Future Archives Policy: An opportunity not to be missed

The publicity blurb which accompanies the launch of Archives for the 21st century, a new consultation paper on the future of archives in England and Wales, says: 'In recent years the information world has changed beyond recognition and the creation and use of information have been revolutionised. People now expect information to be accessible online at all times and archives need to keep up with this pace of change'. As well as setting a Government supported vision of local archive services, the paper also aims to encourage anyone with an interest in the future of local and national publicly funded archives to have their say about what happens during the coming decades, if they want to 'ensure their continued survival'. Perhaps this quote from The National Archives website tells you just how serious the challenges facing our archives are and why local historians and their organisations should read the draft policy paper and then respond with their comments and suggestions.

Patsy Shaw handing over the records of Lenton Primary School to Nottinghamshire Archives

Among the many new accessions at Nottinghamshire Archives in 2008, were records and log books from Lenton Primary School, Nottingham, 1907–2007. On the right is Patsy Shaw, long-time Chair of the school's governors, handing boxes over to Barbara Sharp, Senior Archivist, at the back door to Nottinghamshire Archives.

The twenty page paper is well presented and easy to read, with five main sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of archives provision: 'The archives world today'; 'The true potential of publicly funded archives'; 'What is stopping publicly funded archives from reaching their potential?'; 'How do we achieve the vision?' and 'What needs to be done? Anyone who remembers reading Government Policy on Archives and Archives at the Millennium, both published ten years ago in 1999 (see LHM Nos. 76 & 77), will almost certainly experience a sense of déjà vu when reading Archives for the 21st century.

The conclusions of this latest archives consultation paper are much the same, except the case for 'fewer, bigger, better archive services' argument ten years ago was linked, in part, to the regionalisation agenda — which died a death at the hands of North East England voters in 2004. Now the argument is that regional services will be more efficient and it could mean 'two local authority services combining to provide a more effective service on one site'. I can see the case for this when it comes to preservation and conservation units, but when it comes to user access, the proposal is bad, bad, bad.

The paper contains five key recommendations:

  • Fewer, bigger, better ― working towards increased sustainability within the sector.
  • Strengthened leadership and a responsive, skilled, workforce.
  • Co-ordinated response to the growing challenge of managing digital information, so that it is accessible now and remains discoverable in the future.
  • Comprehensive online access for archive discovery through catalogues to digitised archive content by citizens at a time and place that suits them.
  • Active participation in cultural and learning partnerships promoting a sense of identity and place within the community.

Many of the arguments for these objectives are laudable, but some are spurious and some aspects of local archives are barely mentioned. Their governance, for example. I could go on, but it is better that as many local, family and community historians read the paper for themselves, then complete the badly constructed online questionnaire (as I have done) or, if you have the time, compile your own response. The closing date for feedback is 12 August 2009. If you choose to send your response, it should go to Liz Prior, c/o The National Archives, Kew, Surrey TW9 4DU, email:

The archives online questionnaire

Local History Online has completed the online questionnaire. Perhaps our responses will help you to think about the issues and to decide what you want to say about Archives for the 21st century. Each question comes in the form of a 'statement' with four answers to choose from: 'Yes', 'No', 'Don't know' or 'No opinion', plus a 'comments box'

In the longer term, there is significant value in moving towards fewer, bigger, better archive services for a more sustainable future.
As a service user and former Chair of a regional museum service, I am again confronted with a question which cannot simply be answered 'yes' or 'no'. I can see the advantages of creating larger preservation and conservation units, perhaps built on established and already successful units, where one archive service takes the lead in providing a service to other archives. I see little point in creating new regional services, unless the hidden agenda is that these will, at worst, be managed privately, or, slightly better, as 'social enterprises'. When it comes to the archives we visit as users, there is a strong case to be made that we need more — not fewer! In too many areas, especially counties, users are many miles away from their local archive and, in the absence of a car, many users find it difficult to reach their local archives. Logic says that local studies and archives should be brought together to create better networks of local archive services and when digitising records and collections, accessibility should take priority over usage (e.g. records relating to North Nottinghamshire, 40 miles from the county record office, should take priority over well used records which may be of limited interest away from Nottingham and its conurbation). I also challenge the assumption in the question that 'fewer' and 'bigger' can always be equated with 'better'.

Strengthened leadership and responsive skilled workforce is necessary to raise the profession's profile at both a national and local level.
This question assumes there is a problem with present levels of leadership and the archives workforce. I do not accept this assumption. Centralising/regionalising archive services will actually reduce the opportunities for archivists to develop these skills. Opportunities for more individuals to become 'skilled' archivists and conservationists will always be welcomed — and logic says that the care and management of local archives should always be a growing public service, always in need of more professional archives and support staff. If not, then existing services will have to be cut back and records culled.

Developing a co-ordinated response to managing digital information and for continued access in the future.
Digitisation is one of the biggest challenges facing archives. They need to keep up to date with ever changing data storage formats. Even after digitisation, there is every chance that access methods will need to be changed to keep up to date with changes in technology. I would give priority to records in relation to their distance from an archive.

Ensuring that there is comprehensive online access to archive catalogues and content.
This is a wonderful aim, but when resources are limited you have to do it in an orderly, prioritised manner. If you do this on a regional basis, you will almost certainly get different answers to those you will get if you ask the same question at a local or a county level. I think accessibility by those living furthest away from their local archive should be an important factor when deciding online access priorities.

Developing active participation in partnerships with other cultural and learning services.
Another simple question which attempts to address a complex issue. I have long been in favour of local studies and archives being treated as a unified service. Archives also exist in museums and there are hundreds of 'community archives' as well. All these need to be drawn together in some way, so that professional archivists can play a supporting and 'pastoral' role where and when this is needed. Then there are the links with education at all levels and local voluntary groups of all kinds who, for one reason or another, take an interest in local archives. Local and family history organisations are, increasingly, becoming course providers and employing professionals to take the lead in course and dayschool provision. All these things are examples of 'partnership' and need to be encouraged and developed — by location, both local, sub-regional (especially in and around our 'super' cities, where conurbations merge, such as with Derby and Nottingham), regionally and, of course, nationally. Then there are the 'interest' partnerships which focus on a topic or a service need, be it touring displays to joint promotional activities. The opportunities are endless.

Do you agree with the model of excellence for a publicly funded archive service outlined in the policy?
How can one not agree? It is a wonderful, catch all, statement about what 'high performing archiving services' should aim to archive. The trouble is that this is yet another question which ignores 'the elephants in the corner of the room'. To quote Nicholas Kingsley of The National Archives, who says in his article on archives self-assessment in RecordKeeping (April 2009), that 'There is still a huge disparity between the standards of service provision in the strongest and weakest authorities, which is correlated with the scale of operation of the service, so that larger services are more likely to be high-performing than smaller ones. Many services are still unable to actively develop their collections because of a lack of staff and storage capacity (and) most services still have large backlogs of uncatalogued or inadequately catalogued collections.' All this is code about the lack of money available to local archive services and, how, in the present national economic climate, it will get tougher before it gets better. There are two archive 'elephants': one is money and the other is privatisation. Both issues have been around for many years. I am totally opposed to privatisation, but I have come to the view that archives should be turned into public trusts/social enterprises, so that they can be freed from the clutches of indifferent politicians at all levels and to have capital and revenues streams which are protected from cuts/'savings'. The phrase 'balancing resources across (archive) responsibilities' is like a hidden time-bomb waiting to explode and change local archives services in ways quite contrary to those suggested by the question!

Other comments:
On page 3 of Archives for the 21st century it says: 'Publicly funded archive services have a vital role within the communities they serve, to contribute to local democracy and accountability, social policy, education, history and culture'. Fine words, but where is the 'community' or 'democracy' in the draft policy paper? There is no evidence, to the best of my knowledge, that creating 'fewer, bigger, better' units actually delivers what it claims. Co-operation and partnership working between existing archive services, with more (not fewer) public access points, democratically controlled and professionally managed, with real community input, offers, in my view, a more sustainable and exciting way forward for our archives in the 21st century. Not the easiest of choices and, perhaps, the hardest to realise — which probably explains why this archive policy paper does not address them. Like so much to do with present-day government and politics, too much of this archives policy paper is a mix of spin and gloss and I've read most of it before in the Government Policy on Archives', which was published by the Government in 1999. I was looking forward to this paper, but, overall, it offers little, if anything, new. I see it, ultimately, as a missed opportunity.

Robert Howard
for Local History Online.

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