Beware of the Swans, or, Collecting in Tough Times

Let me take you back to a baking hot day earlier this year – yes, we had a summer and it was on June 8th.  I made the epic trip down to Kew for Collecting in Tough Times, a National Archives event which aimed “to explore how archive services can address the challenges of collecting in the context of shrinking resources”.  N.B. To allow candid discussion, the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule.  So I can’t be specific about who said what about their service, and you won’t find much trace of this event online.  You had to be there!  Still, I’ll try to give you a flavour of the discussions.

No story about the National Archives is complete without mention of the Swans. Alas, this time they had cygnets (cute!) so I didn’t get too close.

The four speakers (including me) were asked to be provocative, to encourage open debate about our situation and what we can do.  Without prior discussion and coming from very different institutions, we found ourselves in agreement.  In difficult times, archives need to think strategically, to be selective, to value our expertise and professionalism and the services we provide – and to understand we cannot collect or do it all.

I argued that we must tackle the burden of past passive collecting, deaccession effectively and collect strategically.  Other speakers covered working with volunteers, community archives, and charging corporate depositors for the investment of time, space, cataloguing etc in their archives.  In the workshops, we shared our collecting challenges, especially how to say no to deposits.  Never easy: having good policies on which to base decisions is vital.

The event was exemplary in the amount of time allowed for discussion, resulting in some really interesting and candid conversations: I got a great sense of how things are for my colleagues.  Not good: those in local authorities particularly are operating at incredibly low levels of staffing and often with little support and understanding.  But archivists aren’t accepting a cycle of decline: they are trying to find new ways to continue to care for collections and bring them to the public.

The good news? Audiences more than ever are keen to engage with heritage, whether for academic research, family history, or natural curiosity – and we have more ways than ever to share it with them.  So we can be confident that what we do is valuable – all we have to do is find ways to translate that into the support we need …

& here’s some cygnets they hatched earlier …


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