Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Archives? What Archives?

Local government chief archivists may be aware the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) inspections are beginning for 2005.

That archives don't figure high on the government's list of public service priorities is evidenced by the Audit Commission's web site.

Branch pages from the web site contain proposals for so-called service block assessments. These service blocks don't mention archives. However, they do mention arts, libraries, heritage and museums:

Service Block Summary and Key Changes in More Detail (click to enlarge the thumbnail shown).

We asked Garth Bland, County Archivist of Loamshire, to explain the significance of all this.

I admit it's all rather strange. The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office, was founded in 1838. The National Archives of Scotland (formerly the Scottish Record Office) was built in 1774. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council was established in 2000. Its web site says The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) is the national development agency working for and on behalf of museums, libraries and archives and advising government on policy and priorities for the sector.

General Register House, Edinburgh: home of The National Archives of Scotland

So archives isn't new and supposedly we have our advocates.

However, looking at the plight of local government record offices, their inadequate funding, the downgrading of chief archivists and our sector's omission from the Audit Commission's brief, you would think we didn't exist and MLA isn't living up to its own objects!

We asked Garth why he thought this was. It's partly because as organised service providers we're younger than libraries and museums. We had no Carnegie to start us off. Despite the age of our holdings and their continuous custodial history, we haven't become as established as libraries and museums. The archives profession, if you can call it that, is post-War. We also have fewer staff and buildings and smaller budgets than libraries and museums even if our stock exceeds that of the library services and is unique.

Libraries are a statutory public service and we aren't. Above all, you have to be intelligent to use archives whereas library and museum visitors mostly walk in, around and then out again without interacting with the stock. Here at Loamshire Record Office, many of our customers stay for nine hours a day working through complex documents. This notwithstanding, it is a numbers game. Libraries and museums can boast huge through-take of customers, without elected members or such organisations as the Audit Commission considering how lacking in depth public use of library and museum stock is.

If we went on strike, no-one would notice apart from the comparatively few, awkward individuals who insist on using original sources. So we are a minority service and I think administrators resent us. This is without taking into account rampant Philistinism. All these things militate against us.

So where do we go from here?

Probably downwards, said Garth.


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