Where does the balance lie and are we there yet?
Archival values versus saving the environment
With their collections, expertise, spaces and audiences, archives along with other heritage organisations are well placed to play a significant role in tackling climate change to achieve a sustainable future. Through implementing evidence-based changes in our thinking and practice, archives can and have been reducing their climate footprint and inspiring others to take action along the way. The National Archives of the United Kingdom has been doing this for over a decade. However, following the release of our Sustainability and Climate Action Statement and our joining of the Climate Heritage Network in 2020, we are stepping up our own work on environmental sustainability. In doing so, we support the UK Government’s sustainability targets to secure global net zero targets and keep 1.5°C within reach, whilst continuing our role in protecting, preserving and providing access to our collections.
In November 2021, we were delighted to announce our new partnership with the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property’s Our Collections Matter Initiative (ICCROM OCM.) Based around the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, this initiative has created a growing online toolkit of freely accessible resources to help cultural heritage organisations ‘to accelerate, increase, and amplify activities that support sustainable development, through the use, development, and conservation of heritage collections’.1 Through this partnership we are using resources from the toolkit to review the sustainability of aspects of our own conservation practice and feedback to ICCROM to help improve the toolkit for others.
We are also developing our own innovations. The environmental management of our 16 on-site repositories uses considerable resources to keep to our target conditions. We continue to use the pioneering demand-led environmental management strategy that we developed and implemented in 2010 to replace the 24/7 air conditioning operation. Along with our continued strategic investments in our plant in which sustainability is a key factor, this ground breaking work has reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by over 80% since 2010 and has been instrumental in the development of new standards that have encouraged energy-saving collections management across the sector and worldwide.
In addition to our own operations, we lead the archive sector in England and are increasingly aware of a growing appetite for leadership innovation on environmental sustainability for archives of all kinds. Last year, we hosted a twoday, climate action focussed event for the first time – ‘Archives supporting environmental sustainability’ – which was received with real appetite and enthusiasm. And in June this year, we launched our first sustainability-themed round of Testbed Funding to support archives in England in using ICCROM’s Our Collections Matter toolkit to address their sustainability challenges.
As our event in 2021 showcased, excellent work is already being done in the sector. Nonetheless, serious challenges and contradictions remain in fundamental areas of our operations. These must be addressed in order for us to achieve a sustainable future. This keynote speech will discuss how finding our way through these challenges requires a collective international response from organisations and individuals, as well as a pooling of expertise and resources, and re-evaluating our ways of working and thinking as a sector. Fundamentally, sustainability has to become part of everyone’s role and responsibility to make the progress that we need to avert the worst that climate change can bring. With this in mind, The National Archives of the United Kingdom is working to strategically embed sustainable practices across all our operations, whilst also influencing the sector. In doing so we hope to provide both the means and inspiration for others so that together, we can create a sustainable future in which archives remain key assets to a thriving society.
As Director of Research and Collections at The National Archives, Dr Valerie Johnson is responsible for leading and co-ordinating its innovative research, heritage science and conservation programmes. She aims to further The National Archives’ engagement and collaboration with researchers across the cultural heritage, higher education, academic and archive sectors.
As part of its leadership role for the archive sector, Valerie is also responsible for The National Archives’ active support for archives of all kinds, to secure the best possible long-term future for their collections and services.
Prior to this role, Valerie was Head of Research at The National Archives, having previously worked on a funded history project based at the University of Cambridge History Faculty. She is a qualified archivist, holding an MA with Distinction in Archive Administration for which she was also awarded the Alexander R Myers Memorial Prize. She won the Coleman Prize for her PhD thesis, ‘British Multinationals, Culture and Empire in the Early Twentieth Century’. She has worked as an archivist and historian in the academic, corporate and public sectors.
Valerie is a Registered Member of the Society of Archivists, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.