The Strong Rooms project is led by AWM and is made up of partners from the archive services of Warwickshire County Council, Worcestershire County Council, Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and Culture Coventry.

The project brings youth groups, artists and archivists together to create work for an installation curated by lead artist Mohammed Ali, that will tour to areas of high footfall in Rugby, Coventry, Dudley and Worcester.

Strong Rooms will inspire new artistic directions rooted in identity, sense of place and local citizenship and explore the following question. ‘Can collaboration with archives inspire new developments in the arts?’

The project will deliver the following strategic aims for archives:

  • engage new audiences (especially young people)
  • advocate for archive services, which are relatively unknown and used directly by a small number of people,
  • leave a strong and lasting impression in our communities of what archives are, how they are used and why they are relevant
  • create a legacy

The Strong Room installation will be used after the project for outreach and festival use;

Activities developed by the artists will be used by archives with new groups;

A film will explain what archives are and it will focus on engaging young people;

Also there will be The Strong Rooms archive; the website; the knowledge exchange workshops inspiring new artists and an ongoing programme of inspirational work by artists in collaboration with archives.

What are archives?

According to the Society of American Archivists archives are ‘materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.’

More concisely, archives are the unpublished records of organisations that have been selected for permanent preservation because of their ongoing value and because they prove or provide evidence that a significant transaction (be it a decision, event, activity or payment) took place.

What are archive services?

Many organisations establish archive services, some are for their own business purposes but most provide public access in some form or another. County, Borough and District archive services are funded by local authorities and these provide the backbone of publicly accessible archives across the UK, meeting the requirements of the Public Records Act 1958 and a variety of Local Government Acts, to select and ensure that locally significant records are available permanently for use and scrutiny by the public.

Warwickshire County Record Office for example, has collected records of historical significance for over 80 years in partnership with organisations and individuals across the county. The collections take up more than 3 miles of shelving and date back to the early 12th century. The archives are used by local and family historians worldwide but also by council employees, the police, courts, schools, planners, archaeologists, adoption services, ecologists, architects, academics, students and school-children as well as by individuals who need to find out something pressing: where the boundary to their property is; where their family lived; to prove where they went to school; what address they lived at; if they attended court and why; where their mother could be buried; which mental hospital their great grandfather was admitted to etc.

How are archives selected?

Archives are chosen for permanent preservation because of their value for research, as evidence or proof of decision-making,for accountability and transparency purposes and because of their potential to help people make sense of how their community, local area or their family came to be as they are. Archives are a place for unanswered questions.

What are the challenges?

The move from paper to electronic records in our digital world raises a number of challenges for archivists whose confidence lies in caring for physical collections of paper, parchment, photographs and film. Digital records are transient, fleeting, easily changed and duplicated, easily lost to obsolescence of software, hardware or format and cannot be read or accessed without understanding or replicating the conditions of their creation. Unlike hard-copy records it’s not possible to judge if the contents of a hard drive are becoming corrupt, fragile or inaccessible by sight alone, or to reverse these. Unlike hard-copy records whose historical significance is likely to be recognised or at least because of its physical presence requires some action to destroy them, electronic records are lost and deleted permanently and relatively easily with no or little hope of retrieval. All the benefits we associate with electronic records become huge challenges for archivists who need to ensure that records are reliable, authentic, have integrity, have custodial provenance, can be preserved permanently and continue to be made accessible efficiently and economically. To reduce the risk of a huge gap in the historical record the vital records of an organisation need to be identified at creation, the necessary steps taken to maintain it in a preservation format and thereby increase the likelihood of its survival and accessibility. Investment in infrastructure and training are a crucial part of this transition. If you’d like to find out more about digital archives and some of the challenges please see the work of the Digital Preservation Coalition at http://www.dpconline.org/

Who else can provide more information?

The National Archives are the lead body for the sector and provide a directory of archive services and information about archive collections via their Discovery catalogue at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/find-an-archive.

Archives West Midlands (AWM) is the strategic partnership for archive services in the region and aims to:

  • Provide archives with a strong regional voice
  • Highlight the unique value and contribution that archives make to our understanding of our communities
  • Promote the importance of archives in providing evidence for legal and other official purposes
  • Benefit from working collaboratively to achieve more than a single archive could do on its own – supporting the ethos ‘better together’
  • Develop and raise funds for regional and sub-regional work and projects

More information is available at https://archiveswestmidlands.wordpress.com/

What does an archivist do?

My name is Sam Collenette and I am the archive and historic environment manager for Warwickshire County Council. I qualified as an archivist 18 years ago and have worked in archives within universities, museums, businesses, for charities and most recently for local authorities. My job as an archivist is to look after the archives, demonstrate their value and relevance and promote their use. I’m proud to be part of the Strong Rooms project which has enabled this installation to come to fruition. It has been made possible thanks to funding from Arts Council England, The David Owen Family Trust, The Grimmitt Trust and The Westham House Fund arising out of collaboration between Arts Connect and Archives West Midlands.