Information Studies


Community archives and identities: documenting and sustaining community heritage

The Community archives and identities project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for 20 months (2008-2009) from February 1st 2008.


This project investigated the importance of independent 'community archives', and in particular the role of these archives in the production of collective identities via academic and popular public histories, exhibitions and other interactions. We understand community archives in this context as collections of materials created, held and managed primarily within communities and outside the formal heritage sector. Although many of these initiatives have a relatively long history, the importance of these collections has only recently been widely recognised amongst cultural policy-makers and professional organisations. However these collections present many challenges to traditional professional practices (for instance the scope of archival collections, the relationship with non-traditional user communities and issues of ownership / custodianship).

In UK terms, although there have been a number of innovative collaborations between community groups and professionals, this remains a significantly under-researched area with little evidence or theory to underpin and identify good practice. This project seeks to address these gaps through a collaboration between academics in archives and records management, digital humanities, and cultural heritage along with professional archivists and the creators, users and custodians of community archives.

Whilst acknowledging the diversity of possible understandings of 'community', this project concentrates on in-depth studies of four community archives and initiatives defined mainly, but not exclusively, by ethnicity. Although these archives will differ in terms of size, length of existence, resources, physical or virtual location and community represented, there will also be points of commonality which will allow for the identification of some more general points, and to set the study in wider context. The choice of research methods, in-depth ethnographic case studies backed up by a significant number of wide-ranging interviews, means that those most closely involved in community archives have helped to mould the research framework that this project has developed and work to.

Among the questions that this project sought to answer are:

  • How community archives contribute to the process of identity production among diverse communities in Britain and what contribution might they make in terms of building a more cohesive multicultural society?
  • What role do community archives play in terms of challenging mainstream representations and marginalisations?
  • How does the preservation and long-term accessibility of diverse independent community-based archives contribute to academic research and understanding of those communities and wider society?
  • What is the relationship between physical and virtual community archives and how do these different sites affect the ways in which identities are produced?
  • How can professional archivists support the development and sustainability of community archives and what do community initiatives contribute to professional understandings and practice?

The outcome is a better understanding of the role of community archive initiatives in resisting misrepresentation and marginalisation, a clearer understanding of the relationship between formal archive professionals and the custodians of community archives and suggestions regarding best practice models for identifying and ensuring the long-term sustainability of significant community archives, both physical and virtual. Such findings will interest cultural policy makers, historians and cultural heritage academics interested in community history and identity, archivists and other cultural heritage professionals, and the creators, users and custodians of community archives. The findings of these studies will be shared in a range of forms including a final project report, presentations at conferences, advocacy documents and articles submitted for peer review and publication in professional journals and/or newsletters.

Project team

 The members of the project team for the Community Archives project are as follows:

Andrew Flinn is Principal Investigator. His areas of interest include cultural diversity and widening access to cultural heritage; the identification of users and non-users of archival services; the impact of information legislation on access to records; the records of the Labour movement and other community based organisations; and the records of migrants, refugees and exiles.

Elizabeth Shepherd is Co-Investigator. Her research interests are in the management of digital records and the development of the UK archive profession, which is the subject of her PhD. She serves on the editorial boards of Archival Science and the Records Management Journal, was a member of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Records and Archives (2000-2006) and is on the RAE2008 sub-panel 37, Library and Information Management.

Mary Stevens is the Research Associate. Her interests include the representation of cultural diversity in the cultural heritage sector, with a special interest in museums; the relationship between public history and the construction of collective identities; the application of ethnography to the cultural heritage sector; comparative European cultural policy; the politics of memory, particularly in France. Her PhD explored the refiguring of national identity in the new national museum of immigration in France.

Report and launch event

We presented our findings at a public gathering and reception on Thursday 17 September in Wilkins Old Refectory (Wilkins Building). The event took the form of a short presentation by Andrew and Mary, followed by presentations by our research partners and then an open discussion. The event was chaired by Caroline Bressey (UCL, Department of Geography).

Download a summary of the report and our findings here

Project management board

The members of the management board for the Community Archives project bring to the project a wide range of expertise in the field of archive studies but also from the broader field of cultural heritage studies.

The board includes:

Dr. Caroline Bressey (UCL: Department of Geography)
Dr. Beverley Butler (UCL: Cultural Heritage)
Kelly Foster (Black Cultural Archives)
Vic Gray (Community Archives Development Group)
Prof. Heather MacNeil (University of British Columbia, Canada)
Prof. Heidi Mirza (Institute of Education)
Dr. Gemma Romain
Javier Stanziola (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council)
Dr. Melissa Terras (UCL:DIS)
Judy Vaknin (Archivist, Middlesex University)
Caroline Williams (National Archives)
Richard Wiltshire (London Metropolitan Archives)

Agendas and Minutes
Agenda for first meeting
Minutes of first meeting, 13 May 2008

September 2008

Briefing papers
Role and responsibilities of Project Management Board

Project documentation

For further details, please contact a.flinn@ucl.ac.uk.