Setting up an Archive

Setting up an Archive: Archives are collections of documents or ‘records’ which have been selected for permanent preservation because of their value as evidence or as a source for historical or other research (National Archive).

In the modern age of technology, archives can take numerous forms, with many organisations choosing to digitise their records completely. For some archives, a more traditional approach is best suited, and offers an invaluable resource for a host of different visitors.

Records which link to ancestry and heritage, for example local communities or military regiments, are popular with people who like to get hands on and connect with their research. Archives can feature a host of mediums, from maps to medals, birth certificates to butterflies and media to machinery.

The size of an archive can vary hugely, from a small paper collection housed in traditional folders and shelving, to a multi-media, bespoke mobile storage system offering various security features to protect both the contents and users of the archive. The National Archive provides support to those setting up and managing collections and offers a wealth of advice on it’s website. Starting from “an introduction to archives for non-archivists”, through to technical advice on caring for records or managing Freedom of Information requests and on to more strategic aspects of collections management.

It’s important to establish the scale of the archive early on in the project, both from a physical storage point of view and with regards to the operation of the archive. It is very easy to underestimate the volume of records and suddenly find yourself in a situation where the floor of an historic building is unable to support the weight!

The level of service is also a key factor to consider. Will the archive offer a loan service? Will there be a charge for reading room access? Could additional income be generated through retail, catering or other opportunities such as commercial hire or filming?

Along with the level of service, opening hours and access arrangements will shape the facilities and the team required to operate them. Recruiting a Curator and supporting team who enjoy engaging with the public could open up potential income streams through educational visits, special events and seminars. The National Archive in Kew recently applied for a premises license to serve alcohol and stage music concerts as part of moves to open its “hidden treasures” to the public.

Archives are seeking to me more accessible and welcoming to a wider range of users. The National Postal Museum set out to create a more interactive experience with the introduction of their Discovery Room. The light and airy room features a touch table where visitors can get closer to visual materials.

Plymouth based 100 Homes Oral History Project were recently announced as the Best Community Archive and Heritage Group of 2018. The project captured memories of local people to share with generations to come.

Fundraising is often a key contributor in supporting an archive. Archives Revealed is a partnership programme between The National Archives and The Pilgrim Trust: the only funding stream in the UK dedicated to cataloguing and unlocking archives. There are two funding strands:

  • Cataloguing grants: up to £40,000 for archives to create catalogues of important archival collections. This strand will reopen for applications in October 2018.
  • Scoping grants: fund an assessment report incorporating expert advice on a range of areas relating to collections management and the development of collections. This is a rolling programme with decisions made on a quarterly basis: panel meetings will be held July and October 2018, January and April 2019.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded over £281 million to over 1,050 archive and library projects. Some examples (a little dated) can be found here.

Archive Service Accreditation is the UK standard for archive services and may be required to be eligible for some funding streams. Standards schemes and frameworks help archives to manage and improve their efficiency and effectiveness through external validation, and by identifying good practice. Guidance can be found on the National Archive website and features six main criteria:

  • To apply for Archive Service Accreditation, your organisation should hold a collection which meets the following definition of an archive: “Materials created or received by a person, family or organisation, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in them or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order and collective control; permanent records.” (Society of American Archivists)
  • Your archive collection(s) should meet, or exceed, one or more of the following:
    c. 4000 items
    c. 50 linear metres
    c. 4.2 cubic metres
    c.20GB
  • You must offer some access to your archive collections beyond members of your own institution or organisation.
  • Repositories of solely digitised analogue materials are not eligible for this Accreditation Scheme.
  • Your archive service must be managed by competent staff, with access to professional archival expertise appropriate to the type and nature of the organisation and collection.
  • Your archive service must be equipped with dedicated secure storage for the records that you hold.
    (Archive Service Accreditation Eligibility Criteria – June 2018)

With a new project, it may be possible to create more than ‘just’ an archive. Nucleus, (The Nuclear and Caithness Archives) opened it’s doors in February 2017 and is receiving great reviews both from the press and on Trip Advisor. The archive is a popular attraction for visitors seeking information about their and others’ Scottish heritage. Much of the information will eventually be digitised and made available for online access.

The beautifully sculpted building, located at Wick Airport, was designed by Edinburgh architects Reiach and Hall and features a large public area, including a reading room and community space for exhibitions, study or training.

Nucleus is used as a base for training archivists and offers apprenticeships, linking up with a local university and colleges. 25 permanent positions have been recruited, mostly from the local area and staff receive great feedback for being helpful and engaging.

Some other links:



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