Archives digital engagement – new audiences or same old?

This is the second blog in a series on using the Taking Part survey data to understand archives engagement in England. It explores what the data tells us about digital audiences.

What is the Taking Part survey?

The Taking Part survey has been run annually by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport since 2005 and is a “continuous face to face household survey of adults aged 16 and over and children aged 5 to 15 years old in England”. It collects data on engagement in arts, museums and galleries, archives, libraries, heritage and sport. This includes “frequency of participation, reasons for participating, barriers to participation and attitudes to the sectors”. My first blog in this series provided an introduction to what the survey is and what it collects about archive engagement. For this blog I will using the data from 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

I also use the results of the Survey of Visitors to UK Archives. This is a survey of visitors to UK archives undertaken every other year between September and November. The latest survey was in 2018 and 76% of participating services were local authority services.

Visitors to archives

The results of the Survey of Visitors to UK Archives and Taking Part survey show that archive visitors in person are more likely to be:

  • Older.
    • 33% of respondents to the Survey of Visitors in 2018 were aged 45-64 and 46% of respondents were aged 65+ (England).
    • Interestingly, the data from Taking Part survey suggests a slightly younger audience (see the bar charts below). I have some ideas on an explanation for this, but it needs further analysis and perhaps another blog.

Bar charts showing frequencies of ages for respondents who had visited/not visited an archive centre or records office in the last 12 months (Taking Part survey – adults)

2017-2018

2018-2019

  • Living in areas with lowest or least levels of deprivation.
    • 67% of respondents to the Survey of Visitors in 2018 lived in areas with an Index of Multiple Deprivation of 6 or greater (United Kingdom).
    • 55% of adult respondents to the Taking Part survey in 2018-2019 who had visited an archive in the last 12 months lived in areas with an Index of Multiple Deprivation of 6 or greater (61% in 2017-2018).
  • White
    • 96% of respondents to the Survey of Visitors in 2018 were white (England).
    • 94% of adult respondents to the Taking Part survey in 2018-2019 who had visited an archive in the last 12 months were white (although this was 87% in 2017-2018).

Digital engagement

The adult questionnaire in the Taking Part survey asks a question about digital engagement. In 2018-2019 it asked:

May I ask, in the last 12 months, have you looked at a website or used an app related to any of the following?
 
1. Museums or galleries
2. Libraries
3. History or heritage
4. Arts (e.g music, theatre, dance, visual arts or literature)
5. Archive/record offices
6. Sport (e.g. local sports clubs or facilities, sports development charities)
7. None of these (EXCLUSIVE)

This is a rather clumsily worded question, but at present is the best indicator there is in the survey about digital engagement.

In the 2018-2019 survey 490 people (6% of all respondents) had looked at a website or used an app related to an archive/record office. The majority of these visited the website to view digitised documents online (63%) or search a catalogue (33%).

New digital audiences?

What can the data for the last two years tell us about the demographic characteristics of these users? Surely digital users must be younger and more representative of society? Well not really…… (as these bar charts show).

Bar charts showing frequencies or respondent who had used an archives web site in the last 12 months (Taking Part survey – adults)

By age – 2017-2018

By age – 2018-2019

By Index of Multiple Deprivation 2018-2019

By Acorn category 2018-2019

In addition, 96% of respondents in 2018-2019 who had used an archives web site were white (93% in 2017-2018).

Digital engagement and visiting in person

I was also interested in how many respondents to the survey who engaged with an archive digitally also visited an archive in person. In 2018-2019, 28% of archive users who had “looked at a website or used an app related to an archive/record office” had also visited an archive. Or in other words – 72% had only engaged digitally and not visited in person. For 2017-2018, the percentage is lower (57%) so this probably needs some more analysis.

This also got me thinking about further analysis. For example analysing the characteristics of those who only use digital compared with those who use digital and visit (this will have to wait for another day….).

Other areas for further research – intersectionality

Intersectionality recognises that people’s identities and social positions are shaped by multiple factors. Among others, a person’s age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion and belief, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background contribute towards their unique experiences and perspectives. Further research (including mine!) on archives audiences using quantitative data needs to include more analysis examining the intersection of different variables. I have just started looking at taking a more intersectional approach with the the analysis of the Taking Part data. It is also something the Survey of Visitors to UK Archives should also think about when they present their data and findings.

Some final thoughts………

Perhaps we should be slightly cautious with the digital engagement data from Taking Part. As I mentioned in my first blog – the wording of the question may exclude certain types of digital engagement (e.g. social media, content hosted on third party web sites, community archives) and the data does not include international users. We might not be getting the whole picture.

The small sample size could be problematic and may explain the differences for some data between years (although all the graphs above include the confidence intervals error bars so you can see the margin of error for yourselves). Also, do the findings above need to be placed alongside what we know about internet use in the UK? Probably – but that is for another day!

Despite this I was slightly surprised by the findings – I was expecting (maybe naively) to find a digital audience that was more representative of society. Is the archives sector repeating the mistakes of how it had designed their physical offers – meeting the needs of a narrow audience? I really like the qualitative research and consultation the Audience Agency did for Dorset History Centre on how digital content can “help archives to appeal to a broader audience and ensure longer-term relevance of archives to the general population”. In particular, their finding that “curating and contextualising digital content will engage more users & ensure long term relevance of archives.”

Finally why are we not doing more research to understand our digital audiences (especially given Covid-19 and the shift to digital)? The Audience Agency have created a digital survey to provide “a comparative snapshot of your digital audiences”. It is aimed at cultural organisations and I think it could work for some archive services. Alternatively should we be creating something similar for the archives sector?#

Data references

Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (2019). Taking Part: the National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport, 2017-2018: Adult and Child Data. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8442, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-8442-1

Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (2020). Taking Part: the National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport, 2018-2019; Adult and Child Data. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8631, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-8631-1

Taking Part statistical releases and reports are available at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/sat–2

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