First national forum on community archives

The first National Forum on community archives was held at University College London (UCL) on 27 June 2007. The Forum had been organised jointly by the Community Archives Development Group (CADG) and the School of Archive, Library and Information Studies (SLAIS). Some 160 delegates attended who from a show of hands were almost equally from both the ‘mainstream’ archive world and also from the ‘community’ archive sector. A great deal of work was put in to make the day a success, in particular by NCA’s Ruth Savage and Louise Ray and SLAIS’s  Andrew Flinn.

A short but distinguished history
Following the welcome by Jane Fenoulet, Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL, the day itself kicked off with CADG’s convenor Vic Gray’s introduction. Vic covered the ‘short but distinguished’ history of CADG and how it grew from the CAAP project. This in turn had evolved from the Archives Task Force, which strongly advocated engagement by ‘mainstream’ archives with the community archive movement. Vic reminded us that the Forum was one of three CADG achievements, the others being the website and the forthcoming study of the impact of community archives, both of which were on the day’s programme. Vic made a plea for feedback from delegates since he wanted CADG to drive forward with an agenda owned by the whole movement.

Tony Benn’s keynote address
Vic then introduced the keynote address by Tony Benn, who was fresh from the Glastonbury Festival. Mr Benn started by explaining his own passion for communities and his own almost obsessive diary and record keeping, stretching back to the 1930s. Mr Benn’s personal records fill seven garages and are perhaps an unparalleled resource for British political history of the last sixty years, dealing with issues of identity, faith, gender, work, nationality and so forth. Mr Benn recorded his talk on tape; this he does habitually to guard against press misquotes, underlining the crucial evidential value of proper records.

Mr Benn stressed the value of community archives for empowering people. In 1834 only 2% of Britons could vote, but through the sacrifice of people at the bottom we now have universal suffrage. Access to knowledge can transform nations, hence an imprisoned South African terrorist within a generation became that country’s President. Knowledge is freedom, culture gives us the power to talk across the centuries, and if you want to see the future, go to a demonstration!

There were questions for Mr Benn, such as the one from Isobel Siddons: “Do you have any plans for your archive?” to which the reply was “not really; because for one’s last journey one does not need to pack!” To the question whether there are any particular things we should be recording, the answer was an emphatic “no: collect everything; you can select later”.

Community histories, community archives
Mr Benn was followed by an in depth presentation on ‘community histories, community archives: preservation, ownership and use’ by Andrew Flinn. Andrew started by challenging the archive domain to recognise that community archives are nothing new and are not part of some radical social agenda or a democratization of history, but are also part of a longer, well-established tradition of recording community memory. What has changed is that mainstream archives now acknowledge the legitimacy of community archives.

Andrew’s talk ranged widely and was based on his own research, which is perhaps unique in this country, following oral history and related recording of various themes, such as feminism and black and ethnic minority history. He wondered why there has been such a rapid recent growth of this sort of recording and suggested that computers have played a significant role, as has family history and the fact that so many communities these days are in a state of flux. Recognition by academic historians of the validity of a ‘bottom up’ approach has also played a part, so that citizens are no longer only noted when they interact with the state.

The impact of community archives
After the break, David Mander OBE described the CADG research study into the impact of community archives (a draft summary of which was distributed to delegates). The study itself is based on a detailed analysis of a carefully selected range of community archives from across the country, including some important and innovative examples such as the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network (CCAN), see David made the point, however, that the community archive movement is not confined to this country and promises in fact to develop into something truly international.

David stressed that the CADG study showed how community archives were as much a process as a product, and that they made a significant contribution to the lifelong learning agenda and cultural capital, for which David used the word ‘liveability’. He drew attention to a number of issues which are discussed in the forthcoming report, such as digital preservation, and in particular the fairly desperate need to put in place a much more usable system of evaluation, so that the value of community archives can be demonstrated to funders. David suggested that MLA’s ‘generic social outcomes’ (GSOs) seemed the most promising way forward, these covering key areas of the public policy agenda such as stronger and safer communities, health and well being, and strengthening public life.

David concluded by flagging up the need for CADG to clarify its own future plans, now that the research study, the website and the Forum are or are almost all realities.

Support for community archives
David was followed by a summary of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s support for community archives from Anna Grundy. Anna demonstrated the HLF’s commitment to the whole area of work, such as a staggering £49m already granted to oral history projects. She explained that grants to community archives tend to be at three levels, with Awards for All often paying for a computer and some software, while Your Heritage (up to £50,000) has funded larger projects often including officer support and various types of partnership and networking. The largest Heritage Grants tend to be strategically important ‘demonstrator’ projects, sometimes at sub-regional scale, such as the CCAN and the ‘Living Links’ project in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

For more information about HLF’s criteria and programmes in respect of community archives see the guidance publication ‘archives, people and communities’ (2006) available on

A national network of community archives
After lunch, which doubled for an exceptional networking opportunity, delegates were treated to a guided tour through CADG’s first concrete achievement, the excellent website, by Jack Latimer, the mastermind behind the site. Jack was at pains to celebrate the small team of volunteers who are now populating the site with an ever-increasing number (in late June about 300) of descriptions of community archives, with links for those with an online presence. A straw poll of the audience showed very clearly that there is still a long way to go to capture all the activity going on around the country! After demonstrating the potential of the site as a ‘national network’ of community archives, Jack took the opportunity to ask the audience for feedback for CADG, and pointed out that any thoughts or suggestions for future support will be taken seriously by CADG at its next meeting on 19 Sept

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