Collections can boost the standing of institutions that house them, but ownership wrangles highlight the need to establish an archive's purpose and legal standing, says Sally Feldman.
King's College London holds an unmatched military collection.
Cambridge University has the Antarctic Survey. The Modern Archive Centre at Warwick University includes trade union records, documents relating to pacifist groups and the national cycle archive. But for every collection of scholarly significance, there will lurk, deep in the recesses of campus libraries and outhouses, more questionable treasures: private papers of the deeply obscure, cracked 78s, 1960s gig posters, cinema tickets.
Many university archives date back to more innocent times characterised by a combination of amateur enthusiasms, personal peccadillos and a vague zeal for accrual. Papers and collections would be bequeathed as a well-meaning gift or as a means of ensuring their survival. Few universities had policies. But a panoply of new legislation, combined with moves to regularise archival activities, is prompting university libraries to take stock.
At Westminster University, the decision by Lord Birt, former director-general of the BBC, to donate his papers for archiving raises practically every consideration for the archivist in this new climate, especially as the collection contains both personal papers and items relating to BBC business.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, donors such as Birt have every right to keep private any information that happens to be piled up at home. But once it's officially part of an institution's records, donors may have limited jurisdiction over what is accessible. If the archive is a loan rather than a gift, the owner retains the right to deny access - although with people who have held public office, there will always be questions about what should be made available in the public interest.
On the other hand, the Data Protection Act is progressively limiting what personal data can be kept on record and who has access to it. This applies to the processing of private papers in an institutional archive when an individual referred to in them is still alive. A period of closure may need to be agreed.
Both acts are governed by the principle of timely destruction - data protection regulating access for a living individual while freedom of information affects public access to those records once the subject is dead.
Copyright law brings another set of headaches. It is often difficult to trace copyright holders for permission, so researchers have welcomed a recent addition to the act, which allows unpublished material to be copied without the copyright holder's permission as long as no commercial gain is involved. But it's up to the archivist to decide whether a book or a scholarly article would count as "commercial". Otherwise, current copyright laws would prevent anyone quoting from the material beyond the limits of "fair dealing" until 2040, the first year that anything unpublished can come out of copyright.
And the right to publish, quote or reproduce such material may also hit intellectual property legislation, which progressively has been strengthened to protect the rights of authors and originators.
In an increasing number of cases, universities are considering the competing advantages of gift, bequest, loan or purchase. A loan would be a safer bet when official papers are involved - but it does come fraught with danger.
Churchill College was founded on the principle that it would house the Churchill papers. But after 30 years of happy guardianship, a member of the Churchill family decided to withdraw the papers and sell them. Eventually, the college had to resort to public appeal to raise the money to keep them.
Parallel problems can emerge if a university accepts archival material as a gift. Often this will happen if a collector is keen to preserve the integrity of a collection. When Keele University decided to sell part of its collection of rare mathematical and scientific books, there was a raging dispute about its right to do so because the gift had been made on the understanding that the collection would not be broken up.
Another puzzle for archivists is definition. An archive may consist of much more than papers and books. With space so precious, what is it appropriate for a university to store? The John Johnson collection of printed ephemera, including advertising posters and cigarette packets, comprises more than a million items and takes up two rooms in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. The University of Surrey Roehampton's Whiteland College has a collection of May queen dresses. Middlesex University has shoes, antique umbrellas, buttons, ribbons and a bustle frame.
The clever device here is to transform your purpose. The Arts Institute Bournemouth has made good use of its post-1950 design artefacts by applying for museum status and a handsome Arts and Humanities Research Board grant to develop the collection.
The National Archives, the Council of Archivists, the British Standards Institute and the International Congress on Archives - which offer a wealth of guidelines on storage, preservation and cataloguing - are working to standardise what has in the past been a somewhat haphazard enterprise, and to encourage libraries to formulate archive policies. Archives Hub, a concerted attempt to raise awareness of UK university archives, aims to provide a single point of access to descriptions of university and college collections.
Aim 25, a consortium of universities roughly defined by their proximity to the M25, is also designed to optimise access by indexing everything, from the London School of Economics' archive of the Woodcraft Folk to King's College London's Aleister Crowley archive on black magic. Aim 25 is working to increase the quantity of digital images linked to the catalogue entries so that they can be accessed more freely.
One crucial factor that universities have to consider when formulating their policies is use and effect. Is an archive intended to benefit existing students and researchers or to attract new ones? It may enhance reputation, but it also acts as a free service to rivals. The value is rarely financial, though the rewards can be significant.
The publishing house John Murray is committed to ensuring that its literary archive remains in the National Library of Scotland. This stupendously valuable collection contains private letters, manuscripts and other correspondence from a wealth of literary giants, including Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Darwin and Edith Wharton. The library will have to raise the £33 million asking price, which is well below its real value. The Scottish Executive has already pledged £6.5 million.
Once it has safeguarded the archive, Edinburgh University will be on the literary map alongside institutions such as the University of Texas, which has pursued a policy of acquiring literary archives for years. It now has one of the finest collections in the world, which brings tremendous kudos, attracts scholars and academics, and considerably raises the university's profile.
The same probably could not be said quite so confidently for Westminster's tribute, delightful though it is, to the revolutionary town planner Max Lock - complete with plans, maps, surveys and dreams. Nor for London Metropolitan University's much cherished but little visited archive of the Daily Herald 's Order of Industrial Heroism; the records of the International Wool Secretariat held at the London College of Fashion; the papers of drum teacher Max Abrams housed by Leeds College of Music; Middlesex's Bernie Grant documents; or Reading University's Huntley and Palmer biscuit holdings.
On the other hand, with archives and with scholars, you just never know what might come in useful.
Sally Feldman is head of the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster.