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The National Archives has been commissioned by DCMS to refresh the government’s strategic vision for archives: Archives Unlocked. We have partnered with BOP Consulting, who are carrying out an extensive consultation of the archive sector and its stakeholders to inform the refreshed Archives Unlocked vision.

Please read the provocation from BOP Consulting below, then sign up to a roundtable or complete our online consultation to share your thoughts with us.

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Archives serve as the custodians of our collective memory, preserving records of the past for the benefit of present and future generations. When Archives Unlocked was launched seven years ago by the then Culture Minister, it set a bold direction for our sector. The vision aimed to transform how archives are preserved, accessed, and utilised, reinforcing their role as custodians of our collective memory. Developed in a different digital and cultural landscape, before the challenges of the global pandemic, the vision centred on three key ambitions of Trust, Enrichment, and Openness.

In 2024, we are inviting colleagues across the sector to play their part in refreshing our sector-wide vision. Should these same ambitions remain central to Archives Unlocked? Are new challenges emerging which should be explored? Should our priorities be reconsidered?
The Government’s vision for archives has been underpinned by regular action plans which set out the steps needed to deliver the ambitions of Archives Unlocked. Since 2017, these plans have focused on seven key themes: Digital Capacity, Resilience, Impact, Diversity and Inclusion, Innovation and Risk, Advocacy and Reputation, and Health and Wellbeing.

How was Archives Unlocked developed?

The development of the Archives Unlocked vision and its action plan was shaped extensively through a detailed consultation process conducted by The National Archives from April 2016 to January 2017. This process involved two main stages of consultation: an initial consultation with 179 participants across roundtables in Wiltshire, London, Manchester, and Birmingham, and an online survey that attracted 235 responses. A subsequent consultation refined the draft vision through an online survey with 100 responses and through a final series of roundtables and key stakeholder sessions. Since the development of the strategy, the Archives Unlocked Steering Group, drawn from across the archives sector and from partner organisations beyond, has provided ongoing support and direction.

Sector achievements

What has the sector achieved?

As we begin the consultation to refresh the Archives Unlocked strategic vision, it is appropriate to reflect on three of the original themes – digital capacity, resilience and impact – and the sector’s achievements in these areas.
The sector set out to:

  • develop digital capacities within the sector
  • enhance institutional resilience, and
  • demonstrate the tangible impact of archives on society.

Practically, initiatives have focused on expanding digital preservation and access, on developing resilience and adapting to the changing needs of users and institutions, and on fostering a diverse and skilled workforce to reflect the nation’s rich heritage and the dynamically changing society in which archives operate.
Since its development and launch, Archives Unlocked has seen the sector working in partnership to deliver numerous successes.

Digital capacity building

Against a backdrop of rapid technological change, the sector has made huge progress, collaborating extensively and expanding its digital preservation, access and engagement work.

  • A significant number of archives have embraced learning and digital skills training.
    This has been delivered through programmes such as The National Archives’ online learning pathway with the Digital Preservation Coalition, Novice to Know How, which has over 2500 users worldwide, and the hands-on digital preservation training delivered through Archive School.
  • Archives across the sector have increased their confidence in undertaking digital workflows and have started to think more strategically and long-term.
    A review of The National Archives’ ambitious digital capacity building strategy, Plugged In Powered Up highlighted the impact of this work, with over 60% of respondents using the digital engagement toolkit, whilst identifying opportunities for further development.
  • The sector has shared knowledge and ideas.
    The National Archives’ Peer Mentoring programme has built relationships across the sector, sharing expertise and learning, and the Digital Archives Learning Exchange provides a network to share best practice, advice and inspiration.
  • Growing numbers of archives have increased their digital presence, making more of their collections available online.
    Over 300 UK archives now use the Manage Your Collections tool to add collections information to The National Archives’ online catalogue Discovery, enabling more archives to have a greater online presence.

Plugged In Powered Up represented the archive sector’s first digital capacity building strategy. There is a need and an appetite to do more as we embark on the next stage of work through the Our Digital Century strategy.


The COVID pandemic, and the response of the archive sector, demonstrated both the key role archives play in capturing and preserving records of our collective experience during unique moments in history and the resilience of the sector in responding to challenges.

  • The sector survived the pandemic and protected records from risk.
    The National Archives’ Records at Risk grants, Resilience grants, and COVID-19 Archives Fund all provided significant support.
  • Places of Deposit have shown adaptability, moving from the 30-year transfer rule towards the 20-year transfer rule.
    This has been supported through the annual distribution of £660,000 in New Burdens funding from the Treasury to local authority places of deposit. Over the past 9 years, almost £6m has been distributed to 95 organisations that have collectively brought in 11,565 km of public records to date, with 1 more year left of the programme. Participation rates for most regions are above 85%.
  • The sector has welcomed new routes into employment to create a sustainable workforce that is more diverse and draws in new skills.
    Bridging the Digital Gap, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, offered traineeships to 24 individuals with digital skills but no prior archive experience, as part of ongoing efforts to diversify the archive workforce. In 2023, The National Archives launched the Archivist and Records Manager Apprenticeships, a new initiative aligning with ongoing efforts to diversify and enhance our sector’s professional capabilities.
  • Many archives have tried new approaches and implemented improved practices.
    This has been supported by The National Archives’ Collaborate and Innovate Funding Programme, launched to foster creative solutions to the challenges faced by archives, and which has evolved into the Research and Innovation grants programme.

The archives sector now needs to build on this progress, as it continues to face challenges, with records still at risk, and a workforce that, as the Information Workforce Mapping Survey 2023 noted , still does not reflect the diversity of the population it serves.


Archives play a vital role within the communities they serve, contributing to democracy, community, social policy, education, positive mental health, research, history and culture. Our shared impact comes in diverse forms:

  • Archives have engaged with their communities and created opportunities for a variety of users to engage with their collections. Whether supporting exhibitions, performances, art or hosting community projects and events, we have opened up archives in original and inspiring ways.
    The case studies produced annually in ‘A Year in Archives’ by the Archive Sector Leadership team illustrate the range and breadth of work across our sector, and Engagement Grants have supported new skills and innovation.
  • Many archives have contributed to public enquiries, supporting democracy and justice.
    These have included the Infected Blood Inquiry, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and the Hillsborough Inquiry.
  • Over 180 archives have achieved agreed good practice through the Archive Service Accreditation scheme and have used their accreditation to demonstrate their impact and advocate within their wider organisations.
    The ongoing work of the UK Archive Service Accreditation Partnership across the UK has seen increasing numbers of archives applying for and achieving accreditation, further highlighting the importance of our sector’s work and the role we play in conserving and sharing collective memory.

While archives have made great strides in building and demonstrating impact, it is vital to find new ways to benefit society and demonstrate the real impact they make in these difficult financial times.

Our provocation to you

Towards Archives Unlocked 2.0

In December 2023, The National Archives was commissioned by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Libraries to review, refresh and publish an updated version of Archives Unlocked. The refreshed vision will build upon the significant achievements made since 2017 while taking the opportunity to reflect on the profoundly changed landscape in which the sector operates.

As a sector, while we celebrate the progress made, we also acknowledge the emerging challenges. The year 2020 brought with it the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced archives to operate without access to physical spaces and pivot towards enhancing digital capacity and engagement. The powerful anti-racism protests across the UK and worldwide during the summer of 2020 sparked a renewed urgency to take strong action against racism and discrimination of all forms and prompted archives to reassess their practices.

Over 300 councils in the UK have also declared a climate emergency and many are assessing risks and developing plans. This has prompted a discussion on the issues concerning archives and environmental sustainability. Moreover, the ongoing digital revolution continues to present new opportunities and challenges, with critical areas such as AI and emerging technologies, or even cyber threats and the need to combat deep fakes becoming ever more present.

All this has created a new opportunity to look at and reassess our guiding sector vision, ensuring the ambition and focus it brings supports the needs and aspirations of our collections, our communities, our users, and our workforce.

Next steps and invitation to contribute

Recognising the need to adapt and innovate continually, The National Archives is leading a comprehensive review of Archives Unlocked, working with BOP Consulting. This process will involve extensive consultations to capture diverse perspectives and expert insights. We are committed to supporting the sector to shape a vision for the future that is as dynamic as the communities it serves and as resilient as the records it preserves.

We invite all stakeholders to join this conversation. Your experiences, challenges, and ideas are crucial as we plan the next chapter of Archives Unlocked.

Let’s reflect on:

To what extent has Archives Unlocked been successful?

  • What worked well?
  • What worked less well?
  • What was missing or should be done differently in the future?

Digital capacity and models of work – what’s next?

One of the fundamental principles of Archives Unlocked is the promotion of access to archival resources. The latest developments in technology offer access opportunities that go far beyond physical visits to archival repositories and the potential for entirely new forms of use. At the same time, the rate of digital change, with the advent of AI, presents exciting opportunities and fresh challenges for new approaches to the delivery of core archival tasks in the management, preservation, and interpretation of archival material.

  • As digital transformation accelerates, what strategies should archives adopt to maximise their accessibility to both new and existing audiences?
  • With ever-evolving digital technology within archives and society at large, how should the sector approach to training be structured to better equip professionals with the necessary digital skills and competencies?
  • How should archives best navigate both their legal obligations and ethical considerations when facilitating computational use of their collections?
  • What proactive measures should archives take to protect their digital collections from emerging cybersecurity threats to remain trusted and secure custodians of collections?
  • With advancing AI, what are the potential opportunities and risks of increasing commercial use of archival data?

Sustainability – how is it defined?

Sustainability, in both financial and environmental senses, presents challenges and opportunities which continue to be explored in the sector’s work. Environmental sustainability challenges such as climate control in archival stores, digitisation, sustainable collection management practices, materials and supplies, and greener buildings are accompanied by pressure on budgets, funding streams, and the current cost of living financial challenges.

  • What do you understand by “sustainability”? To what extent and in what capacity should the refreshed vision view sustainability?
  • How can archives proactively adapt their estates, practices, and standards to meet sustainability goals and contribute meaningfully to tackling climate change and other environmental issues that face society?
  • Given the growing pressure on budgets, what innovative strategies can archives employ to maintain and develop financial sustainability without compromising their core mission?
  • How can archives use the data they hold and capture the impacts they deliver, to make a case for greater financial support?

Inclusion – where does it start?

Our research highlights that archives, the collections that archives hold, the staff they employ and the users and visitors they engage with do not fully reflect the communities they serve.

  • For archives to be relevant, authentic, and accessible for all, should diversifying archives be a key priority and how should this be reflected in the refreshed Government vision?
  • What can archives do to diversify their collections and acquire materials that more fully represent diverse voices, experiences and perspectives?
  • How can archives empower their communities, creating spaces that can be easily accessed and where individuals feel welcomed, respected, valued and supported, fostering a sense of belonging?
  • What strategies can be employed to ensure more active and inclusive collection practices that truly capture the breadth of community experiences?
  • Given the current demographics of the archival workforce, how can our sector foster an environment that not only attracts but also supports and retains diverse talent?
  • How can archives create more inclusive spaces that reflect the diversity of human experiences and foster greater understanding and appreciation of our shared history?

Advocacy and reputation – how do archives make their case?

Archives have the power to educate, inspire, and empower individuals from all walks of life, and are respected as a source of truth, and a place of collective memory.

  • How can archives ensure that the crucial part they play in society is better understood, with the sector’s impact more widely supported and appreciated?
  • How should the refreshed vision drive understanding of archival work, build further on our sector’s reputation and advocate convincingly for future investment?
  • In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be confident in the accuracy of sources, how can archives seize the opportunity to raise awareness of their unique place of trust, holding records of public importance?

Public engagement – how can archives extend their reach?

Archive use remains low, with only 3% of adults having visited an archive in the last 12 months, compared with 51% visiting museums or galleries and 34% libraries.

  • What methods can be employed to engage public audiences more effectively, ensuring that archival resources are utilised and appreciated by a broader community?
  • How can archives better engage the public, sharing the value of archival work and the collections we hold?
  • How can archives raise awareness of the opportunities they present for placemaking and community engagement?
  • In what ways can digital platforms be used to enhance public engagement and make archival materials more accessible to a global audience?

Resilience – what does it mean post-pandemic?

The resilience shown by the sector during the recent pandemic demonstrated the importance both of partnership working and advocacy at a national level, ensuring that archives can deliver national priorities, supporting their case and preventing them from being isolated.

  • Given the resilience demonstrated during the pandemic, how can archives leverage this experience to enhance their adaptability to future social and economic shocks?
  • What support or tools does the sector need to be able to become more resilient?

Impact – how can archives make a difference?

The value of Archives Unlocked has been in developing a vision for the sector, supporting archivists across different institutions and organisations, to come together around clear priorities and shared goals. As a sector, archives have an impact on many areas of life, from economic and educational benefits to contributions to placemaking, identity, health and wellbeing.

  • As we refresh our sector vision, how can we ensure the sector achieves maximum impact?
  • How should our vision define impact? (i.e. on our users and stakeholders, our influence in policymaking, the impact of funding and support, standards, training, and advocacy).
  • In what ways can the archives sector support health and wellbeing (both within the sector and the public it serves)?
  • How can archives support evolving approaches to therapeutic practices, and support the wellbeing of users through our outreach work?
  • Is there a need for greater focus on the emotional impact on staff of managing disturbing content and contested content?
  • How does the sector know that progress is being made on this thematic area and what evidence is needed to showcase impact?
  • How could archives better support the construction of personal and community identity?

Innovation – how should archives continue to evolve?

In an ever-evolving world, while archives encounter global challenges such as the climate emergency, there are also opportunities for swift innovation and exciting new technological solutions. As we look ahead, the sector requires the capacity to promptly devise novel approaches, engage diverse audiences, and explore new ways of sharing our work.

  • How should our vision define innovation?
  • What are the risks we face which require innovative solutions?
  • Should innovation and risk be viewed as a standalone theme, or integral to the Government’s refreshed vision?
  • What are the risks to the sector if archives fail to innovate and make the most of the opportunities for change?

Leadership and partnerships – how can we deliver?

When the sector works together it delivers more.
As a sector, our partnerships include not just our own vital internal networks and partnerships, but also our work as part of or alongside museums, libraries, charities, community groups, youth initiatives and the performing arts. National, regional and international partnerships with ICA, Digital Preservation Coalition, Arts Council England, Research Libraries UK, JISC and Archives hub, ARA and many others, often underpinned or supported by The National Archives, are all critical to delivering the future vision.

  • How can a refreshed vision be utilised to best serve the needs and aspirations of the sector? (i.e. in relation to funding, sector’s visibility, advocacy etc.)
  • How can the sector enhance its approach to partnerships to address local, regional, and national priorities more effectively?
  • What partnerships beyond the archive sector should be prioritised to support in delivering goals, and expanding reach and reputation?
  • And finally, what can The National Archives do to further develop its role in sector leadership and advocacy and, whilst being mindful of its governmental role, lead the discussion on the future value of archives?

The National Archives and BOP consulting look forward to working with everyone across the archives sector, to create a refreshed Government vision which builds on the achievements to date, and sets out clear, shared ambitions for the future.

The consultation period will run until 16th July. You can participate by completing the online consultation or by joining one of the roundtable discussions which are being hosted in locations across the county.