Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Unwanted spam?

Readers may recall our earlier blog Archives? What Archives? which commented on the lamentable exclusion of local government archive services from the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) inspections.

Well, the controversy continues to rumble on. The Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government (ACALG) (formerly the Association of County Archivists) is becoming ever more alarmed about their archives coming in under the radar, as one might hope and expect. In particular some members have expressed concern about the self-appointed role of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in negotiating with the Audit Commission as to the eventual inclusion of local government archives.

This revives our own concerns that the National Archives, the National Council on Archives, Archives Task Force (see Nellie Does Another Whoopsie) and MLA tend to want to drive forward all policy areas. Are they the best people to do this? It is timely and appropriate for ACALG to flex its muscles especially as the issue is one that primarily affects local government and is not one upon which civil servants can be said to be knowledgable (see our earlier blog Yes Sir Humphrey.)

This is not a matter for abstract thinking.

More specifically, ACALG members are vexed that MLA should have unilaterally taken their negotiations forward and have done so on the basis of assessing such areas as volunteer activity and without pushing for more than a pilot stage assessment.

An HLF funded walk-through gallery at the Museum of London

The point about MLA's politically correct obsession with volunteer involvement is a moot one. It is typical of quasi-governmental archive bodies' tendencies towards unfettered public access, without consideration being given to the logistical aspects of local government archive services. As if to illustrate this, archive services in local government are again the victim of the National Archives' annual Archives Awareness Campaign, one of the many policy initiatives driving forward the concept of accessibility.

We asked Garth Bland, county archivist of Loamshire, to comment.

My own ethic is no pain, no gain. What do I mean by this? Simply that in order for us to provide a viable service to anyone, the general public included, local government archivists must beaver away in their strongrooms listing collections, ensuring the conservation of their collections and generally undertaking unglamorous work such as the numbering of documents and stocktaking. Nowhere are these activities comprehended by the various quasi-governmental archive bodies. It's as if they think archives become available as if by magic or appear on open access book shelves like library books. Until this message gets across, there can be no proper assessment of local government archive services.

Local government archive services are about two things: logistics and direct public service, the latter not a statutory one at that. Our condition in local government won't improve until logistical support is matched to service delivery expectations. MLA is concerned with service delivery expectations with no concern for the vast logistical effort behind the scenes.

Logistical impact: a typical busy archives searchroom, Glasgow University Archives

The message is: archives are different. They aren't like libraries where the stock is more easily catalogued and kept in public areas on open access and in which the staff also work in the reading rooms among the public, or museums where exhibits and objects are displayed in locked cabinets or galleries which the public can casually tour without formality or logistical impact on staff. In archive offices however, the public are not walk-through tourists or browsers, they camp for several hours at a time or all day and place great demands on the retrieval and supervisory staff including archivists.

And yet if you were to compare the bare public visitor statistics for museums, libraries and archives, it would seem museums and libraries are leagues ahead. It is these figures MLA and policy makers see, not the logistics. Archives is labour intensive at the front-end in servicing public demand with a high staff to public ratio, hour on hour. I might add each local authority archive service probably has a bigger stock than its cousin library service's total library stock, much of which of course repeats from library to library.

We thanked Garth for his views.

In the meantime SQA keeps a watching brief on CPA.

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