Helping community archives during the pandemic: The Norfolk Record Office’s ‘Community Archives’ project

Figure 1 Community archives collect local and social history, such as these family photographs.

Community Archives: Skills, Support and Sustainability (CAS³) is a National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported project that began in March 2020 and is due to run until March 2022. As its name suggests, the goals of this project are to:

  • provide training to Norfolk’s community archive and heritage groups that allows them to develop the skills used by professional archivists.
  • give the groups professional support and resources for their collections and the projects they are working on.

  • help the groups preserve their collections for the future and make them accessible on an ongoing basis.
  •  increase the groups’ confidence with regards to collecting, managing and exhibiting archive material.

The CAS³ team comprises Laura McCourt, the Project Manager, and me, Robin Sampson, the project Community Archivist. We are working in partnership with thirty community archive and heritage groups across Norfolk. Between us we work with each individual group in a two to three-month period, talking to the group about their needs, providing practical advice and knowledge, supervising the work the group is doing and obtaining the necessary equipment and resources that the group requires.

Figure 2 The Community Archives projects aims to increase knowledge and confidence in packaging archive material to a professional standard.

Challenges and opportunities in 2020

So far, so good…but we weren’t counting on coronavirus! As with the rest of the world, 2020 has presented us with some significant challenges to how we do our jobs. An important aim of the project was for the team members to visit each group at the places where they keep their collections, to give us a better idea of what the group had, what they wanted to do with it, and how we could help them achieve this. Because of this year’s lockdowns and social distancing requirements, it was sadly no longer possible to do this. We couldn’t go out to meet groups, or even work at the Norfolk Record Office. The groups couldn’t meet together, and several of their members were forced to shield. So how could we possibly run the project?

The answer was: we had to be creative. We ran the project from our homes, holding remote meetings to develop the project. Rather than meet in person, we held introductory meetings with each group over Zoom or by phone call. We created online surveys for the groups to complete, so we could get a sense of what skills, knowledge and confidence they currently had, so that we can compare this with their answers at the end of the project. We also worked with consultants to help us design project logos and lettering, give advice on writing our guidance and help with evaluating survey data.

In the first lockdown, we created a whole new section of the NRO website, the Community Archives Toolkit, including guides to archive procedures and downloadable resources. We also developed the Norfolk Archives Network Forum, an online message board where groups can keep in touch, let each other know about training opportunities, resources and events, and ask each other, and us, for advice about their collections.

At the moment, we are developing training sessions about cataloguing archives, digitising historic material and running oral history programmes. These sessions will shortly be delivered over Zoom. Until we can meet up in person again, we also offer each group a series of video calls with us. We give them advice, set tasks, and request updates on how they are getting on. We are also running virtual ‘coffee mornings’ where groups can meet with each other online and chat about their projects.

It has been a steep learning curve for both the project team and the groups involved. It’s been disappointing for everyone that we can’t provide help in person at the moment, and many of our groups would love to work on their collections together and in the same room!

However, we are all doing our best, and whilst it has been a challenging time, it has also been one of opportunity – the team members ourselves have learnt many new skills, such as setting up and running online training, developing websites and digital resources, and the groups have plenty to work on, including cataloguing, photographing and storing their collections, and of course, becoming experts on Zoom!

The goal of the project is not to ‘finish’ an archive – no archive is ever ‘finished’! – but to ensure the community archive groups have enough knowledge, resources and opportunities to continue collecting, managing and using their archives for many years to come. In the first seven months of the project we have made a great start on safeguarding these precious community archives.

Have a look at the Community Archives Toolkit to see what we have been up to, and how the guides and resources could also help you with your personal or community archive projects: https://www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk/community-archives

The Norfolk Record Office would like to thank the National Lottery Heritage Fund for their valuable role in funding the Community Archives project. We would also like to extend our thanks to National Lottery players for making this project possible. You can find out more about the NLHF’s work at @HeritageFundM_E on Twitter or by using the hashtag #NationalLotteryHeritageFund

Robin Sampson, Community Archivist; Community Archives: Skills, Support and Sustainability

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