Our archives need your help

By Jon Bauckham, 11 February 2015 - 2:59pm

With budget cuts continuing to put archive services at risk of closure, Alan Crosby argues that Friends organisations are now needed more than ever before

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineWednesday 11 February 2015
Alan Crosby
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Highland Archive and Registration Centre, Inverness

Budget cuts have hit archive services nationwide (Credit: Alamy)

Just recently, I’ve become the chair of the Friends of Lancashire Archives again. It’s a scary thought that I was, in fact, the first chair of the organisation when it was set up back in 1986 (although, of course, I was very young at the time... not much more than a child!)

Long ago in the late 1980s there were relatively few Friends’ organisations, particularly for smaller local institutions, but the then county archivist was very worried about the possible impact of local government reform and the damage that it might have upon archive services. He wanted a body composed mainly of users of the county record office, who could lobby councillors and MPs, galvanise public support, and act as a voice for local, family and academic historians with a vested interest in securing the future of the archive service.

The reorganisation of local government in Lancashire did happen, but it was much less far-reaching than had been feared. Although the serious threat was lifted, the Friends group has continued and since the late 1980s it supported the record office, helping to raise money for new equipment, paying for brown ‘tourist destination’ signs pointing the way to the archives, and much else besides.

Now, though, there is a real urgency about the work of organisations such as this. In Lancashire we’ve just had to raise almost £100,000 to prevent one of the key collections from being sold and perhaps broken up and sent abroad. In the good old days the county council would have been able to put a significant amount of money into this rescue operation, but today they have no money whatsoever – savage budget cuts mean that there isn’t that luxury. It won’t get any better, as the cuts so far have been nothing compared with what is due in 2015-18, and the archive service here, as in almost every other local authority in Britain, faces a dire situation.

I recently attended a presentation given by a senior member of staff at The National Archives, who warned that in some areas of the country there will be no money at all for archive services by 2020. Several people present lamented the fact quite a few new archive centres have been opened in recent years but, without exception, they now have cruel decisions to make. Budget cuts mean that they can no longer staff the building, provide the service, or fulfil the purpose for which they were intended. The result is familiar: ever shorter opening hours, closure on more days of the week and abandoning of elements of the service altogether.

“Digitise it all!” some say, without realising the huge costs in time and money that digitisation involves, and without recognising that in most record offices the proportion of material that can realistically be digitised in, say, the next 10 years is still only a minority of the archive holdings. In the past 18 months we’ve seen threats to a number of smaller archive services, and it’s likely that the trend will continue. But the insidious changes are just as bad – chopping the hours here, closing on Mondays there, imposing charges for a formerly free service, requiring advance booking of documents so you can’t just turn up and explore.

So Friends groups are needed, and it’s striking how, over the last decade as these fears and concerns have grown, such organisations have multiplied. We need to fight, to speak out loudly against the shortsightedness which downgrades and demeans these wonderful archive (and library, and museum) services, suggesting that they are luxuries and so could and should be trimmed, chopped and pruned.

We owe it to posterity – to future generations – to preserve, protect and cherish these priceless and irreplaceable assets, and we owe it to ourselves to recognise that the ability to research and discover the past is not trivial or unimportant, but is fundamental to our awareness of who we are and what society is.
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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