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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Archive Wars

I’ve been disappointed with the comparative lack of activity on the Action 4 Archives website in recent months. Essentially, this site was set up in response to the threatened (and now implemented) cutbacks at the National Archives, Kew, which mean that the building now closes on Mondays and has also culled significant numbers of specialist staff. However, this is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. Across the UK, archive services are under threat due to a dangerous combination of funding cutbacks (thank you once again, investment bankers and inept politicians alike) and insensitive or simply incompetent management. Unfortunately, archive services are often looked on as an obvious target for cutbacks so that funding to so-called front line services can be preserved, and in many cases they have responded by trying to be as ‘populist’ as possible. Many local record offices have cut their hours and/or staff; and very often they, like the National Archives, have jumped on the ‘Who Do You Think You Never Were in a Million Years’ genealogy bandwagon, subordinating the interests of serious researchers to those of gaggles of talkative pensioners intent on tracking down their great-great-grandparents as loudly as possible. Researchers are often timid creatures, and do not like to make a fuss. However, the evidence of what happened at the National Maritime Museum (see archived blogs, Oct. 2008 onwards) suggests that organising and making as great a fuss as possible can achieve results. Museum management originally proposed to close all research facilities completely for over six months to ensure that their new wing was completed in time for the Olympics, when the equestrian competition will be held in front of it. A ferocious campaign of protest followed, much of it originally generated from the ‘grass roots’ through the various online maritime history forums (notably this one). Even the normally torpid learned societies weighed in, and with political, media and legal channels all being explored, the museum made a number of major concessions (albeit not enough to satisfy all of those who study there). There has been a similar success story at the National Library of Wales; partly as a result of public pressure, the library has reversed the Saturday closures that it introduced last year.

However, a narrow focus on opening hours and staffing runs the risk of overlooking the many other aspects of current archive practice that actively work against the interests of serious researchers. Leaving aside the manifold ‘quirks’ (to be charitable) of the British Library and the idiocies imposed at archives nationwide in the name of ‘Health and Safety’*, these include the widely differing policies on digital photography, still prohibited in too many institutions but which, if permitted, saves researchers significant amounts of time and effort and also saves staff time they would otherwise spend on reprographics; the huge variations in policies on reader admissions (what is the point of many record offices having their own pedantic reader ticket requirements when the CARN scheme exists?); and above all, the distinctly dubious practice of some archives claiming that they, rather than the heirs-at-law of the original creators, hold the copyright on original materials deposited with them, thereby enabling them to levy exorbitant charges for reproduction. Don’t get me wrong, most archivists, librarians and other staff in this sector do an outstanding job, despite being neglected by their employers and taken for granted by many of those who use their services. Above all, archive services are not optional extras, to be bolted on or cut back depending on political considerations and financial pressures. It’s a hoary old cliché, but they are literally the repositories of the nation’s collective memory, and we should treasure them.

(* For example, the other day I was deeply reassured to find a guide on how to wash my hands prominently displayed in the gents’ loos of the National Library of Scotland, as the hands which I would shortly be using to handle irreplaceable 17th century manuscripts were evidently covered in bullshit and I hadn’t been taught the skill of washing them at the age of two or thereabouts.)

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