“Sustaining the Future of Archives”

On September 3, 2009, in Policy and Leadership, by Chris Prom

Another great talk this morning by Natalie Ceeney, Chief Exec of the National Archives, about the role that England’s National Archives is playing in shaping a vision and strategy for the archives sector in England.  Over last year, they developed a government policy/strategy for archives that will ulitmately get the stamp of approval from government.

As an American, it is a bit inconceivable for me to imagine that NARA would ever take such a strong leadership role in working to shape government policy and assist local archives as what TNA is doing.  NHPRC does this role to a certain extent, but its hand are tied so much by its anemic budget.  And it probably doesn’t match up well with the fact that associations tend to do this role in the US, given the fact our public sector is relatively speaking, smaller in GNP terms.

It is a bit of an open question for me, however, whether local archivists and archival user commuity ‘buys in’ to the vision Ceeney and TNA are setting, or how much they were consulted while putting together this plan.  Hope to explore that in side conversations.  However, there is no doubt that she has ear of many in govt. and has raised the profile or archives over the past severl years and that TNA is trying to reach out via projects described at the conference–more on that later:  Here are my edited notes from the her talk:


In last 10 years, the world has changed immensely . . . pace of change for us has been so fast, none of us really can keep up with it all.  For example, ministry of justice wanted to know what was technology for archiving tweets.

High demands from users for digitization, People also assume they har a right to access of records; we also need to manage rccords from the point of creation.  And support local cultural agendas and authorities.

If national archives finds it hard to react w a staff of 700, we know that it will be hard at other agencies, there are partcicular issues around born-digital information, the volume is increasing radically.  Blogs, wikis, etc things can go through SO many iterations.  There is a surge of digital information that demands new skills.  Digital obsolesences is another issue, loss of information.  What is the record, lack of clarity when there are so many versions.

Other challenges—lack of key leadership (TNA vs TNLibrary.  It is a fragmented sector, 200 authorities, universities, etc.  TNA is 50% of profession’s employment in England  Other problems: There is a lack of clear clear progression through the profession.  Inequities of funding across the sector.

In short, here was a need for a new government policy. In 1999, the last plan, we pretty well did everything we said we would.  But the report did not work since it was not government policy, it was not ‘owned’ by government; it did not have government stamps on it or ministerial ownership.    Also, the workd changed too fast, Google, etc.

It took us longer to get current  strategy in place than with thought 6 month ‘educaton’ period to show government and ministers what archives actually do and why the are important.

Their approach—they wanted a policy that was an ‘enabler’–provide a vision, but not be presciptive.  Set a clear vision to that local methods can be used to meet a common goal.

Archives for the 21st century: Consultation Draft.  Recommendations: “Fewer, bigger, better”  meant, we need to work together, do things like work cross regions, share storage, to leverage scale., not close archives.    “Strengthening Leadership” This is to be achieved by merging professional associations and leadership.  “Skills”  Why is our profession too white and too middle class, what do we do to get a more vibrant workforce.  “Skills to manage digital archives”  Build skills, reconnect archives and records management.  It is unsustainable if we cannot merge records from the point of creation.  “Online Access”  digitized records and catalogs.  Working together, we have scale.  “Relevance of Archives to local community.

This is so important because of the economic crisis.  There is no money from national government.  How do we protect what we have?  TNA funding has been level for three years and will be for another three years.  We need to talk about why we matter, show that we generate benefits for the local community.

How does this policy get implemented?  Agenda has changed from growth and expansion.  The sector needs to go out and implement this role.  TNA wants to support you, but local archivists need to show to local authorities how they will implement the vision.  TNA will support them, give the message as to why archives matter.  Idea is to put a strategy forward and show why it is important, give advice, etc.  Mixture of top down strategy and bottom up pressure.

A lot of this is happening already—exploring Surrey’s past, Gloucestershire website, Connecting histories at Birmingham.  Examples like this across the UK.  Projects like these showcase why we matter.

TNA support:  Will work with MLA and progressional bodies to provided joined up leadership for the profession; initiatives to support digital preservation and digitization agendas.   Improving the assessment regime so that funding bodies can see results.  Raising the sector’s profile among decision makers.

Going forward we need to unite behind the strategy, we can help you by giving you tools you need, but we can’t get you more money.  Although we can show that we matter.

Questions:  “Archives are dead unless we reunite records management and archives”  Who is going to keep a twitter?  How are we going to record decisions appropriately.  Find case studies and embarrass leaders, talk about risk, show how they will lose their job if they don’t get their records under control.   Archives are in the best bargaining position when we can make people turn white.

From their point of view, this program is about enabling local decisions, but MLA and TNA leadership need to enable the best decision for the local environment by setting a common agenda behind which everyone can unit.

Ceeney’s guiding maxim, “If you don’t have a clear vision, someone is going to impose theirs on you.”   Example, if you don’t reunite archives and RM and actually work with records creators, they will develop their own ad hoc destruction policies.  Also recommends spending at least one day a week on advocacy and external relations to build your profile; it may seem to take away from core functions at first, but really, nothing is more essential.

Question: How will things look for our sector after anticipated conservative victory.  The party has not said exactly what it is going to do.  Tories have said they are going to abolish MLA.  TNA looks like it will survive.  Tories are talking about restructuring local government but no one really knows what this means.

  • It would be wise to talk to the stakeholders in this sector before taking everything the Chief Executive says at face value. For example, TNA are proposing 10% cuts in their operating budget, and the public – the users – are the ones to bear the brunt, with 16% reduction in overall access by closing on Mondays, withdrawal of instant access to key datasets for which online access is proven to be inadequate, and – perhaps worst of all – a general dumbing down by reducing 35 staff posts from the Advice and Records Knowledge department. Further information about the flaws in TNA’s strategy, and the misuse of statistics to justify this strategy, can be found at http://www.action4archives.com. We represent academics, historians, local archivists, family and local historians and have tried to make a contribution to the public consultation, but have been refused access to key data by TNA management. We have now enlisted the support of politicians who share our concerns about the vision outlined here, and the overall governance of TNA under the current regime (especially since we can prove the public have been mislead on several occasions). Visit the site, and see a completely different perspective to this ‘vision’.

  • Chris Prom

    Thanks for the comment Nick and particularly for the link. I will read through the site thoroughly. I certainly do plan to talk to stakeholders (I have a long list of contacts and spoke ‘off line’ to many from the archival side at the conference) and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I take everything by face value when it comes to administrative action plans at the like. (In fact, many of my conversations and other sessions at the session explored/critiqued the action plan.) Still, I think there is a fundamental difference between the way that TNA and the National Archives are approaching the issue of electronic records, and in many ways TNA seems–at least in this early stage of my project–better placed to assist local archives in working on issues related to electronic records, even given large budget cuts and what are likely to be inevitable cuts to services–which have been severe in the US as well and led to the closing of some very high profile programs at the state/local level. (We’ll see whether I have the same conclusion after studying this problem for the next several months.)