Case study of a local authority archive service

Summary

Several years ago culture and leisure services, including the archive service, were transferred out of direct local authority control and into a charitable trust.

The archive service had been established as a separate service some decades before and was moved into a wider heritage service in the 1980s. This heritage service was then transferred into a leisure and culture trust in the 2000s. 

The move to trust status has given the archive service greater operational flexibility and made it part of a body dedicated to culture and leisure that actively seeks out income generation opportunities. In the long term the Trust is expected to be financially less reliant on the local authority.

The Trust is resourced by a combination of income generated by the Trust, such as providing leisure services to other local authorities, and local authority funding.

Challenges and opportunities

Under the original trust agreement there are no specific references to the archive service, although there are references to museum collections. There are collection and disposal policies for the Trust as a whole but not specifically for archives. This creates problems for the archive service, particularly over long term plans such as moving to new premises or expanding its activities. 

There is a tension between the Trust and the Council, which can result in the archive service having 'two masters'. The Trust provides services but ultimate responsibility for the archive collections lies with the Council as defined in deposit agreements. This is unlike a museum where most collections come from outside the Council. The Council has to retain its long-term relationship with the archive service both to deliver records into the archives, and to care for the records in the long term. Being in a Trust has made it more difficult for the archive service to maintain links with the public record creators e.g. courts, hospitals, police. There is a danger that the need to continually collect and take in modern records could be lost in the establishment and development of the wider Trust. 

Large scale investment in the archives could never really come from the Trust, as its role is to provide a service rather than long-term investments. Large-scale investment would be reliant on council funding.

Services provided by the archive struggle to be self-funding and survive independently. The archive service still requires support, although it is in an environment where it is easier to generate income.

Responding to the challenges

The archive service manager has undertaken extensive internal advocacy in several forms:

  • with the service's line manager to keep them well-informed about the operational issues the archive service faces
  • with the Trust's CEO to make him aware of the role and needs of the archive service
  • with local authority departments to maintain awareness of their record-keeping responsibilities and to encourage them to send material to the archive service. This is being done by establishing 'record champions' amongst staff in key departments

The impact of being in a Trust

There have been a number of advantages for the archive service in moving to the Trust: 

  • Increasing access to the collections because it is in an organisation that is specifically dedicated to 'Leisure and Culture' and which has access as one of its core objectives. The archive has more flexibility to develop and works within an environment that is sympathetic to its focus on customer service
  • Benefiting from a higher profile because it is in a dedicated leisure and culture organisation. However, there is no evidence that the archive's membership of the Trust has had any beneficial impact on user numbers
  • Ready access to fellow professionals in the Trust and is able to develop much closer relationships with them than it could have done in the local authority structure
  • Strong working ties with other Trust members including libraries and museums which as enabled cross-selling of services to their audiences and access to wider audiences. Finally, reporting structures are much flatter so there are only a couple of managerial levels between the archivist and the CEO of the Trust. The CEO has a good understanding of the archives and is keen to support its development

However, there are fundamental issues about how well the Trust model fits with the Council's responsibility to identify and collect its own archives and care for those records for which it is responsible under deposit and gift agreements. The Trust is focused on income generation and a relatively short-term agenda of audience engagement, none of which align with long-term record keeping.

What have you learned?

The success of a Trust is dependent on two areas: 

  • The agreement establishing the Trust must clearly define the role for the archives service. The archive's responsibilities and activities need to be clearly delineated, particularly with respect to the collecting function. The archive service must not be included within the provisions for another service, such as museums, as this will not identify or server the specific needs of the archives
  • The set-up of the Trust must include a clear explanation of the local authority's record keeping responsibilities and how these will be met under the Trust arrangement. Allied with this must be clear reporting structures between the local authority (including its records management function) and the archive service