All aspects of society were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including of course the archive sector. After the Government announced lockdown in March 2020, archive services had to close their doors swiftly to onsite visitors. Most also closed to onsite staff working. To gauge the impact of the pandemic, The National Archives undertook an initial COVID-19 impact survey in April 2020, followed by a business continuity survey in the early summer.
We then ran a second impact survey from October to December. This survey was open to both archive services and consultants/freelancers and there were 112 full returns to the survey: 102 from archive services and 10 from consultants. While the returns from archive services indicate trends and issues, we should bear in mind that this is a small sample of UK archive services, and is dominated by English services. There was a reasonable spread of returns from different types and sizes of service, although the effect of furlough meant that some types of services were under-represented (question 34) and this needs to be remembered when interpreting the results.
The first priority of any archive service must be to keep the material in its care safe and secure. Most services (75%) reported they were able to continue monitoring collections and maintained environmental conditions. All (100%) of the Places of Deposit responding to the survey confirmed that they had kept their public records safe. However, there was a reported negative impact on the process of transferring public records.
In general, local authority services seemed to have reacted most quickly and coped better, at least in the short term. While services struggled to maintain their usual functions (e.g. over 50% reported difficulties answering enquiries), most adapted their offer with increased use of social media and online engagement through blogs, exhibitions and other activities. Services also offered access – usually free – to digitised resources, although most services were only able to offer 5% or less of their collections in this way. Many services reported that not only were they attempting to maintain and strengthen contact with existing audiences, they were seeking to reach new audiences (51%). Increased online activity resulted in increased two-way communication. In general, the number of enquiries to archive services increased, as did the number of online visitors.
Overall, the archive sector responded quickly, imaginatively and innovatively to the crisis. For many services the pandemic was an incentive and an opportunity to broaden and diversify their offer. A remarkable feature of the pandemic was ‘COVID collecting’. 60% of services indicated that they were engaged in this. These records will provide a wonderful research resource. However, responses did vary across the sector. There is evidence that smaller services were less likely to be able to engage and over 25% of independent archives, for example, reported they were unable to engage at all. This could point to a ‘digital gap’ in online engagement exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. Over 50% of services recognised the challenge posed to the wellbeing of staff and volunteers. Measures were taken to maintain social interaction, support morale and mental health, and provide flexibility in working arrangements.
There has been a reduction in capacity, with 43% of services reporting a significant loss of staff time, and the adverse effect on the volunteer contribution has been considerable. 71% reported that volunteers were unable to continue working (comparatively few services had a pre-existing programme of remote volunteering) and there is a lot of concern about the implications of the prolonged physical absence of volunteers.
A number of services expressed concern about collections at risk. Two-thirds of respondents reported backlogs, especially in accessioning (78%), cataloguing (74%), digitisation (65%), and conservation (64%). Although in many cases relations with parent bodies have strengthened, some saw fractured relations with other stakeholders. There is also some expectation of a reduction in core funding (38%) and redundancies (22%). Although responses revealed much uncertainty about the future, over half felt there would be long-term changes: increased digitisation and enhanced online engagement (75%) and greater use of social media (54%) – in some cases possibly at the expense of the onsite offer – as well as continued greater flexibility in working practices.
Consultants and freelance archivists
The survey had a number of questions for consultant and freelance archivists. There were only 10 respondents and it is difficult to draw firm conclusions, but the majority had noted a decline in their employment and income. Looking ahead, there is concern about how externally funded archive projects will fare after the pandemic.
The National Archives’ support
Throughout the pandemic, we have endeavoured to support archive services with online advice, guidance, events and activities, as well as the one-to-one support through the Archive Sector Development team. The survey indicated a wide awareness and use of the online resources with a 77% positive rating for the advice and guidance and 60% for events and activities. There was less knowledge of the one-to-one support. Half the respondents from independent and higher education archive services did not know about this offer. However, 72% of those that did take it up rated it ‘very useful’.
The importance of surveys
Surveys provide invaluable evidence for issues and trends within UK archives, and this second COVID-19 impact survey has provided The National Archives with a lot of data to help us support services via advice, training, grants and other means. Surveys can also help convey the sector’s needs to Government as the effects of the pandemic will be felt into the future. We hope that this report will also be useful for archive services themselves, to help them understand their position within the wider sector and help inform decisions that they have to make.