Voluntary Sector Archives: a democratic deficit?

Last week I attended a conference at the University of Northumbria which posed the question ‘Is there a democratic deficit in archives?’ It brought together a range of interested parties such as archivists, records managers, academics and civil servants. I went to see how the idea of democracy in archives could inform the work I do as a Research Assistant on the British Academy funded Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’. This project is specifically interested in promoting the preservation of the records of voluntary organisations and civil society groups.

My initial take on the question posed by conference was: Yes! There is a significant and multifaceted democratic deficit in archives. From my perspective working with voluntary sector archives I see several issues which contribute to this democratic deficit.

Firstly, there was the focus on public records – those covered in England and Wales by the Public Records Act 1958 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 and in Scotland by the Act of 2011. In England the archives of voluntary organisations are private – they is no requirement for them to be preserved beyond the regulators requirements e.g. by Charity Commission Annual Return. In Scotland, the Act covers those delivering government contracts and services, and so does cover some voluntary organisations. Yet, overall, in both cases, the archival record of the contribution to our democracy made by civil society organisations is skewed by omitting them from the public record in most cases. This is not only a historical omission, but one carrying on into the present day, where patchy records management practices hinder our ability to mine the records of organisations to show the value they have today.

Secondly, there were some recurring themes in the conference which resonated loudly with issues encountered on the British Academy Project and also with the historical and current concerns of voluntary organisations. For example, frequent reference was made to issues of trust and accountability. This was framed in several ways, by exploring questions such as:

  • How do archives create an authentic and authoritative record of the past?
  • How do we know if archives are authentic?
  • How can archives and records management processes improve trust and accountability?

Via examples such as the Hillsborough Independent Inquiry Panel’s Archive and alternative archives recording institutional abuse, we also considered what it means when the official record may not be trustworthy, or where it contains significant silences which amount to an injustice for victims, survivors and families. In the case of civil society and activist groups, their records really can be a way to hold the state to account – in this way, the creation of an archive can itself be considered a radical act. Yet it also begs the question of how we build trust and accountability within and across voluntary organisations. Some organisations provided the services and residential institutions which are now the concern of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Recent reports have included allegations of abuse perpetrated in youth football clubs. From my own research as a historian of youth voluntary organisations I have every reason to suspect neglect and abuse spread beyond the confines of what has been or is currently newsworthy. What chance do we have of holding organisations accountable, learning from past mistakes, or building trust with organisations, if we have no record of their activities or decision making? These questions were on my mind as I heard from IICSA, Sarah Tyacke and Sinaed Ring. Without further support, resources, and perhaps even legislation I see little prospect of a transformation in voluntary sector archives and records management practice to build trust and accountability across the sector. This is vital, as recent research suggests that trust is indeed in decline.

Related to the above is the theme of crisis and tragedy. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner spoke strongly of wanting to improve the standards of records management without England being compelled to do so by scandal, tragedy or crisis. She recalled her experiences in Canada dealing with records in exactly these circumstances. However, the advice elsewhere jarred with this view. Somewhat tellingly, advice from the experience working in Africa suggested that we ‘never waste a crisis’ and appealed to us to capitalise on situations as they arise to raise standards and awareness of the importance of good records management. This seemed built on a wry appraisal of the likelihood of gaining political will for this kind of work at such times.

I can see how this applies to the voluntary sector. Crisis, tragedy and scandal have all hit organisations in the past and they undermine trust. There is also a sense that the sector is on high alert for the next crisis, scandal or tragedy; this could be about abuse, social care provision or funding for example. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting and facilitating good archives and records management practice in voluntary organisations should be ongoing work and this is what the British Academy Project and our new Public Policy Work seek to do. However, we are a small (but ambitious) project which cannot realistically address all of these issues.

Given the lack of support and resources to help organisations with archives and records management, the lack of capacity in existing frameworks and the low political priority it is afforded, I fear that it may indeed take a scandal or crisis for the importance of this work to really come to the fore. This could have devastating consequences for the people involved and our wider faith in civil society organisations. This would be the biggest democratic deficit in archives – that a lack of attention to the archives of voluntary organisations could eventually be used to undermine civil society itself.

PhD Completed

A strange and yet not so strange thing has happened. My PhD is over. Submitted. Viva-d. Corrected. Resubmitted. Deposited. Bound. All that remains is graduation and hopefully a rather large party to celebrate it in July 2016. phd hand in

I made it out the other side. I have emerged blinking and I appear to be in one piece.

For any that care to, you can download my thesis. You might want to wait for the journal articles and monograph though because it did not turn out exactly as I imagined it would. I’ve heard I am not alone in this feeling.

This is just a quick post. There will be more updates to come about what I have done since I went quiet about a year ago. For now, I want to thank the interviewees who have used this blog to make contact. My examiners loved your testimony and I loved hearing it. You have all contributed something unique to my research and I could not have done it without you. Now I just have to decide what to do with it…and myself!

 

New blog on the NCVO site: PRESERVING YOUR CHARITY’S ARCHIVES: FIRST STEPS

I just wanted to post a quick message to direct you to a blog I have just written for the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). It is about the British Academy Project for which I am the Research Assistant and provides information for voluntary organisations on how they can get involved in the first stages of the ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’ project.

You can also register for our launch event on 5th of June, Recording the Voluntary Sector. We will have speakers and workshop sessions on a range of different topics including funding, digitisation, depositing archives and collaborating with academics. Full details and registration here.

Any questions, feel free to contact me via the project blog or here! Thanks.

The History of Youth Cultures: Understanding International Influences, National Frameworks and Local Lived Experiences

This post originally appeared on the Four Nations History Blog in February 2015.

Different regional, national and international perspectives are essential to understanding the history of youth cultures. Without understanding international influences, national frameworks and local lived experiences we cannot fully understand how young people have formed and shaped their cultures.

In Four Nations terms the frameworks of Youth Service policy are decidedly English. The Youth Service after the Second World War only included England and Wales in the landmark 1960 policy The Albemarle Report, even then with scant reference to Wales.[i] However, when looking at the regional youth club associations and individual clubs themselves it became clear that, even at the time, national policy frameworks were only so useful in understanding youth clubs and how between one quarter and one third of people used them.[ii] Youth clubs varied hugely, influenced by a range of factors, including the young people that attended them.

For example, in Liverpool there were clubs supported by long-established links with public schools, settlement clubs, church clubs, grassroots community clubs and roving youth workers in perceived trouble-spots using a minibus as a club. To say that these clubs existed against a local backdrop of industrial decline, unemployment and changes to housing in Liverpool in the post-war period would be to do a disservice to the way Liverpool’s unique history shaped the youth work happening there. It was a dynamic relationship with youth work organisations responding actively to City-wide and micro-local circumstances.

Youth culture also had a role to play, and one which cut across national boundaries. Adrian Horn’s discussion of Americanisation is pertinent here when looking at the local variations adopted by beat and skiffle groups in Liverpool to create the ‘Merseybeat’ sound.[iii] This sound was nurtured in the local youth clubs; places where bands formed, practiced and performed alongside the City’s central commercial venues. There were perhaps ten bands playing the local scene for each one that gained international or national recognition, but for the young people attending dances and live music in Liverpool’s Youth Clubs they were all part of their local youth culture.

This is evident in London too. In 1960s London, we are accustomed to hearing about ‘Swinging London’ and its vibrant scene. However, South London had its own variants of youth culture and subculture, including rival Mod and Rocker youth clubs and local sound system cultures. The glamour of the west-end clubs existed for the few, and as David Fowler rightly points out, it was the local Palais de Danse in Streatham rather than the glitzy Soho nightclub that was the site of everyday youth cultures, as indeed was the youth club for those that used them.[iv]

This indicates that both one and four nations approaches to the history of youth have their limitations. What is required is an understanding of how international influences, national structures and local circumstances came to shape young people growing up in the post-war period. This research began with an examination of 25 years of policy on youth and the Youth Service. It included reference to the problems of youth such as delinquency and indeed local case studies have added grounded examples to how youth work and delinquency can be linked. See Kate Bradley’s earlier post on this blog for more. Often though, national policy blurred and ameliorated as much as it revealed.

What does this mean for Four Nations frameworks? As previous posts have rightly pointed out, there is immense value in looking at our approach to history using the lens of different nations. The same applies to looking from local perspectives, though we should bear the metropolitan fallacy in mind. It is not that a four nations or national approach is not appropriate, but by delving below the national level to the micro local, we are encouraged to think critically about how we use these categories, to use them more explicitly and to talk to fellow historians about what we assume, conceal and reveal in the process. Looking at national youth organisations and literature on youth cultures has provided a national context, but is only by trying to understand youth cultures within individual youth clubs and local communities that this research has come to understand the myriad forms they have taken and the fluidity within them.

[i] Ministry of Education, Report of the Committee Appointed by the Minister of Education on The Youth Service in England and Wales (Albemarle Report), London, HMSO, 1960

[ii] Davies, Bernard, A History of the Youth Service in England, Volume 1, Leicester, National Youth Agency, 1999, p. 56

[iii] Horn, Adrian, Juke Box Britain- Americanisation and youth culture 1945-1960, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2009

[iv] Fowler, David, Youth Culture in Modern Britain c.1920-c.1970,Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain

In an earlier blog post I talked about my visits to wild archives and some of the problems inherent in using these kinds of sources. At the time I was aware of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives and the work Georgina Brewis had been doing, for example her blog for NCVO Eight reasons charities should be interested in their archives.

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive, but what should the organisation do with it in the long term?

Georgina has since put in, and won a bid for funding for a British Academy Research Project on Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain which aims to look at best practice and practical guidance for voluntary organisations on digitising and preserving their archives. I am delighted to have been appointed as a part-time Research Assistant on this project.

Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly agree about the value we should be placing on voluntary sector archives. Not only are they invaluable to researchers but they can also be a huge asset for the voluntary organisations themselves; they are an evidence base, they contain crucial insights into an organisation’s history and identity and they contribute to a wider understanding of the place of that organisation in our society. Even outside of academia, understanding the full history of welfare and society is important at a time of significant change in our welfare state. Without recourse to the archives, histories and identities of voluntary groups, their role and importance may be lost in wider and public understandings of what welfare is, as well as what it has been.

I have several exciting challenges in this Research Assistant role; organising the launch event at the British Academy on the 5th June 2015, learning about digitisation and records management, drafting guidance for voluntary sector organisations, and piloting and refining this guidance with voluntary sector partners.

There will be updates on the project via the NCVO blog, voluntarysectorarchives.org.uk, the University College London Institute of Education and a range of partner organisations. I will also be posting some updates here about my role and perspective. In the meantime, I have plenty to be getting on with!

Child Poverty Action Group Witness Seminar

On 6th January 2015 I attended a Witness Seminar at the Institute for Contemporary British History on the history of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the 70s and 80s, as part of their forthcoming 50th Birthday celebrations. Not only was I interested to hear about how such a high-profile organisation had handled the huge political and policy changes of those particular two decades, I was also interested to see this group form of oral history in action for the first time. Continue reading

Archives in the wild: researching local youth clubs in London and Liverpool

Early in my PhD I had a conversation with my supervisors about locating the relevant sources for my research. We knew it would be a challenge and it was a significant factor in how I chose my case studies. While the main youth associations in London and Liverpool had both deposited significant amounts of material in the London Metropolitan Archive and Liverpool Record Office respectively, until the bulk of the research began it was hard to know what individual club archives would be found, and indeed what state they would be in. Finding the stories of individual clubs, members and workers was one of the reasons I wanted to do this research and so I also chose to do oral history, but I hoped that some clubs would still have documents from the last few decades. Continue reading