Archives, libraries and the Heritage Lottery Fund

June 28, 2013 0 Comments


As government funding for memory institutions has declined – catastrophically in the case of regular capital finance for buildings, ICT infrastructure and collections purchase – the importance of the Lottery, and especially the Heritage Lottery Fund, as a funding source to those bodies has risen.

What is the relationship between the HLF and those memory institutions like libraries and archives that are concerned with knowledge in documentary forms: parchment, paper, film, digital or other media in two or zero (as opposed to three) dimensions?

It’s not easy to get a reliable idea of the extent to which the HLF supports or has supported documentary heritage.  Libraries and archives are lumped together with museums and other institutions in the HLF’s published lists of successful applications.  Of the 65 projects in this category supported in Wales in the last five years as listed on the HLF’s website, only seven appear to be unambiguously documentary in nature.  Details of the grants are not given, and it’s entirely possible that other projects contain documentary elements, while yet others may appear under the different heading ‘cultures and memories’.  Numbers of projects may not correspond to cash received.  Also, Wales may not be representative of the UK as a whole.  Nevertheless, it would appear that supporting existing documentary heritage collections, as opposed to creating new content by, for example, oral or video history projects, forms a very small part of the HLF’s concerns.

It’s therefore little surprise (though still disappointing) to find that the governing Board of the HLF seems to contain no one with any professional expertise or experience in libraries or archives.  I’m not aware of any senior HLF staff with such a background either.

Does this matter?  Are libraries and archives that insignificant?  It’s certainly not true that archives and libraries form a substantially smaller part of the collective memory heritage than, say, museums (yet museums received at least 26 of the 65 HLF grants in my Welsh sample).  It’s unlikely, too, that their financial needs are significantly smaller.

It’s tempting, then, to attribute the underrepresentation of libraries and museums to two factors:

  •  a paucity of applications from them, or a lack of good quality applications
  • a bias, systemic or otherwise, on the part of the HLF that disadvantages the documentary sector.

The first explanation can be partial only.  It’s true that many archives, for example, are very small in scale, and their staff may often lack the skills and resources to mount bids that meet the HLF’s exacting standards.  But the same difficulties face museums or community groups with better success rates

This second explanation is more plausible.  While the HLF has certainly recognised, from time to time, many of the traditional needs of libraries and archives, like making strategic purchases, preserving specialist skills and engaging with new users, there is one key area where it has historically failed to understand how libraries and archives have evolved over the last 10-15 years, and therefore what their current needs and concerns are.  This is the digital sphere.  Unlike the dominant sectors of the HLF’s interest, such as the natural and built environment or, until very recently, museums and galleries, documentary heritage organisations have been forced to face head-on the challenges of the digital world, and, more than that, to try to innovate and lead.  For them the digital is central, not incidental.

So, libraries and archives pioneered the translation of analogue items and collections into digital form, capable of being shared and reused widely.  More recently ‘translation’ has extended to ‘transformation’, as print collections, for example, are opened up in huge quantities for search and exploitation as optical character recognition techniques and metadata methodologies have matured.  And further still, combinations of ‘crowdsourcing’, geoapplications and other methods have opened up new possibilities of engaging users, across the globe, in making and remaking collections.

Born-digital knowledge, which many people are still unaware makes up the vast bulk of the world’s existing data, is equally if not more critical to the missions of contemporary libraries and archives.  How to acquire, organise, preserve and offer public access to digital data presents a huge challenge to them.  Preservation is a particularly intractable issue, including for any new digital materials the HLF has created as by-products of projects it’s funded.  Often the answers are not as obvious as in the analogue world.  Help is needed, and plenty of it.

The HLF has been slow to comprehend this enormous revolution in the context and the concerns of archives and libraries – a revolution unparalleled in the relatively conservative worlds of the other sectors.  For many years its rules forbade applications that were exclusively digital in nature, so that it entirely missed, for example, the rise of mass digitisation, where in Wales other bodies like Jisc, the European Union and the Welsh Government played the kind of funding role that could and should have been a completely natural and justifiable one for the HLF.

Representations from the documentary sector in early 2011 led in the following year to a partial lifting of the ‘digital ban’ in the current HLF strategic framework, which covers the period from 2013 to 2018:

 Digital technology offers heritage organisations exciting new opportunities and there is a huge public appetite for digital access to heritage materials of all kinds. At the same time, the extent of the assets that could be digitised is vast, and current activity, publicly-funded, or commercial, is unlikely to meet demand and expectations. We want to encourage new ways of delivering digital heritage content in the networked world or using technology on heritage sites, and to help organisations to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the knowledge economy.

A significant number of the projects we fund already use digital technology in some way – for promotion, to make heritage more accessible through images and information on the web, or through using social media to increase access, for example through smartphone apps. However, up to now we have not funded the creation of digital materials (for example, websites, DVDs or apps) when they are the only focus of a project.

Now that there are far greater opportunities for people to engage and learn using digital media, from July 2012 we will change our policy on digital technology and invest in projects that are purely digital, provided they meet our criteria.

(Heritage Lottery Fund, A lasting difference for heritage and people: strategic framework, 2013-18, p.25-26)

It may be belated, but this is a very welcome reversal of policy.  It’s too early to judge its effect.  But it’s to be hoped that the HLF finds it possible to recognise the changed world of libraries and archives, and finally becomes relevant to their substantial challenges and needs.  It’s been out in the cold too long.  And in their turn libraries, archives and other documentary institutions will, with luck and encouragement, be able to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them, and test the HLF’s readiness to change.

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