Archives digital engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic: what does the data tell us?

Introduction

Recently the results of two household surveys, by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Audience Agency, have been published. This got me excited! Last year I had started to analyse the Taking Part survey data to understand who is engaging with libraries, museums and archives online. Could these new surveys help us understand what proportion of the population have engaged online with archives since March 2020, who they are and how it compares with other types of engagement (e.g. libraries, museums)?

This blog explores what these surveys tell us about the level and type of archives digital engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre lockdown

Before we look at the findings from the lockdown surveys, it is worth understanding what the level of digital engagement with archives in England looked like pre-COVID-19. According to the Taking Part survey 2019/20:

The main reason for visiting a website was to view digitised content online (67.8%)

The DCMS does not publish socio-demographic data about digital archive users. However, I have done some analysis of the Taking Part survey 2018-2019 and blogged about this previously.

Taking Part Web Panel Data: Engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic (DCMS)

This survey asked about participation in activities which could be done under social distancing guidance. It was developed and run by Ipsos MORI on behalf of DCMS. Fieldwork ran in three periods between May to July 2020, asking about activities done in the preceding four weeks.

The samples for the three surveys were drawn from the Taking Part web panel. Panellists were recruited from the Taking Part face-to-face cross-sectional survey, which uses a random probability sampling methodology. A random sample of 1,698 panellists (all adults 16+) was independently drawn for each survey. Samples sizes were set with the aim of achieving approximately 1,000 complete interviews for each survey, with a predicted response rate of 59%. The samples were stratified by age/gender and region.

It included the following question about digital archive and local history engagement.

Question: In the last four weeks, that is since <DATE: Today – 4 weeks>, have you done any of these? Please select all that apply.  

– Viewed documents from an archive online
– Researched local history online  

Results have been published for each of the three surveys. For example:

Unfortunately, DCMS has not published demographic data for digital archive users during the lockdown. However, when they make the record level data sets available for research at the UK Data Archive, it will be possible to undertake this type of analysis.

Most interestingly, we are able to compare archives digital engagement with other types of engagement. Archives and local history engagement is higher than museum or public library engagement.

COVID-19 Cultural Participation Monitor

The first wave of data from this longitudinal panel survey also provides some interesting findings about archives digital engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Audience Agency commissioned “Dynata to carry out a population survey online, with quotas based on age, sex, ethnicity, region and Audience Spectrum segment. 6,055 responses were received in the first wave, collected from late October to early November, 2020. Additional waves of surveys will be undertaken every couple of months until autumn 2021” (Audience Agency, 2020, p.24).

From this survey, we know that:

  • 9% of respondents had “browsed an online archive or records office” (Audience Agency, 2020, p.9).

It is the fourth most popular “online arts and cultural activity” after watching various cultural activity such as music, performances, plays and dramas.

Apples and oranges?

It is interesting that the Taking Part Web Panel Data records higher levels of archives digital engagement than the Audience Agency survey. This could be down to the different timescales of the surveys, the different ways the survey questions have been formulated or perhaps biases in the data collection methods used. For example, The Taking Part web panel “is not fully representative of the population, and estimates are therefore only indicative of engagement. Respondents were questioned using an online collection mode, and therefore our estimates do not include those adults who do not have access to the internet. Furthermore, the web panel is biased towards those who engage in DCMS related activities. These data are therefore not fully comparable with the figures in the rest of the Taking Part report” (Taking Part Web Panel COVID-19 Report, 2020).

Conclusion

The results of both surveys suggest good levels of archives digital engagement since March 2020 and higher than other forms of cultural engagement. The archive sector should be shouting loudly about this – they provide powerful evidence for the reach of online archives and could be used for advocacy to help investment in services.

Further analysis of the survey datasets may be able to tell us something about the socio-demographic characteristics of the users and whether archive services are reaching new audiences.

References

Archives – Taking Part Survey 2019/20. (2020). Retrieved from  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/taking-part-201920-archives

Audience Agency. (2020). COVID-19 Cultural Participation Monitor – Summary Report. Retrieved from https://www.theaudienceagency.org/asset/2434

Taking Part Web Panel Data: Engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic – data tables. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/taking-part-web-panel-data-engagment-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-data-tables

Taking Part Web Panel Data: Taking part web panel COVID-19 report (2020). Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/taking-part-web-panel-data-engagement-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/taking-part-web-panel-covid-19-report

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