Archives hold the unique and irreplaceable story of organisations, businesses, communities and individuals across the country. The National Archives, as archive sector lead in England, has written this reference guide to help inform LGA members. Archives are extremely varied, coming in all shapes and sizes, but all with the same essential mission to safeguard the records of our work, our decisions, our achievements and to make them accessible to the public. Archives play an essential role in democracy, fostering openness and accountability, and are vital to people’s sense of place and community. Archives help to bring people together, introduce them to new ideas and concepts, instil a sense of pride in communities and can improve quality of life. Archives, as part of a wider cultural offer, play a vital role in the social, economic, environmental, physical and mental wellbeing of communities.
This reference guide is designed to help LGA members better understand what archives are, why they are so important, and where to go for further information.
What is an archive?
An archive is essentially materials generated by individuals, groups or organisations during the course of their life or work and deemed to be worth keeping permanently because they have long-term value for cultural, historical or evidentiary purposes. The organisations which maintain these materials for the long term are also called archives, or sometimes archive services.
Archive material comes in a variety of formats – both physical and digital – including council committee meeting minutes, planning applications and decisions, files relating to children’s services, electoral registers, letters, photographs, maps and emails. Local authority archives will hold records relating to the governance of the area and the communities that live there. These collections may include records such as architectural plans, council minutes, material from local communities and individuals, and the personal papers of prominent local figures.
What is the role of archives in councils?
There is an archive working within or on behalf of every local authority in the country. Councils have statutory obligations to record their decisions (see the next section), and to manage and make available those records to anyone who wishes to consult them, for any purpose.
An efficiently run archive service will support compliance with Freedom of Information and Data Protection. Archives play a vital role in transparency, accountability, and democracy within local government. In turn, archives – and the highly skilled professionals that manage them - contribute to local priorities such as economic growth and regeneration, education and volunteering, community cohesion, place making, and health and wellbeing.
In safeguarding and ensuring public access to these records, archives are a powerful resource which supports a council, its story and its people. They empower individuals to take part in the democratic process and understand how the decisions which impact their lives are made.
Local authority archives share many important characteristics with libraries, museums and other forms of heritage and culture, and sometimes sit within the same departments, but their mission and what they can bring in return are unique. Other archive services sit at the core of local authorities with corporate resources or legal and democratic services.
What is the offer of archives to wider agendas?
Archives play a vital role in preserving our collective cultural memory and in protecting local stories of the past and present, for future generations. Many archives have helped communities to embrace change by firmly placing their history, heritage and identity at the heart of urban regeneration. Archives help to build stable and prosperous communities with a strong sense of identity, they encourage well-being, and they provide opportunities for people to learn, explore and interact. In doing so, archives strengthen the connections between people in a locality, enhance placemaking and the shaping of the public realm, and support evolution.
Archives in local planning guidance
‘Championing archives and libraries within local planning’ guidance, created in partnership with Arts Council England, sets out the role that libraries and archives can play in place shaping. It offers practical guidance on including libraries and archives in the Local Plan, using the Community Infrastructure Levy to support this, and engaging residents with the plan.
Information governance and democracy
An archive service is the best model for fulfilling the legal responsibility of authorities to collect and preserve the records of their activities, and to make those available to the public.
Statutory basis of archives
The rights and responsibilities of local authorities to look after and provide access to the records they hold are enshrined in a number of pieces of legislation, which give local authorities responsibilities to provide access to their own records and the right to acquire and preserve archives created by other bodies.
Legislation referring specifically to local government and archives and records:
- Local Government Records Act, 1962
- Local Government Act, 1972
- Local Government (Access to Information) Act, 1985
The way in which individual services do this is framed by best practice and professional standards and validated by Archive Service Accreditation.
For further information see these links:
Places of deposit
An authority may have made a commitment to undertake the role of place of deposit (PoD), and acquire, preserve and make available public records for which the service is appointed. Public records (such as records of courts, coroners, hospitals and prisons) are held on behalf of central government.
Data protection (GDPR) and Freedom of Information (FOI)
An efficiently run archive service will support compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, ensuring appropriate access to requested information. Archivists are professionals with a strong understanding of data protection legislation, including the General Data Protection Regulation. They can ensure that local authorities maintain records and information under the provisions for ‘archiving in the public interest’ and ensure that access to records is compliant.
Deaccessioning and disposal guidance
Archivists ensure the correct material is retained, reflecting the lives of local communities now and in the past. Representative collecting is important, but not all material can or should be retained permanently. Archives are stored in secure repositories with environmental controls to protect the records from light, heat and humidity that could damage them.
Archivists also monitor the deaccessioning and disposal process. This can protect an authority against reputational damage caused by incorrectly disposing of valuable records or by releasing sensitive information into the public domain.
Archive Service Accreditation
The way in which individual services do all this is framed by good practice and professional standards and validated by the Archive Service Accreditation Standard. The Archive Service Accreditation programme defines agreed standards for archive services across the UK, encouraging and supporting their development. The programme was developed through extensive sector co-creation and is supported by a partnership of national and professional archives bodies across the UK. Working towards accredited status helps services to meet emerging challenges, mitigate risk, and continually improve. Where an archive service is a PoD, there is an expectation that they will apply for and achieve accredited status, and all local authority archive services are encouraged to work towards an application to the programme. Working with Accreditation represents a pathway for the ongoing development of a service, as the standard develops to take account of emerging challenges. Most local authority archives PoDs do now hold the status.
Digital (challenges and opportunities)
The shift to digital working and digital record-keeping has brought huge benefits and considerable challenges. While the internet gives archives and local authorities unprecedented opportunities to connect with their communities and audiences, the ephemeral nature of digital information means there is an urgent need to protect and preserve valuable digital assets – digitised and born-digital records - before they are lost. In ensuring that these records created by the council, communities and individuals are safeguarded for the future and continue to be accessible, the archive service needs support from across the local authority, This includes colleagues within IT, who will provide important technical support, and senior decision-makers who can champion the archive service’s need for capacity and resource to progress this crucial area of work.
Many local authority archive services have developed expertise in this specialist area. The National Archives sector leadership team have delivered considerable training and support for those staff seeking further development.
The National Archives' digital capacity building strategy and support
From 2019 to 2022, The National Archives’ digital capacity building strategy Plugged In, Powered Up delivered 12 programmes that began to address digital skills, resilience and capacity in the sector. Some of the resources from this strategy are online, such as the digital preservation workflows and digital engagement toolkit.
The National Archives’ new digital capacity building strategy Our Digital Century will continue to build upon several of the successful workstreams delivered by Plugged in Powered Up, as well as developing new targeted support in the following areas:
- Capacity building - providing archivists with the tools they require to improve the management of digital records.
- Advocacy - empowering archivists to advocate digital archiving best practice to key decision-makers in their organisations.
- Discovery - enabling archive users to find and access digital archive collections.
- Enrichment – helping archives enhance and enrich our society intellectually, economically and culturally.
Financial sustainability of archives
Income generation guidance
Archive services can generate income in different ways. The National Archives has produced this guidance to support local authority archive services and their managers to generate income for their service.
Next steps and further information
The National Archives and its roles
The National Archives leads the archives sector for England and works with over 2,500 archives across the country, including over 100 within or run on behalf of local authorities at borough, city, district and county levels. Through support and advice, The National Archives helps local authority archives to develop and enhance their services, facilities and collections.
The Government’s strategic vision for the sector, Archives Unlocked, outlines The National Archives’ leadership priorities under the themes of trust, enrichment and openness, and describes the work that’s happening to encourage a sustainable and innovative archives sector.
A Year in Archives
As well as working closely with individual archive services and councils, The National Archives advocates for and celebrates the achievements of archives across the country. Its annual publication, A Year in Archives, provides a glimpse into some of the more recent creative, innovative work of archives.
Chief Archivists in Local Government Group
CALGG is one of the groups within the Archives and Records association (ARA). The group aims to influence policies and practices to promote the preservation and use of archives that are in the care of local authorities with archive powers in England and Wales. It provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and information among local authority archive services and with others.