The role of archives in identity and place - RSA

The role of archives in identity and place


  • Picture of Jeff James
    Jeff James
    Chief Executive and Keeper, The National Archives
  • Communities
  • Heritage

Archives play a vital role in preserving our collective cultural memory and in protecting local stories of the past and present, for future generations. Many archives have helped communities to embrace change by firmly placing their history, heritage and identity at the heart of urban regeneration.

In 2002, Neighbourhood Renewal and Social Inclusion: The Role of Museums, Libraries and Archives found that 21% of neighbourhood renewal and social inclusion projects surveyed had an archive involved in the transformation of their communities. These renewals take place in a number of ways: in the creation of landmark buildings that have showcased important collections, offering new facilities and activities to benefit entire communities; the innovations that digital technology provides to enable people greater access to archives; and in expanding local economic and social opportunities. These developments have also supported the visitor economy, and created a strong sense of place and focus for the positive expressions of local identities. 

In April 2012, the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone opened a remarkable building. It brought together four separate services: the Maidstone and County Public Libraries, including their headquarters; and East Kent Archives which comprises archive collections from Kings Hall and the Centre for Kentish Stories. The result was the creation of a new facility that placed local history and heritage at its centre. Its redevelopment was seen as a key contributor to Kent Council’s strategy in positioning Kent as a cultural leader, using its strong offer to demonstrate the area’s self-confidence and adaptability. Its creation benefitted not just Kent’s cultural life, but also made a positive impact on its wider economic and social ecologies.

Digital technologies are another transformative way for communities and individuals to sustain their archival memories. Opening in March 2014, Archives+ in Manchester formed an important part of the Library Transformation scheme within the wider £155 million regeneration of the city’s Civic Centre. Based in Manchester’s Central Library, it has become a centre of excellence for archives, bringing together local archive partners under one roof to showcase the city’s local, community, family, industrial and political histories. Within its state-of-the-art facilities, paper-based, film, digital and other resources are expertly managed and stored. Exhibitions, film booths, learning areas and digital interactivities provide an insight into Manchester’s fascinating history, making it easier than ever before for people to connect with their ancestors and shared histories.

Archives+ also demonstrates the power of archival partnerships in leading the way of building digitally inclusive communities that support individual opportunity and community regeneration. Alongside this, the Manchester Central Library Development Trust was established to enhance elements of the project to help develop new income streams. An early positive impact of this scheme was the development of apprenticeship opportunities for young people. Laing O’Rourke and other contractors created 66 new apprenticeships and supported 19 existing apprenticeships.

Last year, The National Archives set out on a new four-year, audience-focussed journey with Archives Inspire, which details our thinking about the future for our users and communities as the ways they access history evolves. It is heartening to see so many archives across the country share our ambitions, working to transform themselves for the benefit of heritage, identity and place for everyone, for the long-term.

Jeff James is Chief Executive and Keeper at The National Archives - find out more about The National ArchivesThis blog was written as a contribution to the wider Heritage, Identity and Place project at the RSA. 

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