The University of Birmingham recently hosted a conference in association with the National Archives and Research Libraries UK: Enhancing impact, inspiring excellence: collaborative approaches between archives and universities. This free event offered a packed 8 hours of papers and case studies presented by 39 speakers, showcasing some of the projects and programmes that have come about as a result of partnerships between academics and archives. Having worked in a university archive for some years I was hoping to discover the magic formula for encouraging students and lecturers to engage with archives, but I would equally have settled for simply being reassured to find that everyone else was facing the same issues. It also occurred to me that this was the only time I was ever likely to be in the same room with so many university archivists, so it was a unique opportunity to share experiences and ask for advice.
After an introduction by the various organising bodies, the programme was divided into six panels (two running simultaneously over three sessions). As there is not enough room to go into details here, I would urge everyone to download the conference pack, which summarises the 22 papers and case studies, as this is still available online via The National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/events/enhancing-impact-inspiring-excellence-birmingham.htm
Top tips I took from the day included: cash in on the emerging agenda of combining public engagement with academic research (utilising your existing pool of volunteers), offer internships to students from a range of disciplines (art, photography, museum studies, education) and learn from their expertise; ensure any collaborative projects are co-designed from the outset and that you share a mutual agenda; build upon your success by identifying the next stream of funding; check out the Share Academy toolkit (encourages collaboration between museums and universities in London); set research tasks for students when introducing them to using archives and show them how former students have used your collections in their projects; add an exercise with archival material to the interview process for students so that you’ve reached them at an early stage in their academic career; build a good relationship with subject librarians; contribute to virtual learning environments.
Many of the speakers presented their experiences in a very positive light which was certainly inspiring, but it was probably more important to hear about the elements that didn’t work. The sharing of mistakes (not providing students with a clear research question to answer, pitching exercises to undergraduates which proved to work better with postgraduates, struggling with admin, etc.) was one of the most valuable benefits of attending. Questions from the audience also probed deeper into the potential problems, such as the lack of resources, lack of expertise, or even the lack of a nearby university!
And no, I didn’t discover that magic formula, but I did come away with a list of great ideas for invigorating the sessions offered to students, and a long list of case studies to use as models of good practice, which I intend to investigate further. The National Archives promised that videos and Powerpoint presentations from the day will be available online shortly, and they are also working on guidance for collaboration with the higher education sector which sounds as if it will be just as useful for archivists (like me) who are already based in a university but who are struggling to raise the profile of their collections.
Sarah Colborne, Archivist, University of Nottingham