What drives HEIs and their Special Collections and Archives (SCAs) to collect archives? What subject areas do they cover and why? How far is collection explicitly or implicitly motivated by the university’s sometimes shifting institutional drivers?

Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and The National Archives (TNA) are working together on matters of shared interest to the archive and research library sectors, to improve understanding, share good practice and to help institutions develop.  They are facilitating enhanced collaboration between the archive and academic sectors, working closely with Special Collections and Archives, to add value based on deeper knowledge of what is happening on the ground and to help strengthen communities of practice.

RLUK and TNA commissioned research in 2016 into the nature of archive material held in higher education institutions; the rationale for its collection; and how it is used to contribute to institutional missions, aims and objectives. The outcomes from the research will serve to inform future support for the higher education archive sector in the areas of advocacy, collaboration and information-sharing.

Analysis of survey data received from a cross-section of 42 HEIs coupled with a series of seven in-depth interviews and a workshop provided valuable insights into collecting practices in unique and distinctive collections at strategic and practical levels. We found that excellence in research and teaching were the highest priorities in driving collecting, closely followed by student experience and excellence in learning.

Further analysis allowed us to provide a platform from which future activities might be developed. Areas investigated included:

  • The collecting environment: the core aims of the cross-section of HEIs; aims and objectives of SCAs; institutional collecting structures and models; and how HEIs perceived their SCAs.
  • The collecting imperative: the nature of collecting themes and formats; recognised gaps and risks; and how far collecting policies aligned with institutional objectives.
  • Collecting approaches and behaviours: whether proactive, reactive and/or collaborative; institutional acquisition arrangements; significance assessments and de-accessioning; and co-operation, collaboration and competition.
  • Supporting the institutional mission: the relationship between academic departments and the library based SCA; and professional curatorial imperatives and the changing aims and needs of the  institution

Very rich information was provided by contributors to the research allowing new insights into the broad spectrum of the HEI collecting landscape. Collecting drivers and approaches, from the highly innovative to the fire-fighting and resource-stretched, reflect a diverse pattern of provision that operates within common governing frameworks and broadly-set goals.

We found that in general those SCAs and others holding unique and distinctive collections (UDCs) operate most effectively in developing collections when:

  • Direct access and the opportunity to contribute to HEI policy, aims and objectives enable the SCA to respond effectively and appropriately
  • Robust and regular links between the UDC and the academic environment are in place so that proactive and relevant research, teaching, learning and engagement activities can be developed
  • Able to pursue the HEI’s ‘unique and distinctive’ requirement while maintaining genuine collaboration with professional colleagues and in partnerships
  • Capable of balancing the long-term requirements and curatorial responsibilities for collections with the agility to respond proactively to shorter term institutional requirements

The findings of the research were discussed at the DCDC16 Conference in October 2016 where a series of workshops allowed responses to the findings to be made. These contributed to TNA’s and RLUK’s continued work, currently looking at ‘cultural value’ as one of the drivers for collecting within HEIs, and how partnerships can support successful collection development and creative access to/use of collections.

Caroline Williams, Independent Archival Consultant
April 2017

Download the Collecting Drivers report

Download the Collecting Drivers report