Paul V. Dudman
Archivist at the University of East London
"Getting my records has lled in blanks as I had lived a life of non-existence, I had nothing of my past, nothing was there, it was empty.’ (Brewis, 2017)." Voluntary sector archives are at risk’ has been one of the key rallying cries of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives (CVSA) ) since its launch in October 2012. CVSA sought to bring together archivists, custodians, academics, researchers, and those with an experience of working in the voluntary sector to help not only raise awareness of the importance of voluntary sector archives but also explore methods to help better ensure their continued survival, preservation and access. The Campaign highlighted the importance of these archives for supporting a range of activities including supporting good governance and regulatory compliance within third sector organisations; supporting the preservation of institutional corporate memory and identity; and for research. The Campaign also highlighted the wider role these archives can play in supporting institutional engagement with wider society and the importance of such records in helping to preserve the wider societal cultural heritage, and for individual access to such records to support their own human and citizen rights. For many, this was a needed intervention on issues of voluntary sector archives as “there is still 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 researcher.” (Brewis, 2012)
Here at the University of East London (UEL) ) we have been working with the archives of voluntary sector organisations since the inception of our archive service back in November 2002. This has involved working both in collaboration with ongoing voluntary sector organisations to help support their recordkeeping functions by providing a home for their archival collections whilst also taking on responsibility for archival collections from organisations which sadly no longer exist. From our growing archival collections from refugee/migration voluntary organisations with the archives of the Refugee Council and related organisations to supporting British Olympic history through the archive of the British Olympic Association, the archives of voluntary organisation are vital to the inclusion of the voice of voluntary action.
This has been reinforced through the attendance at a recent conference hosted by the British Academy on “Voluntary organisations’ archives and records: Why do they matter?” organised by colleagues from the Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain project. This conference brought together voluntary sector professionals, researchers, academics and archivists to discuss the importance of and the key issues around the preservation and access to voluntary sector archives. The conference sought to explore the role of voluntary sector organisations in the mixed economy of welfare in Britain and to seek to digitise key archival documents to make them accessible through an online portal.
The conference highlighted several key questions in relation to the archives of voluntary sector organisations. These included the impact and challenges of austerity on voluntary sector archives; how can archives of voluntary sector organisations be utilised to support the current work of the organisation; and how can the records of small and non- traditional organisations be preserved for the future? (Wilkins, 2019). From a personal perspective, we have had experience of the challenges of looking to preserve the records of organisations involved in the provision of services within the refugee and migration sphere, and it is through articles like this one and conferences on these topics that we hope to raise awareness of the importance of these archives. It was a question I discussed with a colleague over lunch break, whilst many of those who attended the conference were already aware of the issues surrounding voluntary sector archives, how do we as archival professionals and researchers, reach out and engage with those voluntary sector organisations that were not in attendance or for whom the importance and relevance of the records they may have had yet to be fully realised or understood.
Through the projects and conferences mentioned in this article, several key pointers for voluntary sector organisations have been highlighted in relation to their records. Firstly, what does the voluntary sector organisation know about its archives? Does the voluntary sector organisation have an archive or a collection of records that could become an archive? What information do the records contain and are they well looked after, or gathering dust in a cupboard or basement? Does the institution know what to do with these records?
What are the barriers and challenges that organisations face with the managing of their records? This could cover issues of funding, staff resources; a focus on front- line service provision or a general lack of awareness around the importance of these records. Two of the biggest challenges to voluntary sector organisations in recent years followed the impact of austerity measures following the nancial crisis of 2007-8 and the impact of government policy around the new Big Society ideology introduced by the Conservative government of David Cameron, which “envisaged a recalibration of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector.” (‘Political discourses’, 2017). This recalibration would see the voluntary sector organisations take on more responsibility for social welfare provision as state run public services were reduced whilst at the same time experiencing cuts to their own budgets, deal with increasing demand for their services and having to compete with pro t-making companies for a share of any funding that was available. This led many social welfare organisations subsequently becoming nancially dependent on government funding for their continued survival, leading to restructuring or mergers in some cases or some voluntary sector organisations being forced to fold altogether. With more recent changes to the provision of welfare services in the UK, with changes to both the funding and provisioning of welfare services, “the boundaries between the state and the voluntary sector are being renegotiated , to the extent that some have called it 'a revolutionary moment.'” (olie7999, 2019)
What are the opportunities? Information located with archives of voluntary sector organisations can be used to stimulate discussion and help inform the current work of the organisation; create new publicity and outreach materials as well as supporting the organisation’s corporate identity. Archives can also be used to help demonstrate an organisation’s impact over time on a theme or community as well as their ongoing commitment to their chosen mission. Voluntary sector archives can also be used to support institutional governance and legal responsibilities.
“Above all, records are a vital asset for an organisation: they demonstrate decision- making and good governance; provide crucial evidence of past successes, learning and impact; capture an organisation’s identity; and they can be used to demonstrate why an organisation should be valued. In a climate where trust, reputation and risk are increasingly pertinent issues, archives hold a wealth of material which organisations can use to confront present-day challenges.” (Clements, 2017)
The importance and value of the records held by voluntary sector organisations have the power to enable access to a range of narratives and points of view, different perspectives, and the opportunity to allow different voices to be heard within the archive.
Everyone has a voice and archives can be the vehicle on which these voices can be documented, preserved and made available as a corpus of materials on which future histories can be written and different communities to be heard and listened, too. However, part of the CVSA campaign has been to encourage voluntary sector organisations to enable access to their collections for study and research. As Brewis argues, there is often “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.” (2012).
Archives have a vital role to play in terms of supporting both human and citizen rights, a place where both the “of cial” narratives but also counter-narratives produced through activism and civic society engagement can be stored, documented and made accessible. Archives at their very heart are a collection of stories, narratives which have been developed either by organisations or individuals in the course their daily lives and work. Voluntary sector archives can help provide a counter- narrative to both of cial and media discourses we are sold on a daily basis, voluntary sector and community archives should be reactive to documenting the voices of the everyman, the activist on the street, the community organisation, the charity, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) and of course local communities, plural as any community is made up of a myriad of different voices. Archives can be representative of individual and collective memory, the history of the present that we want to preserve for the future generations, to tell the future of our struggles today and our hopes for the future. Without our active engagement, these counter-narratives to those presented by governments and the media will be lost. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project on the Discourses of Voluntary Action will attempt to explore some of these issues through the examination of “discourses and narratives on the place of the voluntary sector in welfare service provision in the 1940’s and 2010s.” (‘Voluntary sector discourses’, 2017). This project will look to examine political, public and of cial discourses at two key points in the history of welfare provision in Britain and looking to tease out the relationships and interplays between the of cial, voluntary and personal narrative of welfare provision.
Voluntary sector archives as cultural heritage. Voluntary sector archives can play a very important role in documenting an organisation’s role and engagement within society. Without these archives, “histories and identities of voluntary sector groups, their past and their role and importance may be lost in wider and public understanding [of] what welfare is” (Clements, 2015). Voluntary sector organisations are often the public face of personal interaction with the welfare system and therefore have a signi cant cultural heritage attached to them. At the Voluntary organisations’ archives and records conference, Tanya Muneera Williams from the Everyday Muslim project argued that “if people don’t see themselves represented in the past, they don’t feel like they have a place.” (Wilkins, 2019). This highlights the cultural heritage role that voluntary sector archives can play in supporting the inclusion of more diverse voices in our archival collections and helping to address the question of “whose histories are represented in our archives?” (Wilkins, 2019)
From our own perspective working within the eld of voluntary sector support to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, I see our role now as being to support the collection and documentation of materials, in all formats, which can help to preserve the often hidden and under-represented voices of the refugee and migrant experience, as well as supporting the preservation of the voices of the voluntary sector organisations which have for so long been at the front line of working with refugees and asylums seekers in this country. We are still actively collecting materials and we are exploring ways in which we can preserve and make accessible life history narratives and stories of the migration journey. We have been fortunate to be able to engage and collaborate with both academic and external colleagues to explore new mediums of expression, whether this be poetry and creative writing; zines; photography; embroidery workshops; cartoons; graphic novels and oral history, we continue to look for new ways in which we can engage and new partnerships and connections with and beyond the academy. We are currently working with the UK Oral History Society on a Migration Special Interest Group, which has already enabled the interaction with two oral history projects and new deposits of material at the Archive. We also have the Voices of Kosovo in Manchester (VOKIM) oral history project produced by the Manchester Aid to Kosovo charity with the aim of recording the voices and testimonies of the Kosovar community in Manchester. Gujarati Yatra was an exhibition at the Museum of Croydon inspired by the Croydon-based Subrang Arts which told the story of individuals and communities who made the journey from their homeland in Gujarat on the west coast of India, rst to Africa and then on to Britain and other countries in the West. The term `Yatra’ is an ancient word in Sanskrit meaning journey and the aim of the project was to facilitate the collection of stories to help `reveal the art, language and literature, food and religion of the Gujarati people and how these were preserved and adapted in different cultures.’ (Gujarati-Yatra, no date)
We are also working with the Wai Yin Society in Manchester on an oral history project called `Crossing the Borders’ focusing on the life stories of older Chinese people whose voices are often left unheard. `The project will focus on rst generation Chinese immigrant who came over to the U.K. from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam and Malaysia,” (Steele, 2018) and their experiences of living under different political regimes, stories of their physical journeys to a new home and subsequent settlement and adaptation to lives in a new city. The Wai Yin Society has been working to support the Chinese community in Manchester for almost thirty years and stories collected through this project will be broadcast in a radio series on All FM Radio (in Manchester) and compiled into a book. Curated documentation from the Crossing the Border project will be preserved as a permanent public research open for research at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Resource Centre at Manchester Public Library and with us in the Refugee Council Archive at the University of East London.
The importance of this project is noted by Wai Yin Society volunteer Wai Yeung: “With the current and next generations of Chinese people being born in the UK, a lot of Chinese heritage and history is not being passed on and preserved by parents or grandparents, even some languages or dialects are lost. This project funded and supported by the Heritage Lottery is ever more important to preserve the culture and heritage of these individuals.” (Steel, 2018).
In conclusion, I hope it gives an insight into the importance of voluntary sector archives in documenting issues of both citizen and human rights. Records of both individuals and organisations can play a vital role in helping to document human rights issues both in authenticating their existence whilst also ensuring that records of campaigns, activities and support are documented and preserved to enable these often counter-narratives to be preserved and their voices to be heard. For many, “the preservation of these archives is a matter of democracy: they are a vital record of the role of civic society, past and present. We cannot understand or protect democracy without recourse to the knowledge and memory contained [with]in the archives of these organisations.” (Clements, 2017)
For anyone wishing to learn more about these issues, or about refugee archives in particular, please do contact me for further information.
My details are: Paul V Dudman
Telephone: 020 8223 7676;
Twitter: @PaulDudman, @refugee_archive.
Brewis, G. (2012) ‘Finding and accessing archives for voluntary action history’, 15 October. Available at: https://blog.archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/2012/10/15/ nding-and-accessing-archives-for-voluntary-action- history/ (Accessed: 28 March 2019).
Brewis, G. (2017) Filling in the blanks: Why charities must take records management seriously, Voluntary Sector Archives. Available at: http:// www.voluntarysectorarchives.org.uk/archives/1079 (Accessed: 31 March 2019).
Clements, C. (2015) ‘Digitising the mixed economy of Welfare in Britain’, Charlotte Clements, 7 February. Available at: https://cclements29. wordpress.com/2015/02/07/digitising-the-mixed- economy-of-welfare-in-britain/ (Accessed: 28 March 2019).
Clements, C. (2017) ‘Finding, and preserving, democracy in UK’s voluntary sector archives’, HistPhil, 20 February. Available at: https://histphil. org/2017/02/20/ nding-and-preserving-democracy- in-uks-voluntary-sector-archives/ (Accessed: 28 March 2019).
Gujarati-Yatra (no date) gujarati-yatra. Available at: https://www.gujaratiyatra.com (Accessed: 7 April 2019).
olie7999 (2019) ‘Talking about voluntary action and the welfare state: Historical re ections, current debates, 30 April 2019’, Discourses
of Voluntary Action, 5 March. Available at: https://discoursesofvoluntaryaction.wordpress. com/2019/03/05/workshop/ (Accessed: 7 April 2019).
‘Political discourses’ (2017) Discourses of Voluntary Action, 20 September. Available at: https:// discoursesofvoluntaryaction.wordpress.com/methods/ political-discourses/ (Accessed: 7 April 2019).
Steel, C. (2018) Quiet but not silent, thanks to National Lottery, life stories of older Chinese people can be heard, Wai Yin Society. Available at: https:// www.waiyin.org.uk/2018/09/quiet-but-not-silent- thanks-to-national-lottery-life-stories-of-older- chinese-people-can-be-heard/ (Accessed: 31 March 2019).
‘Voluntary sector discourses’ (2017) Discourses
of Voluntary Action, 20 September. Available at: https://discoursesofvoluntaryaction.wordpress.com/ methods/voluntary-sector-discourses/ (Accessed: 7 April 2019).
Wilkins, A. (2019) ‘Voluntary organisations’ archives and records: Why do they matter?’, Translating Asylum, 8 February. Available at: https:// translatingasylum.com/blog/ (Accessed: 28 March 2019).