Local archives warm to self-assessment

The National Archives has recently published the 2008 results of the third local archives voluntary self-assessment exercise in three years, covering England and Wales. The latest outcomes seem to suggest that many archive services have responded to the self-assessment process by improving their existing services or indicating that they have put in place plans to address weaknesses identified as a result of the two previous surveys in 2006 and 2007. In response to this good news, The National Archives has decided to leave the next self-assessment exercise until 2010, so that service improvements have a chance to come through and can be reflected in next year's survey.

The top scoring local authority, with 88%, was the London Metropolitan Archives, followed by Norfolk (86.5%) and Hampshire (84.5%). Four other archive services scored 80% or over: West Sussex and East Riding of Yorkshire (both 81%); Westminster (80.5%) and Gloucestershire (80%). At the other end of the scale, Salford scored just 18%, a long way behind Solihull and York, who were joint second from bottom with 35.5%. In fairness to the low scoring archives, they did at least complete the self-assessment questionnaires. A number of other archives chose not to take part, all of which were either London Boroughs or Metropolitan Unitary Authorities. The most notable of these were Birmingham and Coventry. We have taken the 2008 report and re-arranged the overall scores, with the highest at the top and the lowest at the bottom (the report lists archives alphabetically). The resulting table is shown at the bottom of this page.

The overall score for each archive service is based on how it performed in five separate categories: Governance and Staffing; Documentation of Collections; Access Services; Preservation and Conservation; and Buildings, Security and Environment. Each archive service then received a percentage score in each of these five categories and an overall percentage score. The scores were then placed in bands according to performance, with the top ten per cent of services securing four stars, the bottom ten per cent scoring one star and the remainder being divided equally between two-star and three-star ratings. Of course, it's one thing collecting information, it's another thing altogether when it comes to interpreting and using the data collected. Nicholas Kingsley, Head of National Advisory Services at The National Archives, has written an excellent article on the 2008 archives self-assessment outcomes for the latest issue of RecordKeeping.

We looked in more detail at the two categories which seem the most important to us: Conservation and Buildings. If you want to care for your collections and provide good services to archive users, then you need both. When it came to conservation, 18 archives scored 50% or less, of which 11 were London Boroughs and 3 were in Greater Manchester. The others were in the South-West England, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and South Wales. Seventeen of the 18 were either adjacent to, or part of a conurbation with, a high-scoring archive when it came to conservation. In Greater London and Greater Manchester for example, low-scoring archives are close to London Metropolitan Archives (92%) and Greater Manchester Archives (80.5%). Bath & North-East Somerset (39.5%) is next to Gloucestershire (85.5%), Gwent (33%) is next to Gwynedd (76.5%) and York City (35%) is next to West Yorkshire (86.5%). Some years ago, when regional government was high up the present government's agenda, there was talk of creating regional archives. Had it happened, then local conservation services would have almost certainly have been amalgamated to create centres of excellence. Logic says that instead of upgrading failing services, probably because they are starved of capital and resources, it would make more sense for local authorities to work in partnership — as they already do where unitary authorities now exist in what were once county areas.

When it comes to quality of buildings, the levels of security and the environment they provide for archives, 14 scored 50% or less, of which only three had low scores for conservation as well (Bath & NE Somerset, Gwent and York). However, 18 archives scored 80% or higher. This is an area where the Heritage Lottery Fund has contributed a great deal of money and continues to do so. Hull City, for example, scored only 34.5% for its present building, but the new £8m Hull History Centre, which is currently under construction, should catapult them to near top of the table. In this section, there were only three London Boroughs. From the point of view of many users, archives need to be easily accessible by public transport, which means you cannot centralise collections. Making sure all archives have 'four star' buildings must be a top priority, so that collections can be stored in the best conditions possible. What is the point of conserving documents if they are then stored in inferior buildings which do not meet modern standards?

Nicholas Kingsley says in his article that 'There is still a huge disparity between the standards of service provision in the strongest and weakest authorities, which is correlated with the scale of operation of the service, so that larger services are more likely to be high-performing than smaller ones. Many services are still unable to actively develop their collections because of a lack of staff and storage capacity (and) most services still have large backlogs of uncatalogued or inadequately catalogued collections.' In the present economic climate archives may well be seen as an area where public expenditure savings can be made, so the differences to which Nicholas refers are likely to be with us for some time to come, unless a proposed new government policy on archives indicates otherwise. We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, why not have a look at the 2008 archives survey for yourself and consider working with other local (and family) historians in your area to raise the political and public profile of archives and record offices.

Note: No 2008 returns were received for Barking & Dagenham, Birmingham, Coventry, Harrow, Havering, Hounslow, Kingston, Knowsley, Sefton, Southwark and Waltham Forest.

6 May 2009

Archives Table

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