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

  • Charlie Smith

    I agree retention of archives needs to be addressed – all too often charities (and other organisations and companies too) discard the paper copies stored in libraries and archives because “everything is on the web”/ its all on the computer system and boxes of books/ reports and other paper documents and materials are seen as cluttering up the place.

    Often too the person who was employed as librarian has been made redundant as libraries/ stores of information are not seens as being required these days and in many cases considered to be a luxury.

    But as the writer says archives of past materials form the corporate memory of the charity/organisation and paper copies are far far more sustainable than electronic copies (barring major events such as fires/floods).

    In many cases too charities in their early days wont have sent copies of publications to the British Library and other legal desposit libraries and so many of the early campigning reports/ documents will be lost. Its only when charities become more established / have more infrastructure that they can start to think about legal desposit, storing information and their corpoate knowledge.

    All too often much knowledge is held ny the founder or first chief exec as many charities start as the vision of one person – when this person retires a big chunk of the charity’s history and corporate memory goes too so it is vital to keep the written documents from that time (and ideally get the chief exec to record their tacit knowledge). We owe it to ourselves and historians to show the development of charities.

  • Anjelica

    Private Companies such as Lloyds employ archivists dedicated to ensuring none of their history is lost. However, these organisations have sufficient resources to employ someone full time to do this important job. It’s good to see then that voluntary sector organisations will at least have access to information which will help them find a way to preserve the documents which detail their history as well as the history of the communities in which they are placed/tasked to help.

    I only hope that, in the future, VSOs will be able to at least put aside some money to protect/create their archives.

  • Stephen Pidgeon

    How I agree John. It would help mightily if, when you were filling in your forms, you had any faith in the quality of the people making the decision. Increasingly these decisions, or at least the short list for the decision, are made by ‘Purchasing Officers’ on the sole criterion of cost. And they are not responsible for the consequences of the decision.