Trade Union and Employment Forum

The state of union archives: past, present and future

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

This session of the Forum was organised because concerns had been expressed about the state of union archives, and key individuals currently responsible for the preservation and use of trade union records were therefore invited: Helen Ford, the senior archivist at the Modern Records Centre, Warwick University, and Christine Coates, the librarian of the Trades Union Congress Library collection at London Metropolitan University.

Helen Ford

Since the Modern Records Centre (MRC) [] was established in 1967, by Professors Hugh Clegg and George Bain, to rescue and preserve the papers of trade unions and employer organisations it has acquired over 80 major trade union collections, which now extend to over 14 kilometres of shelves. They have achieved this marvellous collection because of their close links with many of the key leaders of the trade union movement in the 1970s, such as the late Jack Jones (TGWU), the late Len Murray (TUC), Alan Tuffin (UCW) and the late Ken Gill (TASS). Indeed Jack Jones sat on the advisory board of the centre for many years, and remained a firm supporter, depositing his union's papers as early as 1981. In this way, they also secured the personal papers of a number of significant figures in the movement, such as Frank Cousins, Moss Evans, Ron Todd, Clive Jenkins and Bob Willis. Meanwhile the engineering unions deposited 98 distinct holdings ranging from the Steam Engine Makers Society to the AUEW. As a result, the Centre currently holds the papers of over 550 individual unions – ranging from the Association of Assistant Mistresses to the Yorkshire Society of Textile Craftsmen. It also holds extensive records of the printing, textile and construction industry unions.

The role of the MRC is one of collecting, preserving, making available and promoting the history of industrial relations and the trade union movement. Unfortunately, today many of the collections they take in consist only of national executive or other committee minutes, back copies of journals, publications and ephemera. Consistent, accessible and detailed records are now less likely to be kept by unions as research departments disappear or merge. In addition the issue of digital record keeping and preservation is a major issue, too involved to cover here: having to deal with data on floppy discs or memory sticks, different file formats, platforms and databases are all complex and long-term problems. On the other hand, the MRC also holds a marvellous collection of posters (e.g., 'Education for Emancipation: the Work of the National Council of Labour Colleges'), correspondence and reports, photographs of historic events and groups, and much other material on paper and on disc.

Once collections have been taken in and made available, they need to be used and access to them is a continuing challenge. Academic fashions change but archives cannot simply dispose and restock their holdings. However, collections must justify their keep through academic interest and use. Good search facilities of catalogues and lists are therefore essential and the MRC catalogue is now being upgraded. There is constant pressure to keep up with the latest technology and faster systems of discovery, but funding is required. An equally essential and time-consuming part of the modern archive service is raising and maintaining visibility through induction sessions, workshops, exhibitions, tours and talks, online resources and digitisation projects.

The Centre’s archives are used primarily by postgraduate researchers from both Warwick University and other universities and higher education institutions (e.g. Ruskin College, Oxford), and they attract researchers from all round the world, including some trade union officials. However, there has been a notable shift in the study and teaching of industrial relations from a semi-historical discipline towards a more sociological approach, and this has had an impact on the MRC’s activities. For example, it is now much more difficult to attract current industrial relations students at the Warwick Business School (WBS) to the Centre’s resources, for the archives are increasingly seen as a purely historical attraction – even material from the 1980s and 1990s – and WBS students’ research interests are strictly current. So History students dominate the search room, with courses and modules on the 1970s and even 1980s now fashionable, and the Centre is catering for this interest increasingly successfully. The collection focus has accordingly widened to the history of social work, health and welfare, protest movements and campaigning groups in the 20th century: only 15% of users this year have been interested in material on the role, function or activities of trade unions.

Do the unions as major depositors still want to develop the MRC’s activities with support and additional resources? In the past, smaller unions, proud of their history, were very supportive. Today, with mergers, the fewer and bigger unions seem less interested in their own (often short) history and some even wish to forget that of their components organisations’ often previously acrimonious relationships. They also want to be seen as forward-looking and so their history may be seen by some as carrying the danger of being backward-looking and dated. Others do realise the importance of members being able to connect with the past and to understand their roots as a campaigning tool. UNISON’s Education project on the use of history begun in 2011, is a good example.

Digitisation, providing remote access, may be another part of the answer because researchers increasingly expect the records to be word searchable. However, converting large parts of the collection into machine-encoded text through optical character recognition is extremely costly. Moreover, it is also not clear that this will be enough to satisfy researchers in the long run as, quite apart from the loss of tactile engagement and sense of discovery through browsing, digitised images provide only the basic content without any context or provenance. It may therefore be necessary to find new ways to recreate a sense of the archive as a whole online and to provide as much context as possible.

There are therefore a number of areas of uncertainty surrounding the maintenance and development of the MRC collections, how they might be used and the types of users they will attract. They have no obvious answers and are not alone in having to deal with the issues outlined. Hopefully it will have been useful to flag up some of these thoughts to an audience of actual and potential researchers and depositors.

Christine Coates

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) [] Library collection was established in 1922, bringing together collections from the TUC Parliamentary Committee, the Labour Party Information Bureau and the Women’s Trade Union League. In 2006 the entire collection was moved to London Metropolitan University on loan – it remains in TUC ownership. The Library documents the rich history of the Trades Union Congress since 1868, including its involvement in the creation of the welfare state, public health, education and social services, as well as in ensuring legal rights in employment and ending discrimination. The archive also reflects the TUC’s important role in international affairs from an early period. The collection contains books, pamphlets, periodicals and other material collected from the 1860s to the current day. As well as union publications they hold official government and other bodies’ publications, as well as material from the various campaigns and policy areas in which the TUC has been involved. The library also houses a number of special collections, e.g. the Workers’ Educational Association papers (1903 onwards); the Labour Research Department papers (from 1912); and the papers of Marjorie Nicholson (International Department, 1955-72) and Gertrude Tuckwell (for 1890-1921). It also has a rich archive of photograph and audio-visual collections, as well as files of press cuttings which trace important political and labour movement events between 1918 –1970.

Key subject areas include:

  • Industrial relations and labour market issues, historical and current, e.g., the General Strike 1926 and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5
  • Public policy making, e.g. education, health and housing
  • International affairs, including the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism in Germany and the Spanish Civil War
  • Women workers’ organisation and conditions from 1870s
  • Workers and adult education
  • Biographical information on notable union figures

The emphasis is on Britain, but many other countries are represented, especially Europe and the Commonwealth, but also USA.

Very few records of the early workmen's combinations or trade clubs have survived from before the 1820s, and it was not until unions became more established towards the end of the 19th century that we get fuller records. They generated a vast amount from then on with offices and full-time staff: written collective agreements relating to wage rates, welfare benefits and so on. Yet only a comparatively small percentage has survived. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were the first major researchers of trade union history, complained of disappearing papers for reasons of fire, removal to new premises or the death of an old secretary. They sent all the papers they could collect to the London School of Economics.

The recognition of the value of trade union records and the need to conserve them was boosted by the growth in the study of labour history in the 1960s and by the foundation of the Society for the Study of Labour History. The appearance of Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class encouraged a whole new generation of labour historians, labour history became an accepted discipline in many universities, and research flourished. The History Workshop movement and the academic journal Historical Studies in Industrial Relations are still currently important sources for recording current debates and research in labour history. And there are of course also Scottish, Irish and Welsh labour history societies.

However, trade union records have continued to be vulnerable at times of major institutional change. For example, when unions have collapsed, through membership loss in times of unemployment or because of technological change, their records have usually disappeared with them unless their historical value was already recognised at the time. From the 1980s trade union mergers accelerated and the closure of offices led to papers being thrown out as rubbish. One set which escaped this fate was the London Bookbinders’ records, 1866-1966, during the merger of unions to form the Graphical Paper and Media Union in 1991: they were rescued by a member of staff from the closing office and brought to the TUC library! Today, there is generally more awareness of the historical importance of such records, but documents continue to be lost for all the old reasons and, as yet, there is no overall strategy for securing the survival of information held in electronic formats.

Following the transfer of the TUC Library to London Metropolitan University in 2006, several successful applications were made to major public funders for conservation and cataloguing projects. They created digital copies of key ‘treasures’ in the collection and provided access to those finding it difficult or expensive to visit in person. Their aim was to create an easily accessible online library of resources for the study of labour history. The Union Makes Us Strong: TUC History On-line [] was their first website launched in 2003 with a New Opportunities Fund of £175,000. It presents a history of the British trade union movement using digitised photographs, posters and documents from the collection. It is introduced by a timeline of nearly 200 years of social history. The site also includes a number of themed learning packages such as: the General Strike 1926. It also contains the annual Congress reports from 1868 to 1968, over 18,000 pages.

Subsequent websites have added oral history and streamed video:

The Worker’s War: The Home Front Recalled []

Winning Equal Pay: The Value of Women's Work []

These websites provide access to the voice and experience of working people, primary sources that are even harder to locate than the records of the' great and good'. The film and audio transcripts, texts, image captions and academic narratives across all three websites are held in a single database, which can be searched from one integrated Advanced Search page.

Their latest project, Britain at Work 1945-1995, started in July 2011, [] aims to capture the memories of people at work who helped to reconstruct the economy after the war, and contributed to a rapidly changing and diverse society, along with the growth of trade union organisation and influence to a high point in the mid-1970s, with all its conflicts and problems.

The website currently has on average 17,000 visits per month. Tutors’ notes provide guidance on how to get the best from the site for both school and trade union students. They look at potential uses of specific packages, as well as providing general guidance. These sources can be used in trade union education and training, subject to copyright ownership of some of the images.

There are still major difficulties to be faced, for example the challenges of the economic climate and the further decrease in union membership density, to only 26.6% of all employees. Trade unions are leaving long established offices at national and local level, either as a result of mergers or downsizing, and records accumulated over the decades are often being lost in the process. The same economic constraints limit the funding available to academic and other archival repositories to collect, catalogue or conserve union records. Moreover, the issue of how to manage digital records has still to be tackled. This relates not just to the internal documents, e-mails, and other unpublished or semi-published data, but also to published reports, and other material which was only ever available on the organisation's websites and which often disappears when a particular campaign, strike or event ends.

However, on the positive side, a growing interest in family history has led to a heightened awareness of the value of older documents. Access to archives has been ‘democratised’, with the National Archives and local record offices now full of people researching the working lives of their grandparents. Meanwhile, digitisation has allowed documents of national importance, as well as records of workers and trade unions, to be seen free and online. International labour history cooperative projects, such as the HOPE Project, (Heritage of the People's Europe) [] being undertaken by the International Association of Labour History Institutions [], would have been impossible before the widespread use of digitisation.


A very lively discussion followed with contributions both from those who had seen the issue from the point of view of trade union offices and their record keeping practices, and from those who had been using these and other archive collections. As with the two main presentations, it was broadly agreed that, although many difficulties were currently being faced, the overall picture was by no means wholly pessimistic and there was still a great deal of scope for constructive partnerships between trade unionists, archivists and historical researchers.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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