ACROSS THE DECADES - 40 years of data archiving
 

Origins of the Archive

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Funding for the SSRC Data Bank, as it was then called, commenced on 1 October 1967. However, the origins of this enterprise predated this by several years.

In December 1963 the Social and Economic Archive Committee (SEAC) was established to investigate and propose solutions to the problem of sharing information about social surveys and the data generated by them. SEAC was hosted by Political and Economic Planning (PEP) - the British policy think-tank established in 1931 and the forerunner of the Policy Studies Institute. It was well supported and well connected, receiving funding from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the fledgling Social Science Research Council (SSRC), as well as industry and government.

SEAC was particularly concerned that costly and time-consuming survey work was being replicated through poor communication between researchers and that data were being sold to the US, and therefore 'lost' to British researchers.

To meet this concern SEAC compiled an inventory of survey data which could be made available for secondary research. Interestingly, this concentrated on market research and other commercially produced data rather than university-based work.

Also within SEAC's brief was to explore options for the location of an archive dedicated to social and economic research. The sub-committee for this work comprised John Johnson (Manchester), Philip Abrams (Cambridge), Michael Young (first chair, SSRC), Richard Lipsey (Essex) and John Madge (PEP). In March 1966, they invited proposals for the establishment of an archive.

the original Archive building at the University of Essex

At a meeting on 23 May 1966 the sub-committee considered three proposals - from the University of Essex, PEP and from the SSRC itself (Strathclyde University had been considered a candidate, but did not submit a proposal). The proposal from PEP was not realistically worked out in any detail, its case resting primarily on the argument that such a national resource should be located in London.The SSRC's bid, from Michael Young himself, was more interesting.

Young's bid arose from a conversation that Young had with Stein Rokkan (Professor of Comparative Politics, Bergen) following the 3rd Conference on Social Science Data Archives held at PEP in London earlier in 1966. Young's proposal for the SSRC to run the archive directly is intriguing, especially in light of forty years of history.

First he felt that, as one of the functions of an archive should be to provide methodological advice to prospective SSRC applicants, it would carry more weight if it were run by the funders. Second, he believed that the SSRC would be more likely to attract and retain more highly skilled employees. Third, he thought that, as an archive should hold 'ecological data' - government data drawn from the census and surveys such as the Family Expenditure Survey - the SSRC would be better placed than a university to acquire these. Fourth, he argued that the SSRC would be 'neutral' in servicing and training the university sector, ensuring that it was used by all.

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"Professor Allen Potter and Dr. Farlie will arrive on Wednesday November 23rd by the "Rheingold Express" at about 10 a.m. (could you check the time). It is very kind of you to suggest that they be met at the station. They will carry an English newspaper for identification."

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The main drawbacks to Young's proposal were the higher costs of locating the facility in London, and the lack of computing facilities at the SSRC. To counter the second issue Young tried to establish a collaboration with the LSE through Claus Moser (who was very much against the archive being housed at Essex), in the hope that the computing activities could be situated there, but this came to nothing.

Despite Young's credentials, the sub-committee came out in favour of the proposal from the University of Essex, which was judged to address all the stated criteria. It could be established quickly, and provided extremely good value for money, given that the University offered to meet the costs of five staff (not all full-time) and provide both accommodation and computing time.

In response to Young's submission, the sub-committee noted that the Archive, "once recognised as a truly national centre, would in any case develop the functions Dr Young had in mind...by existing, the archive would introduce an element of self-discipline into the design of future programmes". It also recommended that "a very close relationship, short of direct control, between the archive and the Social Science Research Council is highly desirable".

Eric Roughley

After this decision Essex was invited to submit an application to the SSRC. This was sent on 10 October 1966, with Allen Potter, then Head of the Government Department, named as the Principal Applicant. The application requested a total sum of 33,000 over five years, including 4,500 per annum for staff costs, 500 for travel and 1,000 per annum for magnetic tapes.

A year later, the SSRC Data Bank started work, and the rest, as they say, is history. As Eric Roughley, a key employee of the Archive for some 25 years from its first day of operation, put it on the occasion of its 20th anniversary - "the bold decision to establish an archive in 1967 has been resoundingly vindicated".