By Gillian Crisp

Why should we care about our archives?

  • They tell us about yesterday.
  • They need looking after today –
  • So we can use them tomorrow.

They are records of social history and evidence of decision making and are, therefore, invaluable for research.  “A Force to be Reckoned With – A History of the Women’s Institute” by Jane Robinson, and “Jambusters – The Story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War” by Julie Summers, illustrate how important WI archives are for historical research.

But we can’t keep everything, I hear you cry!
The following table will provide some useful advice about how long documents should be kept.

Signed Rules –  Permanently
Minute Book –  7 years but they also have enduring historical significance
Record Book – Permanently
Annual Reports –  Permanently – filed at Federation Office
Financial Statements & Account Book – 7 years by law but they also have enduring historical significance. Financial Statements filed at Federation Office
Registration Certificates (Charity Registration etc where applicable) – Permanently
Insurance Policies (if applicable) Permanently or until expired
Lease (if applicable) –  Permanently or until expired
Scrapbook – Permanently
Correspondence with federation and NFWI about Rulings or other fundamental matters affecting the running of the WI – 5-10 years as applicable
Arrangements for WI Programme, Special Events etc 1 year after completion
Federation monthly letters of News Sheets – Current year and one year back
All trivial correspondence – The recommendation is to destroy on a 6 monthly basis, however please agree a system that will suit your circumstances.

Where should our WI archives be kept?
The most important concern is that they should be kept securely and be protected from the dangers of damp, fire, insects and being lost.  A member’s loft is probably the least secure place as the archives can easily become forgotten and lost.  A lockable cupboard in the village hall might be just the place but not every hall can offer such security.

You can lodge your WI archives with the County Record Office where they would certainly be safe but you do not have open access to them.  You have to go to the Record Office to view them and can only borrow them for very special occasions, such as an anniversary display. I can supply further information about how to lodge archives with the Warwick County Record Office if you wish to know more about this option.

Knowledge about their WI’s history should be available to all members.  Some WIs have put together selections of the most significant extracts from their Record and Minute Books and had them printed so that members can buy their own copies.

Websites offer a perfect opportunity to include documents in an Archive section for all members to access.

Good Practice
Please make sure that you put dates and titles on everything and record the context of items.  Without these details the “story” of the item is lost.
Do make sure that there is no unauthorised access to your archives and do not allow items to be “borrowed” or you may never see them again!

It is most important that a list of all your WI archives is kept up-to-date.  This should state where all the items are kept.  This list could be kept with the Minutes of the Annual Meetings. At each Annual Meeting members should be reminded where their WI’s archives are being held.

Federation Archives
The Federation cannot store the archives of individual WIs as there is just not enough room to do so.  The Annual Report Forms and the Financial Statements of each WI are filed at the Federation Office and these can be a valuable resource. Please complete your Annual Report Forms as carefully and as fully as you can because in years to come researchers may well be trying to glean information from them.

Even the way members’ names are written provides an interesting insight into the society of the time. In the 1920s and 1930s the President might well be a Mrs John Smith as this is how a married lady would be officially known by her husband’s name.  Over the decades this changes to Mrs Betty Smith; her own first name appears but the formal title of Mrs or Miss is still there.  More recently the President might appear as Betty Smith, which is absolutely fine but then comes an occasional Betty with no surname, which is so informal as to be of no use when trying to trace people’s involvement with the WI.

The Future
How are we to ensure that a lasting record is kept of a WI’s meetings and activities in an age when increasingly we are circulating such documents digitally?  This is certainly the way of the future and has many advantages but surely we should make provision for someone to be making an official copy, which can be passed on to the next generation of Committee members so that important information is not lost.

The photographs, which used to be in albums and scrap books, are now digital and stored on memory sticks.  Wonderfully convenient as these are, will they always be accessible as technology changes so quickly?

If you have any questions about your WI archives, please do contact the Federation Archivist at    Remember: archiving is a job with no end!
Click here to download this article – Archive Article

Gillian Crisp