Protests over ‘dangerous precedent’ of access charges at Northamptonshire Archives

By Rosemary Collins, 31 July 2017 - 1:36pm

The archive service has announced plans to cut visiting hours and charge researchers £31.50 an hour for access

Researchers are concerned the move will limit access to archives (Credit: Michael Blann)

Northamptonshire Archives has announced plans to cut free visiting hours and charge £31.50 for access at other times.

Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service announced on its Facebook page last week that from 21 August, the archives will only be free to access from 9am-1pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and 9am-4pm on the first Saturday of the month from April to October.

However, researchers can book appointments to view the archives for a fee of £31.50 an hour on 10am-1pm and 2pm-4pm on Monday and Friday and 2pm-4pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The decision has prompted concern among many family historians and other researchers, leading to an online petition to the council that has already received 2,108 signatures.

Dr Mary Ann Lund, a lecturer in Renaissance English Literature at the University of Leicester who started the petition, told WDYTYA? Magazine the decision had “far-reaching implications for public repository access across the country”.

“It may well set a dangerous precedent," she added.

Dr Lund described Northamptonshire Archives as “internationally important”, saying that she had used many of the documents in her own research, including the manuscript of a sermon preached by the Renaissance poet and cleric John Donne at the funeral of Sir William Cockayne, a wealthy merchant.

In a subsequent statement on its Facebook page, Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service attributed the changes to “limited and reducing local government resources”.

“This is a bold step in difficult times and we seek your support as we work to ensure that researchers can enjoy and learn from our rich collections now and into the future,” it said.

The service added that customers most wanted digital access to archives, saying that “limited staff resources” would be “redirected to the work of digitisation and developing online access to archives”.

However, genealogist Chris Paton told WDYTYA? Magazine that this was “simply pie in the sky thinking”.

“Often the very records genealogists need to consult are those that have no economic case for digitisation,” he said.

“There appears to have been no consultation with its user base, and no evidence published making the case for what the archive is trying to achieve.”

John Chambers, chief executive of the Archives and Records Association (ARA), said that the ARA had not been aware of the proposals in advance and had not been able to take pre-emptive action.

“There are bound to be questions about the sustainability of the archive service in Northamptonshire, its status as an official Place of Deposit and the county’s ability to retain custody of part of its local heritage over the long term," he said.

UPDATE: 1 August

Sharon Grant, chair of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), has written to Cllr Heather Smith, leader of Northamptonshire County Council, urging the council to reconsider the decision.

The letter reads: “Our members are users of county records offices and other local (and national) archives, and we have noted over recent times the increasing trend for public access to archive services to be cut without any regard to the practical impact on service users that are researchers, both professional and non professional.

“We acknowledge that these are challenging times for all local authorities but these changes have come as a complete surprise.

“They have not been subject to any form of public consultation and no alternatives have been presented for public comment."

Grant also noted that the “drastic cuts” could “set a precedent to be followed by others”.

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