Finding and accessing archives for voluntary action history

Guest Blog by Georgina Brewis

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the history of voluntary, civic and cultural organisations has never been more popular as an academic subject in Britain. Leading historians like Brian Harrison have called attention to the importance of voluntarism as a theme in post-war British history while there has been a wave of PhD theses dealing with topics such as the voluntary hospitals, the role of disability charities in politics, the professionalization of the voluntary sector and the formation of humanitarian networks across empire.  In 2011 no less than three edited collections presenting the latest research on voluntary action history were published and several further volumes appeared in 2012 or are in press. Such new research has been strengthened and sustained by the Voluntary Action History Society and particularly its active New Researchers group.  Importantly, not all these studies are by historians, pointing to the importance of archival resources for students of political science, sociology, health studies and other disciplines. There is growing recognition that we cannot write British social history or social policy without looking at the considerable contributions of charities, voluntary groups, philanthropists, campaigners and volunteers.

So how do academic researchers track down the archives of the voluntary and community organisations they want to use? Any would-be researcher of charity needs to understand that those bodies with catalogued and accessible institutional archives – whether kept in-house or deposited elsewhere – represent only a very small minority of voluntary organisations. Unsurprisingly these tend to be the larger, better funded and longer-established groups such as the British Red Cross or the Children’s Society.  The voluntary sector in Britain is often likened to a pyramid: a very small number of organisations at the top with paid staff, regular income and office space resting on a much larger base of groups run entirely by volunteers, subsisting on small grants and donations. Voluntary sector archives may reflect this pattern, but there is no guarantee that even the largest charity will have made provision for preservation and conservation of its records (aside from the limited financial data required by the Charity Commission) let alone for cataloguing or access.

Researchers and students are advised to start with the National Register of Archives. Another useful database is DANGO, which identifies the locations of the papers of several thousand non-governmental organisations, and was put together by a team at Birmingham University, although the end of project funding means its entries and website are no longer being updated. Searching the Archives Hub will find records of voluntary groups where these are deposited at an institution contained on its database; Hull History Centre, SOAS, Birmingham University Library or the Women’s Library have all built up specialisms in this area. Perhaps there would be a way of encouraging charities with in-house collections to make the catalogues available via Archives Hub?

Archives Hub has helped me search for materials relating to small or short-lived student-run charities that may be contained within a students’ union archive or an individual’s private papers.  Although an organisation’s institutional archive may be lost or never have existed, its history can be reconstructed through accessing annual reports, correspondence and other papers held in many different repositories – as I have managed to do for the group International Student Service. It would be helpful for future researchers if it was possible to log this information somewhere.

It remains the case that many researchers will have to seek access to records by contacting an organisation or group founder directly, with variable results. This is likely to be increasingly the case given the increase in numbers of pressure groups, charities and other voluntary bodies since the 1960s. In my experience there is a range of practice from organisations which ignore or refuse requests for access with varying degrees of politeness to those that welcome you with open arms and let you sit unsupervised with the charity’s papers, free to copy, remove, deface or pour coffee all over the institutional record. Once you’ve had success accessing the records of one organisation, it may be easier to open communications with others in a related sector. Learning how to negotiate what we might call ‘informal archives’ will be a key challenge for future researchers of voluntary action. There is a need for better advice for academics, particularly students and new researchers, on the multiple ethical considerations and practical concerns that come with using informal archives. How do you track down such records? How do you reference sources? What do you do if you’re concerned about the physical state of records or what might happen to them when the group’s founder dies? How to reconcile your obligations as a historian with the fact that a particular organisation has trusted you to look at their materials?

It is also worth remembering that records relating to charitable activities can turn up in unexpected places, for example in the archives of private companies. The records of a charitable Trust or Foundation may well contain better sources about a particular charity than the organisation itself has preserved, although again there may be problems of access. There are good signs that this is changing not least through the positive examples of two funders involved with the new Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives: the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

This new Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives, which was launched at the House of Lords in October 2012, seeks to raise awareness of the importance of voluntary sector archives as strategic assets for governance, corporate identity, accountability and research. It maintains that caring for archives and records is actually an important aspect of the sector’s wider public benefit responsibility. Most significantly, the Campaign brings together academic researchers, custodians, creators of records and others in the voluntary sector to share expertise and resources. Together, we should be able to begin to address some of the issues and questions I’ve outlined above. Yet there is a long way to go before all voluntary organisations are convinced not only of the value of records to the current mission, but also of the value of making these accessible to researchers from a variety of disciplines. For more information contact