Where can you find outstanding leadership on archives, electric powered tricycles and exploding manuscripts?

I spent two days at The National Archives (TNA) recently on behalf of the RLUK Board to help develop shared understanding between our organisations following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding eight months ago.

Jeff James and Jess Gardner

Jeff James and Jess Gardner

I could not have been made more welcome. The well-organised visit was facilitated by Matt Greenhall (Engagement Manager) and was a testament to the strategic commitment TNA have made to working with RLUK. The short secondment kicked off with a presentation on RLUK drivers for the relationship, with a particular focus from my own experience as Library Director in higher education. This was followed by face-to-face discussions with Jeff James (Chief Executive Officer and Keeper), Valerie Johnson (Interim Director of Research and Collections), Isobel Hunter (Acting Head of Archive Sector Development), plus experts from the TNA’s Advice, Records and Knowledge team. This was an opportunity to explore the areas of common interest articulated in a TNA/RLUK shared action plan, which underpins the MoU, and also to understand the differences – what makes TNA tick and how we can best achieve collaboration? It was not a ‘tourist trip’, but TNA staff generously found time to give me a tour of their exceptional facilities, including a taste of the 150km of archival storage (and the motor powered trikes to get round them) and the inspiring conservation unit, with painstaking craft to tend an ‘exploding book’ back to good condition.

Under Chief Executive Jeff James, TNA have a renewed strategic focus on academic audience. This provides a rich seam of potential collaboration with research libraries, and we soon identified a strong set of shared interests in better understanding changing trends in the research process and best practice in research engagement. Some of you may be aware that within their role of leadership for the archive sector, TNA have established an HE Archives Programme and HE Steering Group. Some of the actions on that programme are jointly sponsored by RLUK, including work taking place to better understand the impact of archives in research through citation analysis and a potential piece of research to understand the contribution of archives to REF impact case studies. An idea for a workshop about research engagement and archives in the HE landscape began to take root, and we explored early ideas for collaboration on researcher development training materials (like many RLUK members, TNA staff are deeply embedded in delivery of archival training to PGRs via Doctoral Training Partnerships). TNA is reorganising teams round its priorities, and Valerie Johnson’s Research and Collections directorate will be a natural point of contact and liaison for much of our joint work.

One of the key topics we explored was a shared interest in collecting drivers in higher education archives. There is real potential here to build on existing research and data sets (e.g. TNA annual accessions survey) to better understand collecting strengths, collecting gaps and whole new areas of collecting, for instance in the public record of science and environment. Some thematic groups, like GLAM (Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts), have already developed collaborative strategies that contribute to a shared national collection for archives and are effective in working together to preserve the national heritage. They may be able to offer some lessons learnt towards wider collaboration.

By the end of the two days, we had identified several concrete actions that are well aligned to RLUK’s strategy and which I will present back to the RLUK Board for discussion in September. This includes the possibility of other staff exchanges from RLUK membership in the interest of further developing partnership working between our organisations. In the meantime, the next concrete example of collaboration between TNA and RLUK will be our joint DCDC15 conference, to be held in Manchester in October.

Jess Gardner is Director of Library Services and University Librarian at the University of Bristol and a Director on the RLUK Board.