Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Question: when is an archivist not an archivist?

Answer: when he is a researcher.

At least that's the majority view of the membership of SQA.

Our views are based on the Bible of the British archives profession, A Manual of Archive Administration by Sir Hilary Jenkinson. Let us see what he says.

We shall have occasion in the next part to point out the very distinct positions occupied in the matter of Archives, by the Archivist and the Administrator who compiles Archives; but the difference is even more marked between the Archivist and the Historian. We have already given some hint of this in our opening sections, but must now emphasize it; the Archivist is not and ought not to be an Historian. He will need of course, some knowledge of History and may be interested in it personally, just as he may be interested in Metallurgy or any other science: but his duty is to his Archives, independently of any of the Research subjects (of which at present History is the most prominent) which make use of Archives for their own ends; and therefore an interest in any of these subjects, since it might give him a prepossession in favour not only of a subject but also perhaps of a school of opinion within that subject might be more than inconvenient or inappropriate, it might be positively dangerous. Most of the bad, sometimes damaging, work which has been done upon Archives in the past, from the "methodizing" of them down to the publishing of expensive calendars conforming so closely to the desires of one generation of students that they were quite useless for the purposes of the next - most of the bad and dangerous work done in the past may be traced to external enthusiasms resulting in a failure on the part of the Archivist to treat Archives as a separate subject.

Sir Hilary Jenkinson, pictured on the front of a recent publication

It would seem that many of today's archivists differ from Jenkinson in this matter. One archivist has told us Jenkinson was merely being precious. But then, not all archivists are qualified archivists and some see themselves and are seen as historians, for whom the label archivist is a convenient alternative to that of university lecturer to which status, in all probablity, these individuals truly aspire. Other archivists are qualified professionally but succumb to the temptation anyway.

The SQA has no objection to archivists undertaking investigations into their archives in response to enquiries from members of the public or colleagues from within the same organisation. Indeed, it is often the case archives services are justified both by their usefulness to the public and senior colleagues. Neither is there a danger in preparing full introductions to descriptive lists of collections which the archivist might have been the first person to investigate. His unique knowledge is valuable.

However, we should take care not to confuse these activities, or amateurish historical research with what Jenkinson meant by research. Language changes. In his day, research meant what we would nowadays be more accurate in describing as serious academic research of the kind that leads to being published in learned journals and academic texts.

We suspect much of the work that remains to be done in advocating the cause of archives is accountable to confusion on the part of opinion formers, politicians, depositors, the press and many other interest groups, as to what archivists actually do: archive work or academic research.

See also: American Controversy

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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