What can archives contribute to Governmental Health and Wellbeing?

A Policy Internship at The National Archives that explored how the archive sector can contribute to efforts to combat ongoing crises in health and wellbeing.

Partner overview 

The National Archives (TNA) is a non-ministerial government department and the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, England and Wales. It is the Government expert in the management, preservation, use and re-use of information, both digital and paper, and the lead body for the archive sector in England.

The challenge

Man in wheelchair working on a laptop with a pet cat

Even before COVID-19, the UK was undergoing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ Increased isolation caused by public health measures exacerbated the situation. The health and wellbeing benefits of museums, libraries and other cultural and heritage institutions are widely acknowledged but the potential contribution of the archive sector specifically has yet to be fully explored. Further research was needed to inform recommendations for ways in which the archive sector can contribute to improving the health and wellbeing of the population, both in exceptional circumstances and as part of their ‘business as usual’.

Research lead

  • Martin Thompson, PhD candidate in English, Department of English, American Studies and Creative Writing, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. 
  • In collaboration with Owen Munday, Strategic Partnerships Manager, Regional and Networks Team, Archives Sector Development, The National Archives.

The solution

Having Martin join us for the policy internship has been extremely valuable, helping us both tie together and take forward several different strands of our work looking at health and wellbeing. We benefitted from his fresh perspective, enthusiasm and ability to research the problem both broadly and in-depth.

Owen Munday / The National Archives

The project included a critical review of existing research, policy and practice and consultation with sector professionals, which revealed concerns about their ability to ‘speak the language of wellbeing’ when conducting both internal and external wellbeing advocacy. Recommendations, therefore, included a ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ (a set of government-endorsed public health recommendations produced by the New Economics Foundation) adapted to the archives sector specifically, the development of a metric linked directly to this model and the establishment of a more academically rigorous quantitative evidence base supporting the link between archives and wellbeing.

Results and impact

The placement provided unique insight into the operations of both the Civil Service and the archives sector in its various corporate, public and private contexts. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with experts in all of these areas and to contribute to enthusiastic and inspiring conversations about how, alongside science as technology, humanities can have a broad and profound impact, contributing to positive change and social reform. It helped me return to my PhD studies reinvigorated with a sense of the relevance and benefits of studying the records we keep, the stories we tell and our continued engagement with them.

Martin Thompson / School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

policy briefing was produced in response to a critical review of existing research, policy and practice. This foregrounded the COVID-19 pandemic and offered recommendations for future research and best practice within the sector.

Research outputs also included a manifesto for the relevance of the ‘Five Ways’ to the archives sector, alongside prompts for individual services to consider the application of the ‘Five Ways’ in practice. A document tracking the rationale of the adaptation was circulated to stakeholders, and a condensed version was presented to the Head of Archives Development Services.

The project helped to inaugurate a Wellbeing in the Archives ‘Community of interest’ to facilitate the sector-wide celebration of existing (widespread, varied and diverse) wellbeing work, to increase general awareness about the role of archives in contributing to wellbeing and to co-author a sector-wide approach.

The review itself as well as the adapted ‘Five Ways’ generated by the project will act as tools for internal and external advocacy in attempts to gain support, acquire funding and forge collaborations on wellbeing initiatives in line with government policy. They correspond to NHS and other government resources on ‘patient-centred’ approaches and can be applied to everyday ‘business as usual’ as well as more targeted project work.

"Working with expert archivists across sectors has helped me expand my own conception of what ‘outreach,’ ‘social engagement’ and ‘impact’ might look like for my own work within academia" Martin Thompson said. "I have started to appreciate", he added, "how the archival basis of my PhD project and my previous study might help not only enhance my students’ learning but also their wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of various groups who identify with or feel ownership over the material I study".

 This project was completed as part of the ESRC Policy Internship scheme, with financial support from the NWCDTP Placement scheme, between March and June 2021.