Monday, 28 August 2017

Archives - Top-Drawer or Bargain Basement?

Last week I rang a Record Office (an Accredited Archive) to check on their parish register holdings.  The registers have mostly been digitised for a subscription website but some appear to be missing and can't be accessed via the browse function.

Unfortunately my call was answered by a new member of staff who checked the online catalogue and announced that they did not hold the original registers before 1903 only the microfilm copies.  I know this to be incorrect and that she was looking in the wrong place but I didn't argue not wanting a confrontation.  In hindsight I should have insisted she check the paper catalogue.

Steady attrition of experience and knowledge


 What is most worrying is that this was not a new experience for me.  It is something I encounter more and more as I go around the country visiting Archives and Record Offices.  As the cuts bite ever deeper the more experienced staff leave to be replaced by those who (to put it politely) have a lot yet to learn.  Like those who witnessed the destruction of Palmyra and other ancient treasures we are witnessing the wanton destruction of years of archival experience and knowledge by those who do not value knowledge, history, heritage or culture and only seek to balance the books.

Libraries and Archives are fighting for their very existence now.  We may soon reach the point where regular users know more than trained staff.  How many times have you witnessed staff telling users something which you knew to be incorrect?  I know I have and have agonised as to whether to interfere, only to decide to keep my head down.  Those occasions now weigh heavily upon my conscience.

I am a representative on The National Archives User Advisory Group and a professional genealogist.  I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to do all that I can to ensure the future generations continue to have access to the records I have been privileged to enjoy.  In these days of increased digital access it seems as if Archives are delegating responsibility for opening up access to their collections to the commercial websites where the bottom line will inevitably be making enough money to break even and provide profit for their shareholders on the expenditures of digitisation - licensing, preparation, scannning and indexing.  BUT what price accuracy, context and completeness?

Online is not Forever

And online is not forever.  Commercial websites purchase a licence to use a dataset for a set number of years.  At the expiry of that term what then happens?

Websites come and go and are bought and sold on.  Family history is no longer a hobby but a product for sale.  Datasets continue to disappear completely, or move to other websites with the same ownership, and having to pay extra for a separate subscription to view records you viewed as part of your original one 6 months ago is becoming the norm.  Free databases become subscription websites or are taken over by them.  We have all seen this happen since the first exciting and wonderful 1901 census digitisation.

User attrition

If Archive staff misinform a user as to their holdings - not deliberately but through lack of staff training - then that is one user who won't visit.  If a hard-won new user, attracted by online or outreach exhibitions visits the Archive and the guidance given to them is inaccurate or misleading or they are left to flounder alone then that is another user lost. If Archives close their doors at weekends, reduce their opening hours or close at lunchtimes that is more potential users lost.

In these tough times where usage is measured mainly by footfall Archives are shooting themselves in the foot by reducing experienced staff and opening hours.

We know that cuts are inevitable.  Times are hard.  We may need to make a bunker from which to defend at all costs.  BUT at a time when family history is still lucrative and interest in local history seems to be growing what we need is to make Libraries and Archives easier to use for research.  Yes encouraging children on school visits is good - they are important for the future - but if there are no archives or libraries to speak of in 10 years time for them to visit then it is rather pointless generating an interest in a 10 year old isn't it?

Archives need to attract adults - adults who are new to research but are keen - who need help and experienced advice to guide them to the less easily accessed sources.  They are the ones who will pass on their love of research and how to do it to their children.

We need Archives to be welcoming and inclusive places for adults with Finding Aids prominently displayed, proper Signposting of Resources and lots of "how to" guides.  We need their websites to tell users what they actually want to know and not just point them to an incomplete online catalogue.

And most of all we need knowledgeable staff on the front line - the reception desk and phone. 

We want our Archives to be TOP DRAWER not Bargain Basement!


  1. Yes, yes, YES!! Jacqui, I totally agree with everything you say. Here in Queensland we have already reached the point where regular users know more about the records (or at least, many of the records) than trained staff. Some record series are very complex, and new staff don't receive anywhere near as much training as they did fifteen or twenty years ago. Like you, I have often 'agonised as to whether to interfere' when I hear a member of the public being given incorrect or incomplete information. If it involves records that I know very well, I sometimes have a discreet word to the visitor when they move to another part of the room. I get the impression that the Archives now take more notice of their social media stats than what's written on feedback forms in the search room. Sigh.

  2. I too totally agree.
    I was doing some research lasat Sunday and went to the Mersea Museum on Mersea Island. I mentioned what I was looking for. They found someone who had knowledge of my quest and was incredibly helpful, looking things up on the computer to give me as much info as possible. This information is not readily available online.
    This could not have been done by a person from elsewhere or too young or inexperienced to know how to find what I needed.
    It is imperative these archives are kept open and given funds to enable this.
    If as a country we can put £600m to host the commonwealth games I am sure we can invest 1% into our history!