of which will be particularly relevant for the third sector. 

Let us hope that we can work together
to ensure the survival of the vital records which tell the rich history of the
voluntary sector.

Read Brewis’ blog for more information

Georgina Brewis is a historian of voluntary action and education, currently based at the Institute of Education, University of London