Is the archives sector finally securing its rightful place in our digital future?


The Minister of State for Digital and Culture, Matt Hancock, had a busy March - with the launches of both the UK Digital Strategy and the new Archives Unlocked strategic vision.

The UK Digital Strategy sets out the government’s ambition for the UK to be a “world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. It has a strong emphasis on infrastructure, digital skills, business, economic growth, security, safety and data.

UK Digital Strategy - Great focus on libraries

My first reaction to reading the UK Digital Strategy was “wow!” - libraries are mentioned 17 times!

Their role in improving digital literacy and providing higher level digital skills is strongly recognised, and the development of a Single Digital Presence for libraries is even mentioned. Harry Lund, Head of Strategy and Enterprise in the Digital Economy Unit (DCMS) writes in a Libraries Taskforce blog:

“Libraries feature prominently in the Digital Strategy because we appreciate how much people look to them to provide digital access and valued support in building and improving digital skills and literacy.”

Would libraries have featured so strongly without the Libraries Taskforce? Probably not – great credit must go to them and the Society of Chief Librarians whose Universal Digital Offer clearly articulates the value of libraries in a digital world.

At a Libraries Taskforce Sector Forum in Birmingham in January a question from the floor criticized Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021 for not being strong enough on digital. Kathy Settle, the Chief Executive of the Libraries Taskforce, hinted they were working closely with DCMS colleagues in the Digital Economy Team.

But where do archives fit into the Digital Strategy?

My second reaction to the UK Digital Strategy was “damn!” – archives are mentioned zero times.

There are references to the “digitisation of culture” and a commitment to “undertake a major enhancement and rationalisation of heritage records nationally and locally.”
Despite this, the UK Digital Strategy is highly relevant for archives and the launch of the excellent Archives Unlocked vision and action plan last week provides an opportunity for the sector to position itself as a key player in the UK’s digital economy.

Digital transformation is at the heart of the Archives Unlocked vision – managing digital records, digitisation, trust in the digital future, transparency, and unlocking data and information to promote economic growth. The two visions are speaking the same language – economic growth, inclusion, digital government, public confidence, and unlocking the power of data.

Below is a brief video of Chief Executive and Keeper of the National Archives, Jeff James, speaking at the launch of Archives Unlocked.

Archives Unlocked: Advocacy, Advocacy, Advocacy

So what next? It’s the responsibility of everyone in the archives sector (not just The National Archives or the Archives and Records Association) to be advocates for Archives Unlocked and clearly articulate the benefits of archives to people, communities and the economy in a digital world.

My five key tips for how archive services can be strong advocates for Archives Unlocked include:

  1. Understand the key messages in Archives Unlocked about the value of archives and how they are relevant to your service or organisation.
  2. Make sure senior managers, stakeholders, funders and Councillors (if working in local government) understand how archives contribute to your organisation’s corporate priorities. Understand and use their language.
  3. Focus on opportunities, the difference archives make to people and positive stories – not just risks or problems.
  4. Take advantages of opportunities to talk about the value of archive – meetings, reports, visits or tours by your Chief Executive. Think how you can create opportunities. Don’t be shy.
  5. Celebrate success using press releases, social media and marketing. Sometimes senior managers and especially Councilors use social media.

The move of the National Archives from the Ministry of Justice to the Dept for Culture, Media & Sport also gives the sector better opportunities to engage with the Digital Economy Unit. If we get this right perhaps archives will be mentioned 17 times in the next UK Digital Strategy.

About Kevin Bolton

Kevin Bolton is a consultant in archives, libraries and heritage. Before becoming an consultant he worked for Manchester City Council as Archives+ Manager and later as Citywide Services Manager (Reform). Between 2012-16 he led on the transformation and creation of Archives+ in Manchester Central Library. Find out more about Kevin's consultancy services on his website.

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