J D Davies

Repository Bingo, Part 2


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.

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.