Last week’s first part of this thread got a big response and clearly struck some chords with people. I wrote then that I intended to use this week’s post to provide my ‘top five’ of UK non-national repositories, i.e. county record offices and the like; at the last count, I think I’ve now visited over forty of them. But as I mulled it over, I realised that I no longer had a top five. (Apologies in advance: grumpy old man / ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ rant follows.) During the early years of my research, several record offices were in stunning locations. For example, Carlisle, Lincoln and Haverfordwest were in castles – to be exact, old gaols within castles – while Worcester was in a converted medieval church. But over the years, more and more archives have decamped to purpose-built new buildings, most of which resemble soulless sheds on industrial estates (and in some cases, are soulless sheds on industrial estates). It’s easy to see why this has been the case: new buildings will provide much better preservation conditions for the documents and usually better, if less characterful, working spaces for readers. But unfortunately this move out of town has had the same effect as that of out-of-town shopping malls: when you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all, and one wonders how on earth elderly people without cars can easily access some of these new repositories. As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s still one local archive which knocks spots off the rest when it comes to location and character: step forward, Gwynedd Archives at Caernarfon, which I first mentioned in this blog a few months ago. The interior is dark, a bit cramped and eccentrically laid out, but the darkness is caused by it being north-facing, and the view to the north is of the quayside immediately outside the office, then of the Victorian dock (now a marina), then the Menai Straits and Anglesey beyond. Bliss.
So rather than focusing on individual locations, which would inevitably become my impressions of the towns and cities rather than the record offices, I thought I’d look instead at my own set of gripes about local archives in Britain. Any archivists reading this may wish to look away now.
- Cameras – One reader (you know who you are) responded to last week’s post by rightly denouncing the British Library’s perverse camera ban. Now, the BL is one thing, and has always been a law unto itself when it comes to implementing policies that are beyond human ken, but quite another set of criteria apply to, say, Blandshire Record Office. I really cannot see any justification in this day and age for not permitting the use of digital cameras, given how much time this saves readers. Arguments suggesting that their use somehow affects the preservation of the documents are surely just barking: the idea that cameras destroyed whatever they were being point at, or captured the souls of the subjects in the picture, were conclusively debunked in the early days of the medium. Moreover, if you have a digital record of a document you’re unlikely to need to order it up again – not so if you need to spend about three days transcribing it or if you need to come back to it at some future point, so surely the use of digital cameras can only be good for the long-term preservation of archives. One Welsh archivist suggested to me that small offices like hers need the income from photocopying, but I really don’t see how that income stacks up against the amount of time staff spend photocopying documents when they could be doing other things (like…umm…helping readers). Besides, surely a reasonable daily charge for a camera permit – say, £5 – might even bring in a larger income than photocopying? (I won’t get into the question of photocopying charges here, given my rant about the National Maritime Museum last week, but some offices have charges that make train fares look reasonable.)
- Opening hours – Even if they’re a result of cutbacks, I don’t particularly have a problem with offices being closed on one weekday. I do have a problem with [a] offices that don’t have, say, one late opening per week or one Saturday opening a month (you’re not 1950s banks, for heaven’s sake, so have opening times that mean people with day jobs can actually get to you every now and again) [b] offices that shut for an hour at lunchtime. As far as the latter goes, ‘having too few staff’ is never an acceptable excuse, just as it isn’t in a restaurant. If you have enough staff to open the place at all, presumably you have enough staff to organise a shift system for lunch; and at the end of the day, mes amis, this isn’t France.
- Readers’ tickets – There’s a perfectly good national system, the CARN ticket, so why oh why do some offices decide they’re too good for it and issue their own cards instead? And why do some offices have subtly different regulations for acceptable ID, so that some accept passports and driving licences as two separate forms and others don’t? (The really idiotic regulation is the insistence on producing a utility bill, especially if all of one’s utility bills are addressed to one’s ‘significant other’…) So a big hurrah for those few remaining record offices that don’t actually demand ID at all and are happy just to let readers sign in!
- Laptops – I still go to record offices where the appearance of my laptop prompts a reaction very much like a H M Bateman cartoon. Is it really so difficult to arrange a few desks to be adjacent to power sockets? (There are people who will install more of the latter at reasonable rates if you need them; they’re called ‘electricians’.) And is wi-fi really too much to ask for? Why, you could even charge a reasonable daily rate for that, too, thus further offsetting the loss of photocopying income…
- Chat – When I first started doing proper historical research, in my local library when I was in my teens, the dragon-like librarian ferociously implemented the ‘silence’ rule. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s still what I expect in libraries and archives; but evidently there was some obscure clause in the Human Rights Act which states that telling people to shut up infringes their human right to babble inanely. Mind you, it’s one thing for record office staff not to tell the gaggle of septuagenarian gossipers in the corner to keep quiet; it’s quite another when the record office staff themselves are the worst offenders, talking loudly amongst themselves for much of the day.
- Document Production – Say, gentle reader, that you wish to look at a folder which contains, perhaps, fifty individual letters. Which is likely to be better for your blood pressure: the kindly archivist who hands you the entire folder and allows you to browse through them at your leisure, or the jobsworth who says ‘our regulations say we can only issue one document at a time’ and thus forces you to come up for one letter, spend thirty seconds scanning it for anything of relevance, then taking it back, then repeating the process ad nauseam… (At the other end of the scale was my experience at the excellent Dundee City Archives, where they produced a large tin trunk and allowed me to sit on the floor for hours on end, happily sifting through the contents.) As for those archives which insist on weighing documents on production and return – DON’T BE SILLY.
Before I’m assailed by hordes of enraged archivists, let me end by saying that the vast majority of my experiences in UK archives have been very positive ones – of exciting discoveries and of really helpful staff who’ve sometimes gone more than the extra mile to assist. And I’d hate it if we ever got to a situation where we had a nationally-organised archival system with every record office being run in exactly the same way; individual local quirks are often endearing and make the whole experience more enjoyable. But the one area where I’d definitely like to see uniformity across the country is in permitting the use of cameras. Frankly, ever since more and more institutions have started to permit them, the arguments against permitting them in others have rung increasingly hollow. King Cnut proved that he couldn’t turn back the tide, and neither can those repositories which still hold out against cameras.
It always amazes me that these places seem to make up these ludicrous rules in their own little bubbles, with seemingly no attempt to make comparisons with best practice elsewhere. I’ve experienced several occasions where record office staff have seemed genuinely surprised that I’ve been to other institutions and am making comparisons between them!
Worst rules for use of a camera I’ve come across, was at Essex Record Office. Fill in form, pay money, put camera in locker. To photograph a document – get permission, take camera out of locker, take photo in view of staff, replace camera in locker. I didn’t bother!