Saturday, December 03, 2005

Designation Status

SQA has blogged the issue of Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) Designation Status previously, if only tangentially (see Are you ready for imminent attack?)

Designation Status for archival collections (and libraries) was introduced in 2004 having previously been offered only to museums in keeping with MLA's predecessor body the Museums and Galleries Commission. While SQA welcomes this egalitarian extension of the concept of high quality collections as applying to archives and recognises the potential benefits ranging from better status, funding and Blue Shield status, the operation of MLA's Designation Scheme leaves much to be desired. We are reminded of the early stages of the Heritage Lottery Fund to which many archivists applied only to be bogged down by unreasonable and inexpert demands from HLF's fledgling assessors.

Initial reactions to the results of the first two batches of applications from failed applicant county record offices range from disappointed to angry.

An exciting photograph from the archives of the Acme Rock Crushing Co., Bloggsbridge, Loamshire (Loamshire RO (ISAD (G) ref. 57a U392/P210))

Among those fuming about the MLA Designation Panel's decision is Garth Bland, county archivist of Loamshire. His collections are widely regarded as the jewels of that part of England and range from the parish and diocesan records of the diocese of Bloggsbridge to the Acme Rock Crushing Co. of Bloggsbridge. The former include the internationally important Codex Bloggsbrigiensis, several thousand medieval charters and the records of the notorious court case of 1851 between the neighbouring dioceses of Bloggsbridge and Grimswick which influenced Trollope's famous satirical novel Cloisterbridge. The latter records are sought after the world over by historians of science researching the pioneering techniques of rock crushing developed by the Acme Company and have also been used in numerous US patent disputes.

The picture in neighbouring Upshire (Hyacinth Haugh-Peake, county archivist) is entirely different. Here, the finely honed skills and political correctness of her assistant archivist Jacinta Sprout-Davies, a former employee of the European Commission, achieved wonders despite their notoriously poor collections, leaking roof and the missing Diocese of Grimswick papers for their side in the notorious court case with the Diocese of Bloggsbridge in 1851. Whereas Garth's collections were not even designated in part, Hyacinth's collections were designated in their entirety.

One of the possible outcomes of this sorry tale is that if or when the forces of the European Union or bands of semi-nude armed women land in Britain, Hyacinth's collections are more likely to be afforded Blue Shield status than Garth's, whose collections can be flattened at will by warring forces or factions as happened in Kosovo.

The executive committee of SQA has held an emergency meeting to consider their response to MLA's recent rounds of designation. We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, principal spokesman for SQA, to comment.

Of course we are flabbergasted. The message received by unsuccessful applicant offices is that their bids failed on the grounds of their written submissions being inadequate, rather than their collections not meriting designation. What this says to me is that they have assessed the bids but not the collections so a weaker collection can achieve designation with a cleverer bid - a daft situation. On top of this the so-called experts make their decision without even visiting the applicant collections to assess the bids on the ground. I have always wondered how they could decide the merit of the application without visiting the applicant services - and it seems that they can't!

Eyebrows were raised a little too when we were informed Paul Brough, Historic Collections Manager for Cornwall County Council and former county archivist there was on the Designation Panel and that Cornwall Record Office had been successful in respect of an application on behalf of Cornwall Record Office's hard-rock mining industry records. This seems a mite unfair on other applicant county record offices whose staff were not present on the panel to state their own case or whose collections were not assessed on the ground by panel members, supposedly experts in their field, in person.

A further concern to SQA is the admission by regional archives development officers that the scheme does not lend itself to geographically significant collections, despite the fact that this is mentioned in the criteria. The criteria mention the criterion of geographical area several times e.g. assessments of quality relate to the intrinsic importance of the collection in relation to the subject area, geographic area or community it covers. Naturally, this unwritten policy militates against applications from English county record offices which hold voluminous collections of consistently high quality and of regional, national and international importance.

A page from the Codex Bloggsbrigiensis (Loamshire RO (ISAD (G) ref. 57a D/C/10))

My final comment is that as the result of this hit or miss exercise, which could otherwise have resulted in a rational programme of designation, we see an inconsistent approach whereby designation of such eccentric quasi-archival collections as the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University, whose web site is very uninformative as to the content of their collections, are designated and the complete rejection of collections such as those held by Loamshire Record Office. This is political correctness gone mad.

SQA will keep a watching brief.

Further reading

MLA designated archive collections

Yes, Sir Humphrey

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