Who is using public libraries’ digital collections in England?


The adult Taking Part survey is a household survey of those aged 16+ in England and collects data on cultural engagement, including public libraries. As part of a MSc in Social Research and Evaluation I undertook a study using logistic regression to analyse the Taking Part data from 2017/18 and 2018/19 to understand:

  • Who in England is more likely to use public libraries’ digital collections (e-books, e-audio, e-magazines, and online reference resources) in terms of socio-demographic characteristics?
  • How, if at all, is this different from in-person public library users?

Logistic regression is a statistical analysis method used to estimate the probability of ‘an event’ occurring. It is a suitable method to use when the dependent variable has two values (e.g. library user or non-library user) and independent variables that can be either continuous or categorical (e.g. socio-demographic characteristics).

This blog summarises the main findings of the study.


The study finds that the following are strong predictors for using public libraries’ digital collections:

  • Visiting a library during childhood.
  • High education level.
  • Young age (16-29).

Females, those in the higher managerial/professional socio-economic classification (SEC) and those without children in their household are also more likely to use them. Those in the intermediate SEC/ethnically minoritised group and aged 60+ (particularly females) are less likely to use them.

How is this different from in-person public library users? Visiting a library during childhood and a high education level are also predictors for visiting a library, but become stronger for using digital collections. In contrast to digital use, those aged 60+ are, and those with children in their household (particularly females) are more likely to visit libraries. Also, unlike digital use, SEC is not a predictor for visiting libraries.


The study demonstrates that in terms of SEC, education level, age, and ethnicity that those using digital collections are not as representative as those who visit in person. Therefore, library services need to think carefully about developing their digital services to reach a broader range of people.

The study also demonstrates the importance of visiting a library during childhood on adult library use. If more research were carried out to understand this in greater depth, it could help inform the development of library services. Is the best way to develop future adult audiences to invest more in children’s library services or target families?!

Finally, this study shows the importance of going beyond descriptive statistics and using inferential statistical analyses to understand library use. Taking a multiplicative approach can provide more insight, depth and, most importantly, highlight inequalities in provision. For example, most previous studies have found that ethnically minoritised individuals are more likely to visit libraries. The additive model in this study confirmed this, but the multiplicative model highlighted an inequality for older ethnically minoritised individuals who are less likely to use libraries. If the library sector wants to understand who uses libraries, it needs to look more closely at interactions. In turn, the findings from this research can then be used to inform the development of services, attract new users and reduce inequalities.

Next steps

One of the limitations of the study is the data predates the Covid-19 pandemic and is already out of date. The most recent Taking Part datasets had not been released at the time the research was undertaken. However, it would be interesting to use the same methodology on the datasets for 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. We know from other studies that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is some evidence that digital services did not reach everyone despite their use increasing.

Further information

The full version of the dissertation can be downloaded here.

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


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).


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.


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

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)



  • 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

Using data from the Taking Part survey to understand archives engagement

This is the first in a series of blogs about the Taking Part survey. It provides an introduction to what the survey is and what it collects about archives engagement.

What is the Taking Part survey?

The Taking Part survey has been run annually by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) 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”.

There are two questionnaires – one for adults (16+) and one for children (5-15). The most recent data available is for 2018-2019.

What does it collect about archives?

The adult questionnaire includes a section on archives. In 2018-2019 it asked:

In the last 12 months have you been to an archive centre or records office?
1. Yes
2. No
-1. Don’t know
INTERVIEWER NOTE: Archives are collections of documents that have been created by families, individuals, businesses or organisations and have been specially chosen to keep permanently. They can be written papers such as letters or diaries, maps, photographs or film or sound recordings. Archives are historical documents but do not have to be very old. Places that keep archives are usually called a record office or archive centre.
Registering a birth, death or marriage happens at a registry office, not at an archive centre/ record office.

If the respondents answers “Yes” they are asked some supplementary questions about the purpose of the visit, how often they visit and satisfaction.

The child questionnaire includes some archive questions including whether they have visited an archive in the past 12 months.

What about digital engagement?

The adult questionnaire 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 rather clumsily worded, but at present is the best indicator there is in the survey about digital engagement.

What other data does it collect?

It also collects demographic data, socio-economic data and wellbeing data (using the ONS four personal wellbeing measures).

A copy of the questionnaire and other documentation for 2018-2019 is available at the UK Data Archive. However, I have summarised all the archive related questions in this document.

What results do DCMS publish?

DCMS publish reports and statistical releases. This includes a release for archives for 2018-2019 which outlines:

  • Proportion who had been to an archive centre or records office in the last 12 months in their own time or as part of voluntary work.
  • Frequency of attendance.
  • Reason for attending.
  • Region level breakdowns.
  • Demographic breakdowns.
  • Proportion who had been to an archive centre or records office in the last 12 months for all purposes.
  • Purpose of the visit.

For example, in 2018-2019:

  • 3.9% of adults had “been to an archive or record centre in the last 12 months”.
  • 6% of adults had “visited an archive web site”.
  • 4.4% of 11-15 year olds had “visited an archive”.

Interestingly archives is the only sector, where a higher proportion of adults had visited an archive website than had visited an archive in person.

The statistical releases can be used to track changes since 2005. I have summarised the key archive engagement statistics for 2005/6-2018/19 in this spreadsheet and in the following figure.

The actual data sets are available on the UK Data Archive for non-commercial use.

What else can the data tell us?

As part of my MSc dissertation in Social Research and Evaluation at the University of Huddersfield I have been thinking about doing some analysis of the Taking Part data sets on archive engagement. For example this could include:

  • Understanding the characteristics of users and non-users (both adults and children) of the archives using socio-demographic data and other variables. I really like a study by Sin and Kim (2008) on public library users and non users in the United States which took this approach using logistic regression.
  • Understanding the characteristics of digital users and non-users including the relationship between in person use and digital use.
  • Understanding the relationship between using archives engagement and wellbeing. Data from Taking Part has already been used by studies to do this with libraries, museums, arts and sports (see below).

I might blog about these in the future.

Wellbeing studies that have used Taking Part survey data

Limitations of the data

There are some limitations to the data such as the poorly worded question on digital engagement. The National Archives has fed this back to DCMS (see below). The survey covers users in England (not engagement from elsewhere in the United Kingdom or abroad) – this also seems significant for digital engagement.

There is also a focus on visiting an “archive centre or record office”. This ignores engagement which takes place outside the building and those who may engage with archives without ever visiting an “archive centre or record office” (e.g. community archives). Interestingly, there is a question for public libraries on engagement outside of library buildings.

It is worth noting that the data for archive engagement is quite a small sample. For 2018-2019, there are 319 cases who have visited and archive and 510 cases who had used an archive website. It may be possible to use data from previous years or other data sets to make the sample larger and perhaps more representative. I need to think about this more!

Finally there is a philosophical question about whether taking a positivist approach (with a focus on quantitative methods) for this type of research is suitable. Would an interpretivist approach (with an focus on qualitative methods) be more suitable? I need to think about this a bit more too….!

The future of the survey

DCMS have recently undertaken consultation on the survey. They are “now analysing the responses” and will publish the findings in the future.

However, they are “always interested in hearing your views on the Taking Part survey”. So if you think there is something missing or poorly designed then please let them know!


Helping beginners analyse qualitative data

A lot of my work involves working with heritage and library clients to help them carry out evaluation or measure impact. One of the biggest challenges I face is how can they analyse qualitative data themselves? Data collection can be relatively straightforward – with some simple training and support ‘non experts’ in evaluation can carry out interviews, focus groups or record observations. But how do they analyse this data in a robust way?

Thematic coding

Thematic coding (or indexing) “is a way of indexing or categorising the text in order to establish a framework of thematic ideas about it” (Gibbs, 2018). But it can be time consuming, require some knowledge and lots of practice.

The Better Evaluation web site has a really good introduction to thematic coding.

These videos are good introductions too.

Happy Museum’s Narrative Evaluation

I often recommend the Happy Museum’s narrative evaluation tool as a simple approach for organising qualitative data and identifying themes including how frequently they recur.

If you are new to evaluation or qualitative data analysis then this is a fantastic tool.

But how can I help clients use qualitative data analysis methods that could provide more valid and reliable results?


One form of thematic data analysis I like to use is ‘Framework’, especially for interview data. ‘Framework’ was developed in the 1980s as an approach for managing and analysing qualitative data in applied social policy research (Ritchie & Spencer, 1994; Ritchie, Lewis, Nicolls, & Ormston, 2014). It is similar to other thematic analysis methods in that it includes indexing/coding but its distinctive feature is a form of data summary and display using matrices which allow for comparisons across cases and themes (Ritchie et al, 2014, p.283).

These videos explain it well.

The five stages to qualitative data analysis using ‘Framework’:

  1. Familiarisation
  2. Identifying a thematic framework
  3. Indexing (coding)
  4. Charting (summary and display)
  5. Mapping and interpretation

However, ‘Framework’ acknowledges some studies “the data may already be well-ordered, forming neat ‘thematic piles” (Ritchie et al, 2014, p.282). Therefore in some cases where interviews have been well structured or ordered it may be possible to skip the coding/indexing and stage and go straight to charting (summary and display).

To me, charting and summarising the data is something that could be done by those with little experience in qualitative data analysis. Especially those from an archives, library or heritage background who are used to cataloguing! Some of the principles are the same.

I’m hoping to explore this more over the next few months and perhaps write about it.

Further reading

  • Gale, N.K., Heath, G., Cameron, E., Rashid, S. & Redwood, S. (2013). Using the framework method for the analysis of qualitative data in multi-disciplinary health research. BMC Med Res Methodol 13, 117. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-13-117 (available online)
  • Gibbs, G. (2018). Analyzing qualitative data ([2nd]. ed.). London;Los Angeles;: SAGE.
  • Ritchie J., Lewis J., Nicolls C. M. & Ormston, R. (2014). Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers (Second ed.). London: SAGE Publications.
  • Ritchie, J. & Spencer, L.. (1994). ‘Qualitative data analysis for applied social research’, in Bryman, A., & Burgess, R. G. (eds). Analyzing qualitative data. London, England;New York, New York;: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203413081

Archive volunteers: using the Volunteer Functions Inventory to understand their motivations and impact

In April I blogged about 5 tools for measuring the impact of volunteering on volunteers. One of the tools was the Volunteer Functions Inventory (Clary et al., 1998). This is a validated instrument for assessing the motivations and impact of volunteering. As part of my MSc in Social Research and Evaluation at the University of Huddersfield I have used the instrument as part of an assignment on the Questionnaire and Survey Design module.

The purpose of the assignment was to design and deliver a pilot survey of archive volunteers to understand their motivations, the impact of volunteering and how these differ by volunteer type. A questionnaire was designed using the Volunteer Functions Inventory. . It consists of 30 items divided into six scales and scored using a 7-point Likert-type scale. The six scales are:

  • Values function. The person is volunteering in order to express or act on important
    values, such as humanitarianism and helping the less fortunate.
  • Understanding function. The volunteer is seeking to learn more about the world
    and/or exercise skills that are often unused.
  • Enhancement function. The individual is seeking to grow and develop psychologically through involvement in volunteering.
  • Career function. The volunteer has the goal of gaining career-related experience
    through volunteering.
  • Social function. The volunteering allows the person to strengthen one’s social
  • Protective function. The individual uses volunteering to reduce negative feelings,
    such as guilt, or to address personal problems.

A pilot was carried out at two services and had 38 respondents. The Understanding and Values functions scored highest for motivations and outcomes. The Social function scored lower for motivation than expected. The Career function in motivations and outcomes varies depending on age and retirement status. In the assignment I also describe the pilot lessons and the possible methodology for a main study across England.

For those interested in more my assignment can be downloaded here. I’m currently considering whether I could undertake the main study as part of my MSc dissertation……

5 tools for measuring the impact of volunteering on volunteers

Last week I attended the Archives Wellbeing Impact Seminar organised by The National Archives and What Works Wellbeing. It was a terrific event with lots of great discussion and interest in how we can measure the impact archives have on people’s lives.

On my table there was quite a bit of discussion about volunteering and how we measure the difference archive volunteering makes to volunteers. The report The impact of volunteering by Caroline Williams collates evidence about the impact of volunteering in archives. It uses data from previous national surveys and some qualitative data (e.g. quotes from volunteers) to demonstrate the health and wellbeing, social and learning impacts.

But how can archive services measure the impact of their volunteering programme on their volunteers? Here are five useful tools.

1. NCVO Volunteer Impact Toolkit.

This toolkit costs £60 (£42 to NCVO members), but includes some good resources for capturing qualitative data including running focus groups, creating case studies, and volunteer diaries. I particularly like the volunteer diary template which help volunteers reflect on what they have gained and learned from their volunteering.

2. Happy Museum Narrative Evaluation

Lots of my clients already have great qualitative data (from focus groups, interviews, feedback etc.) but don’t know how to collate or analyse it. I love the Happy Museum Narrative Evaluation which is simple desk work approach to identifying themes including how frequently they recur in qualitative data. Every archive service should be using this.

3. Questionnaires

The NCVO Volunteer Impact Toolkit also includes some sample volunteer questionnaires using Likert scales to measure the impact of volunteering. I’m not overly keen on the wording of some of the questions and prefer the questions NCVO used in their national Time Well Spent 2018 survey. Q46 of this questionnaire include some good questions on impact and you can benchmark against the national results.

4. What Works Wellbeing

If you are interested specifically in wellbeing then What Works Wellbeing have created a fantastic guide to measuring wellbeing impact which includes recommended questions (ONS, WEBWBS etc). It also includes super advice on how to approach the research and analyse the results.

5. Volunteer Functions Inventory

The Volunteer Functions Inventory (Clary et al., 1998) is a validated instrument for assessing the motivations and impact of volunteering. As part of my MSc in Social Research and Evaluation I am piloting a version of this instrument at a couple of archive services. I am hoping it can give high quality data about volunteer motivation and impact. You probably need some experience of quantitative data analysis in order to interpret the results and you may need to think about sampling methodologies in order to ensure the results are representative. I’m hoping to write more about this instrument once I have completed the pilot.

Let me know what tools or methods you are using in the comment section below!


Web surveys: does sampling matter?

At present there seems to be  lot of archive sector surveys on social media. This has got me thinking about sampling and whether the data the sector is collecting is representative and accurate.

What is sampling?

In an ideal world we would survey everyone in our target population. However, this is usually not practical or affordable. Instead we use sampling methods to survey a selection of our target population. However, it is important our sampling method ensures that this sample is representative.

Sampling methods can be be grouped into two types: probability or non-probability. In probability sampling everyone in the target population has the same chance of being selected. The selection of people in non-probability sampling is more arbitrary.

This short video from the University of Sheffield explains this well.

Convenience samples

Convenience sampling involves getting participants wherever you can find them and wherever is convenient. Web and surveys are usually a form convenience sampling. The survey is sent out to various networks by email and publicised on social media. Individuals choose whether to participate in the survey.

Convenience surveys are easy and cheap. They are sometimes used in pilot studies – to obtain basic data without the complexities of using a probability sample. However, they will not usually produce representative results and cannot speak for the entire target population.

“The result is a proliferation of poorly conducted ‘censuses’ and surveys based on large convenience samples that are likely to yield less accurate information than a wellconducted survey of a smaller sample.”  (Fricker, 2017)

Some believe that a process called weighting can be used to compensate for sampling issues in web surveys.

A practical example: I want to survey people who work in archives in the UK

We could randomly choose a percentage of people from a list of those who work in the sector e.g. members of the Archives and Records Association. This is called a a simple random sampling.

However, not everyone who works in archives is a member of the Archives and Records Association. Could this bias our sample? An alternative could be some type of cluster sampling approach where firstly archive services are randomly selected and then the staff in this service are sampled. This video explains cluster sampling in more detail.

Does it matter?

Web and social media surveys are cost effective and easy to administer. Perhaps I should not worry too much? However, if we really care about getting representative and quality data for the archives sector we should think carefully about what non probability sampling methods are available before resorting to a web surveys.

Further reading

  • Czaja, R., Blair, J., & Blair, E. (2014). Designing surveys: A guide to decisions and procedures.
  • Fricker, R. D (2017). Sampling Methods for Online Surveys in Fielding, N., Lee, R. M., & Blank, G. (2017;2016;). The SAGE handbook of online research methods (Second ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Going Freelance

Kevin Bolton is an archives, heritage and libraries consultant specialising in evaluation, audience development, networks and collections management.

It has been two years since I left the ‘day job’ at Manchester City Council and moved into the world of freelancing. Recently a lot of people have asked me for advice on how I did it so I thought I would write about it. This is very much my personal experience – there are different ways to do things obviously – but I hope sharing this is useful.

Making the jump

Leaving a secure permanent job was a huge decision for me – it was perhaps the biggest decision I have ever had to make. I had been thinking about going freelance for about two years, but for a lot of that time I was too scared to do it. The following helped me make the decision.

  • Talk to your family. It is obviously really important to have the support of your family! My wife was very supportive and actually gave me a bit of a bollocking at one point saying ‘Stop talking about it and just go and b***** do it’. We made a deal – I would give it 12 months and if it did not work I’d have to go and get a ‘proper job’.
  • Build up a safety net. We saved up some money so we had about 12 months of our salary in the bank. This gave us some reassurances.
  • Try before you buy. I was lucky enough to do a bit of consultancy work in my own time with Tom Forrest whilst I was employed. This gave me a flavour of the consultancy world and also experience for my CV.
  • Understand the market. I kept an eye on freelance opportunities that were coming up. I also knew there were a couple of opportunities available locally which I had a half chance at winning. I spoke to other freelancers in the sector to understand what type of work they did. They all seemed quite busy – surely there must be work?
  • Understand your motivation. My motivation was to spend more time with my family (I have a daughter who was two at the time). I wanted to work fewer hours and spend more time with my daughter. I generally work four days a week and spend one day with our daughter. As my mum said, ‘what’s the worse that can happen? If you get no work you get to spend a year with your daughter?’. This also enabled my wife to increase her hours and get a new job.


Once you have decided to make the jump you need to sort out all the boring practicalities. There is lots of good guidance out there (including this Share East Guide), but here are some of the things I did.

  • Sole Trader or Ltd Company? To start with I traded as a sole trader (It seemed simple), but after a year I got an accountant and set up a Ltd company My accountant has provided me with some good advice about IR35 which is a huge issue for freelancers.
  • Insurance – I bought professional indemnity and public liability insurance.
  • CRB check – I used a commercial company to get a basic CRB disclosure.
  • Website – I felt obligated to create a website. However, in practice I have found LinkedIn more important – a lot of people have found me through this.
  • Equipment – laptop (obviously) and some software. I tried to make my ‘office’ (the back room) more attractive. My wife bought me a new coffee machine (absolutely essential!).
  • Pension and life insurance – my focus for the last two years has been on earning a living and I have not been paying into a pension, but in the last week I have set up a private pension and purchased life insurance / critical illness cover.

Getting business

Ok this is the really really scary bit. You have sorted out the practical stuff and set up your coffee machine. You wake up on day one – the house is empty. How do you get business? In my sector I have found work started coming to me in a variety of ways.

  • Bidding for tenders. I worked out where tender opportunities were published. I signed up to various website for notifications. I started bidding for them!
  • Build relationships with other consultants. I was lucky enough to build some strong relationships with other companies– Headland and Redquadrant. I knew one of the Directors at Headland through a local cricket club and had previously worked with Sue McKenzie from RedQuadrant. A quick coffee / chat and we working together! I have also done some work with local archive freelancers Jane Speller and Jane Donaldson who are both great.
  • Word of mouth. I also got some small pieces of work quite quickly through word of mouth when people knew I was available. Other freelancers told me it was important to show my face at conferences and events to remind people I was now a freelancer. To be honest I was pretty rubbish at doing that – I went to one training day in my first year. However, in my second year I got better at this.
  • Pick a day rate. To start with I lowered my day rate to try to win contracts and build experience. Looking back I am not sure how wise this was (other freelancers kept telling me not to undervalue myself), but you have to remember the fear I was feeling!
  • Understand your USP. I quickly realised that my USP was ‘archives’ (….pretty obvious?!). To start with I found it a lot harder to win work in other parts of the cultural sector. I have probably done more ‘archives’ work in the last year than I ever did as an employed Archivist!
  • Learn to take rejection. I lost some contracts I pitched for and to start with it hurt. I have found it easier to cope with over time – it is important to reflect on why I did not win and then bounce back.
  • Get a mentor. I have been lucky enough to have Tom Forrest as a mentor – he has over 20 years experience as a consultant. He gave me advice and moral support which was vital and has encouraged me and given me confidence. We have been worked together on a few projects. Ruth McKew from Headland, Sue McKenzie from RedQuadrant and Jane Speller (archives freelancer) have also been super helpful – always at the end of a phone to give advice.

Growing the business

You get through the first two years. You have earnt a living. You are still here! Well done! Then you realise you have to do it all over again!

  • Diversify. With a year of experience under my belt I found I did start to win work from outside the archives sector – in museums and libraries. I have also tried to reflect where I need to improve my skills and experience to win certain types of work. I have just started a distance learning MSC in Evaluation and Social Research with a view for doing more evaluation work.
  • Keep it varied. I have really enjoyed the variety of work I do as a freelancer. It keeps me motivated and challenged. I have particularly enjoyed work that involves real archive collections – research and surveying. I had forgotten how much I missed ‘real archives’!
  • Improve your pitch techniques – over time you get better at writing proposals and more importantly interviews. My technique for interviews is to say what I think (not what I think the client wants to hear). I find this is best for myself and the client. You win some and you lose some!
  • Learn to turn down work! As I get busier I remind myself that I went freelance to spend more time with the family. I hate turning down work, but it is important I don’t get too stretched and have a good work / life balance.
  • The fear factor does not disappear – even when I have plenty of work lined up I still have that fear factor. I’m not sure I want it to disappear – it is what keeps me motivated.
  • Use social media – some other freelancers told me to use social media to push yourself out here. Write blogs, post on twitter and LinkedIn. I am pretty bad at this. This is my first blog in over a year! Marketing myself is challenging as it’s not something I feel comes naturally to me. Definitely something to work on over the next year.

That’s it!  I hope I have not given all my secrets away! Do drop any comments below.  And thanks for reading!

More about my services

Current and past projects

Libraries Innovation Fund – an opportunity for local history and archives?

The Libraries Taskforce and Arts Council announced the new Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund last week. The aim of the fund is to enable library services to trial innovative projects that will benefit disadvantaged people and places in England.  To deliver this objective the fund has two aims:

1. To provide library users and communities with opportunities to remove or reduce their experience of disadvantage

 2. To enable library services to develop innovative practice that meets the needs of people and places experiencing disadvantage

These projects will be delivered within the frameworks offered by the Society of Chief Librarians’ five Universal Offers and the seven outcomes in Libraries Taskforce’s ‘Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021.  There is a £4 million pot and more about the fund can be found here.

I went to the briefing session at Manchester Central Library last week. My first two weeks of freelance life since leaving Manchester Libraries had mainly been all archives and I wanted to stay ‘in the loop’ on libraries.

The briefing session was excellent – the aims and criteria for the fund seem very clear. The only challenge is the timescales (deadline is 6 January), but to be fair to the Arts Council they have turned the whole programme round quickly. For those who are working over Christmas it is probably a relatively good time to write a bid – when the phones and the emails get a bit quieter. I expect the fund will be very competitive.

I tried to go to briefing session with a ‘libraries hat’ but as usual the Archivist in me started to think about opportunities for archives and local history. Then somebody asked a question about whether project could be based around archives (not me – I promise!). I did not catch who asked the question., but the gist of the answer from the Arts Council was that the lead applicant has to be a local authority archive service and the project needs to delivered within the framework of the Universal Offers and the seven Libraries Taskforce outcomes. However, archives and local history could be part of a project – especially where they are integrated with the library service.

This got me thinking about what type of innovative archive and local history projects could apply for this fund or be part of a wider project. I do hope library authorities are thinking about this and we see some successful projects with a local history and archives angle. Especially given all the photographs in the publicity of the Innovation Fund feature a certain archive (in a library)! Perhaps more importantly what role do archives and local history have in delivering the seven outcomes outlined in Libraries Deliver?

Here are my potential ideas, but I am sure you can think of better and more innovative ones (tell me below). I have tried to link each idea to one of the Universal Offers and Libraries Taskforce outcomes

  • Increased digital access and literacy – using local history, archives & family history digital resources to run digital literacy sessions with older people or housebound customers. Or using archives for inspiration for creative digital activity with young people e.g. green screens portraits using old photographs, stop animation videos of stories from the archives.
  • Stronger, more resilient communities – working with residents or local groups to curate exhibitions, interpretation, digital interactives or an augmented reality experience in their local libraries about the history of their area or community. For me local history and archives are key to creating a shared sense of place in communities and libraries.
  • Greater prosperity – using the stories in business archives to inspire the businesses and entrepreneurs of today.