Archivists’ roles are wide-ranging and encompass skills and responsibilities such as the selection of archival materials to be retained, cataloguing and describing their contents, and determining arrangements for public access. Perhaps the foremost responsibility of the archivist, however, is to ensure that the records in their care are capable of being preserved securely and permanently.
In doing so the risks against which archivists must contend are numerous. They range from the more everyday threats posed by inadequate environmental storage conditions and those associated with digital preservation such as hardware and format obsolescence, to the more catastrophic but thankfully rarer effects of fire, theft and natural disasters. Many of the risks to records held outside archive repositories have been heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic as the closure of business premises has prevented access to records to ensure their safekeeping. The economic challenges the pandemic has brought have also threatened investment in archive collections and placed business, charities and other records creators at risk of financial collapse.
In response to these heightened uncertainties, The National Archives has established a fund, through a £500,000 grant from HM Treasury, to support the preservation and safeguarding of archive collections at risk. To date the fund, which is distributed across 25 organisations, has facilitated the acquisition of several collections throughout the UK and helped to secure the conservation and storage of others in the care of their custodians. Additionally, the fund is supporting four records surveying projects, including the Records at Risk project currently being conducted on behalf of the Archives and Records Council Wales with the support of the National Library of Wales.
Our project, which began in July 2021 and will continue to March 2022, focuses chiefly on risks to records held outside established archive repositories, including business and charity records in particular. A key element is insolvency monitoring for Welsh companies entering administration or liquidation proceedings. This is conducted on a bi-weekly basis through research in The Gazette and across regional and sectoral news sources. The monitoring work aims to support that of the Business Archives Council’s Crisis Management Team who facilitate the rescue of archives of prominent businesses at risk throughout the UK.
The monitoring results returned to date suggest that, currently, a large majority of businesses entering insolvency in Wales are newly established firms. For example, between July and September 2021, almost 90% of the companies identified were incorporated after 2000 and 70% were incorporated after 2010. While this indicates the types of firms entering insolvency at present may not hold records of significant historical value, exceptions have been identified. In these cases, details of the business have been passed on to a relevant archive service with an offer of support where the service may be interested in acquiring them. Communications are currently underway with the administrators of one prominent organisation with a view to securing the deposit of some of their historical records with a local archive service in 2022.
A further element of the project is a survey of Welsh businesses and charities which aims to sample the range of undeposited records held by them as well as their current storage arrangements. Participating organisations are offered published guidance on key aspects of archiving and historical records preservation and are invited to indicate their interest in depositing their historical records with an external archive repository in the future.
As a longer-term output of the project, we are developing a strategy to ensure that surveying and risk monitoring of organisations across Wales can continue in the future. This strategy focuses on providing tools to enable archive services to conduct surveying and monitoring in their local areas or within subject-based collection remits. An online toolkit is currently in development which will be launched within the ARCW website staff toolkit upon completion in early 2022. Among other tools, it will include:
- an interactive and downloadable guide on insolvency monitoring
- guidance on local and thematic or sectoral surveying
- guidance on digital records at risk
- a collections development policy register
- sample documentation, including templates for correspondence with insolvency practitioners and remote records surveying
- an index to professional guidance from external bodies
To support use of the toolkit, two webinars will be offered in January – February 2002 which will provide an overview of both the toolkit and how it can be used in conducting remote surveying and risk monitoring.
Records at Risk Project Officer