During May 2020, we carried out a survey to find out how archive services were able to continue delivering their services during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. This included asking about any collections-related activity, access to collections and any factors that helped or hindered this. The survey also looked at how supporting resources, for example staffing and funding, were sustained during this period.
Below are the outcomes of the survey that demonstrate how the closure of onsite premises impacted on service delivery and the sustainability of resourcing. We have also collated what archives learnt from their Covid-19 experiences, which can help services shape future planning.
- 73% of responding archive services had a business continuity plan in place, with the number higher for local authority services overall.
- 98% of respondents reported that their premises closed during the pandemic. All had varying notification periods of closure.
- Priority areas of service delivery focused on the security and care of collections and some level of access through a remote service offer.
- 42% of respondents stated that staff were able to check storage areas.
- Access to IT and other online systems, for example for cataloguing and environmental monitoring, were crucial to successful home working.
- 96% of archivists were able to work remotely as opposed to 22% of collection care staff.
- Most services were able to maintain some contact with depositors.
- Re-opening procedures were seen as a critical element of the business continuity plan.
- Some archive services are planning to develop a remote volunteering offer based on this experience
Business continuity planning
The majority of archive services had business continuity planning in place at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic that was either specific to the service itself or part of wider organisational planning. Business continuity planning often linked to other plans such as disaster plans or IT disaster plans. Local authority services and Places of Deposit were more likely to have a business plan in place compared to other archive services.
Of the 73% of respondents who had a plan in place, 5% felt that existing business continuity planning supported delivery of ongoing activity very well. 28% felt that it supported ongoing delivery well, 30% quite well and 10% badly. Only 2% felt it supported the ongoing delivery of the service very badly.
Where services did not have a business continuity plan in place, this was identified as a key area for development. The need to advocate for the service to be included in wider organisational planning was identified in some cases. Building on experience due to the Covid-19 closures, services recognised the need to have effective and tested business continuity planning in place and services felt that they could use their experience of the Covid-19 closures to strengthen their business continuity processes in the future.
Closing the building
The nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting closure of archive services was a reaction to wider guidance and organisational response to the developing situation. Some services were expected to close at short notice (as is often the case in emergency situations), rather than a longer lead in time afforded by this instance.
The following areas were key to consider when closing down the premises:
- the security of collections and their storage
- monitoring collections and their storage
- communicating with the public and stakeholder groups about onsite access
- remote access to collections information
- access to IT equipment for remote working
- communicating with staff and ensuring their welfare
Other areas mentioned included agreeing on-site access beforehand in order to monitor storage areas and the archive collections.
Staffing and service delivery
Although redeployment or furloughing of staff led to reduced capacity in many cases, most archive services continued to operate on some level, principally through remote-working scenarios. Staff were more likely to be redeployed in local authority services whilst staff were more likely to be furloughed in archive services in a university or those with charitable status.
In most cases where staff were redeployed or furloughed, this was done on a voluntary basis, although in cases of furlough, staff were less likely to have a choice. The survey responses suggested that the impact on ongoing service delivery was more severe in cases where archivists and other staff were furloughed.
Clearly it was more difficult for staff whose roles focus on collection care or frontline delivery to continue with their usual work during this period. 96% of archivists were able to work remotely as opposed to 22% of collection care staff. Some archive services developed specific collections information projects for homeworking conservation and paraprofessional staff.
Some services felt that it was important to recognise the difference between what could be delivered when working on site and what could be realistically be delivered when homeworking at a time when many staff were managing additional challenges such as caring responsibilities or lack of office equipment. The provision of IT equipment and robust remote access to IT systems was key to effective homeworking.
Communicating within the immediate team of the archive service seemed to work well and staff adapted to online meeting tools, email and telephone contact. Archive services felt that team working was particularly successful during this period. Keeping in regular contact helped to facilitate this and to identify potential issues with service delivery and any problems that staff may be facing.
Whilst many volunteer projects were halted in cases where volunteers needed to consult documents on site, some services could adapt projects to a remote working set-up and volunteers were able to continue where happy to do so. Closure of onsite services allowed for more progress with regards to work on collections information.
The responses showed that the delivery of grant-funded projects was likely to be impacted where onsite premises were closed with no access to collections and where there was a volunteering or outreach element. It is clear that those services who rely significantly on income generation have seen negative impacts on their funding at this time.
Maintaining continuity of service
Maintaining security and care of the collections, as well as providing some level of remote access, were priority areas for archive services during this period of closure. Staff were particularly mindful of collections care during this time and, in almost half of cases, staff were able to check storage areas in person. Overall, staff were more confident about the security of the collections rather than issues around environmental monitoring. 42% of respondents stated that staff were able to check storage areas.
In terms of collections development, whilst it was difficult to accept new acquisitions while the premises remained closed, archive service staff were in communication with current and potential depositors in preparation for the time when onsite premises re-opened.
Most archive services were able to deliver some level of access such as an email enquiry service and this was considered a key area of service delivery and access offer at this time. With a few exceptions, a telephone enquiry service was unavailable at this time. The remote offer tended to rely on existing provision such as the website and digitised documents. A number of services were able to re-purpose their onsite outreach activity to part of their remote offer and social media became more important. Respondents felt that social media worked particularly well as a communication and outreach tool.
Communicating with the public and stakeholder groups, such as volunteers and depositors, was considered an important element of service delivery at this time. Communication across the wider organisation was more variable than within the archives team itself. Most established channels of communication continued, although in some larger organisations communication within the wider organisation was more problematic.
What worked well for archive services
During this period of closure, respondents felt that the following areas worked particularly well for their archive service in delivering business continuity:
- communicating within the team
- team working
- greater use of social media
- systems for answering email enquiries
- environmental monitoring where this was available
- remote meetings
- IT systems
Respondents also noted that there was more opportunity to undertake online training and progress outstanding areas of work e.g. policy writing. Remote access to IT and systems was consistently the most important success factor in delivering business continuity during this time.
What didn’t work so well for archive services
During this period of closure, archive services felt that the following would have led to improved business continuity if in place at the time of site closure.
- being better prepared to work from home
- faster access to IT systems for staff working remotely and better access to IT equipment
- access to general office equipment
- testing the cataloguing back end prior to closure
- training in online meeting tools
- identification of work for staff working remotely
- remote environmental monitoring of stores
- better communication across the wider organisation, in particular large organisations such as universities
Some services felt that, with more digitised material available, they would have been able to undertake a wider range of activities.
Developing a business continuity plan
The following suggestions are based on the feedback from survey participants and their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic:
- Think how the archive service fits into wider organisational planning. Which plans do you need to be included in? Do you have separate emergency plans or collections salvage plans, and how do they work together? Have you tested them together or separately?
- Make sure others within the organisation understand the needs of the archive service, in terms of closing, monitoring storage areas and provision of remote access
- Planning should be simple and flexible enough to deal with a range of scenarios. An archive service cannot plan for every eventuality.
- Test the plan against different scenarios, including remote access to equipment.
- Remember to include re-opening guidance in the business continuity plan.
- Keep contact details of those who you would need to contact to maintain activities.
- Think about what areas of work should or could be undertaken if the site is closed and staff are working remotely. What projects can continue remotely?
- Make sure expectations around home working are realistic. Think flexibly about what sorts of activities can realistically achieved.
- In the event of closure, are staff likely to be redeployed to another area of the organisation?
- Keep in regular contact through online meeting platforms, emails, phone calls and other online platforms used by your organisation.
- Can you access essential systems remotely, e.g. environmental monitoring, collections information systems? If not, how easy would this be to arrange?
- Do your IT equipment and systems support continuity of business in the event of site closure and allow for staff to effectively work remotely
- Consider areas of income generation that might be impacted. How can this be mitigated?
- Will the delivery of any grant funded projects be affected?
- Can staff from the archive service access storage areas when the site is closed? If not, is this something that you can arrange now?
- Are you happy with the levels of security in the event of site closure?
- Think about how you will keep in contact (and how frequently) with existing and new depositors. What procedures can you develop around collections development? Are there any opportunities for collections development?
- How much of your access offer will depend on existing remote service provision during this period of closure?
- Can you re-purpose any activity in the event of site closure to other online platforms in terms of communication, engagement or outreach?
- How will you keep your stakeholders informed?