Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Some dos and don'ts

One of our eagle-eyed members in the south-west Euro Region has spotted an article in the Taunton and Wellington Star of 4 May 2005 entitled Dos and Don'ts of family research.

Somerset Record Office

Somerset Archive and Record Service (presumably a euphemism for Somerset Record Office) in Obridge Road, Taunton, is running courses on family and local history at Frome Library, Exmoor Visitor Centre in Dulverton (an area in which Somerset County Council has diminished jurisdiction because of the statutory powers of Exmoor National Park) and at the county record office itself.

This is all very well. Such courses, of the variety most county record offices have been offering for several decades, are currently and conveniently being promoted under the guise of the Archives Awareness Campaign which we view with some cynicism, see our earlier blog Oh No, Not Again.

The article gives us some cause for concern however in that the courses offer the opportunity for members of the public to go behind the scenes into the strongrooms. SQA has previously expressed opposition to this tendency, see previous blogs Security Issues, Ebay Scam Hits Record Office and Freedom to Destroy Information.

We asked Ellison Millinocket, SQA's spokesman on security and conservation issues, to offer some comments.

Frankly, I'm aghast. Having members of the general public in the strongroom will significantly raise levels of humidity.

BS5454 specifies 13C to 16C with a tolerance of 1C on either side for little used material (7.3.2) or 16C to 19C with a tolerance of 1C on either side for frequently handled material ((7.3.1) and a RH of between 45% and 60% with a tolerance of 5% on either side (7.3.3). Importantly, BS5454 states rapid changes [such as would occur with an influx of people] should be avoided.

However, the National Archives' guidance for places of deposit for Public Records Beyond the PRO (p.11) states that temperature and relative humidity in the strongroom [should be] controlled at stable levels between 13-18 C and 55-65% RH.

These guidelines though partly inconsistent do agree on the stability of temperature and RH levels. These stable levels would be affected by an influx of people.

When the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, now the National Archives liaison section, carries out their quinquennial inspections, they ask for copies of thermohygrograph charts to confirm temperature and humidity levels are steady and at the right level, as laid down by BS5454. I wouldn't mind applying for Somerset's thermohygrograph charts for the dates in question under FoI!

On top of this there is a basic security issue. Even with staff supervision, how can we be sure documents are not stolen by members of the public parading around the strongrooms? Strongrooms my foot.

And how can we say we are operating in accordance with the Data Protection Act when persons other that data controllers or processors are entering a secure area containing sensitive data? And what would private depositors feel?

How could a solicitor or barrister acting for a county council in a theft case against a thief operating in a public searchroom succeed against an obvious defence that if numerous members of the public have been allowed in the storage areas, anyone else could have committed the offence instead?

My ultimate concern however is in respect of the National Archives' own guidance to the staff of places of deposit for Public Records Beyond the PRO which stipulates in connection with strongrooms access.....should be restricted to archives staff or persons authorised by them (p.11).

Interestingly, the new National Archives Standard for Record Repositories (2004) elaborates on this earlier guidance, stating access to the strongrooms should be restricted to archival staff and other authorised persons accompanied by them.

Authorised persons I take to be contractors doing essential work and under one-to-one supervision, not a free-for-all.

This addition of the word accompanied clearly compensates for the suggestion in the preceding guidance of a free-for-all strongroom access policy, thus emphasising the case we are making.

SQA believes in encouraging public awareness of and access to archives without compromising security.

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