UPDATE – The Battle of Northampton; or, Are You Carmarthenshire in Disguise?
This afternoon, Friday 4 August, Northamptonshire County Council has announced that, in the short term at least, it’s backing down over the woefully misconceived and crassly announced scheme described in my post below. You can find a link to the full statement, and some clarifying remarks, here. While this is clearly welcome, the long term prognosis remains uncertain, but at least the council is finally acknowledging the need to consult with its stakeholders, rather than using the school holidays to cynically try and push through a wholly unacceptable proposal with profound and worrying implications across the entire country. It’s also good to see that, as mentioned below, there’s now an active effort to form a Friends of the Archives group; if you want information on the latter, sign up here.
Anyway, on with what was apparently ‘social media misinformation’ 48 hours ago, but which is now ‘listening to the views of its regular users and supporters’…
An additional post this week, and a long one at that.
Regular readers will know that over the years, I’ve worked in many local archives around Great Britain, so naturally, I’ve developed something of an interest in how they’re run, and in their relative merits. More recently, I’ve taken a particular interest in the near-catastrophic situation that developed in the archives of my home county, Carmarthenshire, where the sheer ineptitude (and probably worse) of successive regimes led to their closure for several years following an outbreak of severe mould in the strongrooms, an eventuality which said regimes had been warned about many, many times (this blog passim, to paraphrase Private Eye). An incidental side-effect of this was that it prevented me from completing a book I’d been working on for many years, and turned me into an unlikely Freedom of Information warrior and crusading blogger in an attempt to get to the distinctly unsavoury truth of the matter. Surely, then, no local council could run its archive service even more ineptly?
Step up to the plate, Northamptonshire County Council, an authority that makes Carmarthenshire’s officials look like the Founding Fathers of the United States.
I’ve worked in the Northampton record office several times over the years, and found it to be an excellent working environment with helpful staff, so what I’m about to say certainly isn’t a criticism of them. However, in their infinite wisdom, their superiors have decided that from 21 August, the office will charge an eye-watering £31.50 an hour – that’s right, an hour – for visits on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons from 2-4pm, and all day on Mondays and Fridays. Yes, there is still free access, but this will now be available only on Tuesday-Thursday mornings, 9am-1pm, and on seven Saturdays in the year.
While I have no idea of the financial situation of Northamptonshire county council, I would respectfully contend that this scheme is wholly and demonstrably wrong, on several interconnected levels.
First, there is the principle of charging for access to archives at all. Many of these are, after all, public records, and thus have exactly the same legal status as the public records preserved at the National Archives in Kew – and imagine the outcry there’d be if it was ever proposed to charge for access to those. Many of those archives that are not public records, held in archives like Northamptonshire’s, are often those of institutions like schools, churches and, indeed, individual families: in other words, the collective history of the people of the county. Moreover, many of the documents will have been deposited, perhaps on loan, by individual contributors over many years. So does Northants CC propose to charge people to come and study what, in some cases, might actually be their own property? I see from the Facebook page of those campaigning against this move, of which more anon, that some who have deposited material in this archive are seriously considering moving their papers to alternatives that have better opening hours and, obviously, no charges; a direct parallel with what happened in Carmarthenshire, although there, the depositors in question were more concerned about the likelihood of their precious archives being destroyed by mould. Ultimately, there is no moral difference whatsoever between charging to access a record office and charging to access a library. But, of course, Northants CC’s policymakers know full well that far more people use the latter, and know what sort of outcry they’d face if they tried that; whereas they’ll presumably think that users of record offices are relatively few, and won’t be able to kick up such a fuss. If the experience in Carmarthenshire is anything to go by, little do they know how wrong they are.
Second, there’s the amount that Northamptonshire proposes to charge, which is simply extortionate. Even if one sets aside the overriding point of principle, which I certainly don’t intend to do, £31.50 a day might possibly be justifiable as a starting position in a negotiation which eventually leads to an agreement on maintaining no charging at all; £31.50 an hour is completely unjustifiable, and is presumably a figure plucked out of the air by a ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ who has probably never set foot in a record office in his life, or hers, if it’s a ‘Spreadsheet Philomena’. From long experience of working in many local record offices, though, I know that many of their regular users are pensioners, many of them on relatively limited means, for whom the proposed amount will be a very significant chunk of their week’s income. Many of the other regular users are students, for whom, of course, exactly the same applies. By applying this policy, therefore, Northamptonshire is effectively forcing entire groups of users, notably two of its largest, into the free slots, which together constitute less than 1.5 working days per week for a conscientious researcher. This means that individuals’ research, including many students’ work for postgraduate degrees in particular, will inevitably take much, much longer. As a result of all of this, the proposed policy means that Northamptonshire record office will essentially become exactly the same as a train company, with First Class for those who can afford it, and everybody else crammed into Cattle Class for a service that might possibly turn up three times a week. Does the county really want to become known as the Southern Rail of British archives?
Third, there is the complete ignorance of how researchers actually need to work, and utter contempt for those visiting the office from further afield than Northampton town itself, that this proposed policy reveals. It’s usually pretty well impossible to predict how long one needs to work in an archive; it’s perfectly possible to arrive at 9am, fully intending to put in only a free shift until 1, and find that for whatever reason – delayed deliveries, say, or following up leads provided by information discovered in the morning – one needs to overrun into the afternoon. (In which case, is the £31.50 for a whole hour or part thereof? If one completes one’s work by, say, 2.37, will the council charge a percentage of the fee, with some poor overworked archivist having to get out a calculator to work out the amount, or would it be free until 2.59, and then £31.50 for working on for just one more minute?) Then again, this policy is clearly discriminatory against those travelling any distance, including those in outlying, rural parts of Northamptonshire itself, who might be trying to get to the office by infrequent public transport and thus, perhaps, might not be physically able to get there until lunchtime, and will thus be hammered for over £60 for only two hours work (not to mention the cost of their transport in the first place). Charging only in the afternoons, and permitting free access only in the mornings, blatantly discriminates against those whose work commitments, childcare arrangements, or place of residence and available travel options, mean that they can only get to the record office during afternoons.
Now, I expect that if Northamptonshire county council deigns to respond to such criticisms at all, be they from myself or from the many others who have expressed outrage at this scheme, they will trot out the usual feeble old platitudes about effects of budget cuts imposed by central government, yada yada, the need to make difficult choices, yada yada, more people accessing digital resources, yada yada. (Oh, I see that they already have. How utterly predictable, apart from the closing statement about hoping that researchers will support them in this ‘bold step’, which is surely both beneath contempt and beyond parody. But oh, all right, since you ask… ‘So, turkey, exactly what is it about the bold step of Christmas that doesn’t appeal to you?’) None of this bears a moment’s scrutiny, partly because Northamptonshire has statutory obligations in relation to its archives, and that statutory role has a regulator, the National Archives, which can, if necessary, withdraw a local authority’s status as an approved place of deposit for public records – a scenario that came very, very close in Carmarthenshire’s case. I don’t know whether Northamptonshire CC has already cleared this outrageous proposal with the regulator; if it has, then shame on the latter, which runs the risk of opening the floodgates for other cash-strapped councils to take similar action. (I suspect that other local authorities will already be watching this situation like hawks to see if Northants manages to get this through.) Just in case nobody has done so already, it might be worth an interested party in the county submitting a FoI request for all correspondence between the regulator and Northamptonshire CC in, say, the last six months; from my own experience, it’s best to submit this to both parties, which should ensure that all elements of the correspondence are put into the public domain, and that one side or the other doesn’t mysteriously ‘mislay’ any items. Again from my own experience, submitting a FoI request to the National Archives is very easy, and they respond efficiently and in good time. You can obtain the details here. It’s also possible to ask for copies of the regular reports (every five years or so) made on the record office by an inspector from the National Archives; those for Carmarthenshire were particularly revealing of the council’s consistently appalling attitude, down to 2011 at any rate, to the record office building and its staff. As an example, here’s a link to the 2011 report.
(Of course, it would also tell us a great deal if such a FoI request demonstrated that there’s actually been no correspondence at all between Northants CC and the regulator over this matter.)
Perhaps the council thinks it can get away with this because it’s still providing a fig leaf of some free access, but its breathtakingly disingenuous claim that it’s actually increasing the office’s opening hours is demolished at once by the fact that it’s halving the free opening hours from 24 hours per week to 12, Saturdays aside (and Saturday hours themselves are being virtually halved). One wonders, though, if anybody, anybody at all, will actually turn up and fork out £31.50 an hour during the ‘charging’ sessions, other than, perhaps, the odd unfortunate pensioner travelling in on a bus from an outlying village that doesn’t reach Northampton until 1. I certainly won’t, and I can afford it; and if all researchers who can afford these extortionate fees boycott the charging slots, then where, exactly, will this policy stand? If people simply don’t go on Mondays, Fridays, and the other afternoons, the searchroom will presumably sometimes be overcrowded during the three free mornings a week when as many researchers as can physically squeeze into the space will be working flat out to complete what they need to do during their four free hours; the staff will be rushed off their feet by the demands from the extra bums on seats (assuming, of course, that there are enough seats for the bums to sit on anyway); the record office will effectively be closed to the public for nearly double the time it is now; and the county council will have raised little or no extra money, while significantly damaging its reputation throughout the UK’s heritage and archives communities. After all, ‘charge an outrageous amount for it and they will come’ is not usually considered to be a viable basis for a business plan, unless you’re the Royal Opera House.
On the whole, then, absolutely outstanding work, whichever Northants CC apparatchik dreamed up this disastrously misconceived policy.
There is hope, though, and minds can be changed, as my own experience with Carmarthenshire demonstrates. (For proof, see here.) There’s an online petition, and although I’m not usually a great fan of these, I’d strongly urge you to sign this one. There’s a new Facebook group to promote the issue, and I’d urge everybody concerned about the potential implications of this policy to join it, regardless of whether or not you’re directly connected to Northamptonshire; solidarity is all, as Bonhoeffer’s famous poem reminds us. There are few things that these sorts of institutions hate more than being ‘named and shamed’ on a national, and indeed an international, stage, and the FB page that I set up to ‘Save Carmarthenshire Archives’ had over 1,000 followers in a week, including comments and pledges of support from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Blitz social media via your own accounts, retweets, etc etc. Perhaps concerned parties might want to form a Friends of Northamptonshire Record Office group, as I can’t find any trace of one online (apologies if there is); the pre-existing Carmarthenshire Friends did absolutely fantastic work as a pressure group over the fate of their county archives, and are now being consulted frequently by the county council on the plans for the new record office. If possible, try to find one or two ‘celebrity supporters’ who’ll come out publicly in your support; we had a certain high-earning BBC newsreader on board, and his intervention was really helpful. The Northants campaigners already seem to be vigorously canvassing local councillors and local MPs – the simple law of averages means that some will have historical interests, and might be sympathetic (as proved to be the case in Carmarthenshire, where some influential councillors started backing us). Getting as much coverage as possible in the local press is a given – we cultivated direct, strong ties with a couple of reporters in particular. Something else that might be a case of grandmothers and eggs, perhaps, but familiarise yourselves with all relevant legislation that applies to archives – there’s a useful link here, although trust me, few things are more tedious than archive regulations! National bodies, like this one and this one, are already getting involved, and making their criticisms known, so if you’re connected with one, make sure it sticks its oar in. More and more excellent, perceptive blogs, such as this one and this one, are appearing online, so if you’re a fellow blogger, no matter where in the UK (or, indeed, the world) you’re based, please consider posting your support, your thoughts about Northants CC’s proposal, and, if applicable, how it will directly and adversely affect your own work. Finally, though, there’s another course of action that several of us took in the case of Carmarthenshire: write directly to the Chief Executive of the National Archives, who also bears the splendid historic title of Keeper of the Public Records. His address is Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper of the Public Records, the National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. When I wrote to him, I got a personally signed reply, and he was very helpful.
Of course, cynics might well wonder if this is all a Cunning Plan by Northamptonshire CC: either pitch something so outrageous that they hope campaigners will tug their forelocks gratefully in return for ‘concessions’ of, say, an extra free afternoon a week and a charge of ‘only’ £20 an hour, or else hope that by boycotting the charging sessions, researchers will provide them with the perfect excuse to give reduced footfall as the reason for slashing the office’s entire access time to just the three mornings a week. Who knows, perhaps they even secretly hope that by behaving so appallingly, the National Archives will, indeed, withdraw their place of deposit status, and thus save them the inconvenience and cost of providing a record office at all. However, the fact that the policy was publicly announced on 24 July (the Monday after Northamptonshire’s schools broke up, which must, of course, be a complete coincidence), with implementation just four weeks later, on 21 August, following no consultation, and at a time when many potential critics of the scheme may well be away on holiday, hardly suggests an organisation confident of its position; rather, and far from being a ‘bold step’, boldly going where no record office has gone before, the whole thing is reminiscent of the sort of dodgy government policy that’s slipped out quietly in a written answer on the day before Parliament’s summer recess, or else on ‘a good day to bury bad news’.
Machiavellian, then? Hardly; as the experience of Carmarthenshire proved, local authorities often have a surfeit of Baldricks and Field Marshal Haigs, but precious few Blackadders.
Whatever the upshot of all this, though, good luck, people of Northamptonshire, and those of us who campaigned – and won – over the Carmarthenshire debacle are with you all the way!