Thursday, February 24, 2005

What exactly is a diocesan archivist?

Persons familiar with the English county record office system will almost certainly have come across county archivists who bear the formal subsidiary title Diocesan Archivist or dual title County and Diocesan Archivist.

The status of diocesan archivist is odd indeed and bears some examination.

While there may be a contractual recognition of his role as a so-called Diocesan Archivist between himself and his employer, the role is certainly not mentioned in the Parochial Registers and Records Measure (1978) or its amendment of 1992. The Measure is the legal basis of the arrangement by which the Church of England dioceses provide for the on-site inspection (by the Diocesan Archivist or one of his staff), storage, conservation and exhibition of parish records and crucially the deposit of parish records in so-called Diocesan Record Offices. Appointment of a suitable place of deposit is the responsibility of the diocesan bishops who are guided partly by BS5454.

Rt. Rev. Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester: one of the diocesan bishops

The Measure instead appoints the head of the Diocesan Record Office, who doesn't have to be a qualified archivist, as Chief Officer.

The Measure has the status of secondary legislation and is technically a document legally binding any party, usually a county council whose record office serves as a so-called Diocesan Record Office, to provide the above mentioned services to the diocese.

However, it would seem that most if not all county councils or other local authorities operating the Measure on behalf of a diocese operate it on the basis of a verbal rather than written agreement and that most local government chiefs and elected members are unaware of either the Measure or the requirement under the measure for the diocesan bishop to contract with them. Where such verbal agreement does exist it is usually between the chief archivist (known as the Chief Officer under the Measure) rather than senior officers or council members.

Many authorities are thus unaware their archivists operate the Measure in the first place, whether or not they use the title diocesan archivist. In some counties or county borough (i.e. unitary authority) areas, authorities are also unaware neighbouring authorities presume to operate the Measure over their boundaries and within their jurisdictions. We can only speculate whether this is acceptable under the Local Government Act especially where there is no contractual arrangement between the provider and client diocese or even between neighbouring counties. The Audit Commission would no doubt have an opinion too and it would be interesting to speculate how a complaint from a clergyman, parish officer or member of the public would be handled by the Local Government Ombudsman.

The raw material

Such geographical anomalies arise from local government boundary changes especially from the 1990s round of creating unitary authorities. In some cases diocesan boundaries don't exactly match county or unitary boundaries; in other cases custodial history is the deciding factor.

We asked Garth Bland, county archivist of Loamshire, to comment on the set-up in Loamshire.

Most of Loamshire lies inside the diocese of Bloggsbridge but part also lies inside the diocese of Grimswick. The See of Grimswick is situated in Upshire (Hyacinth Haugh-Peake, county archivist), Garth stated. This is all very well, but Hyacinth takes the parish records for part of Loamshire which aggravates and confuses my public. Her staff carry out inspections and training of churchwardens on my patch. While I am prepared to tolerate this, what gets my goat is that the Bishop of Grimswick has no contract with Upshire County Council to do any of this, either in Upshire or in Loamshire. Neither has Loamshire County Council received any formal approach from Upshire or the diocese of Grimswick for parish record activity on Upshire's part to take place here in Loamshire. The whole situation is most unsatisfactory. It is probably also illegal.

SQA will keep you updated.

Some further useful reading on the status of diocesan record offices can be found in the transcripts of the written evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts for their report Archives at the Millennium

New supporter of SQA

We are delighted to announce that the executive committee of the British Weights and Measures Association (BWMA) has minuted its support for SQA.

John Gardner, director of the BWMA stated:

The BWMA is delighted that the Society of Qualified Archivists is dedicated to the physical and moral preservation of this country's documentary heritage in the face of threats from undemocratic institutions. It is the first such professional body to be established for this purpose.

We wish the Society every success in defending British archives against political influence and, in particular, against the intrusiveness and anachronism of metric measurement.

To visit the BWMA's web site and learn more about their objects, please click here

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