‘Historical Vandalism’ as more Archive Services Come Under Threat

In recent weeks there has been unwelcome news for archives users countrywide with the announcement of a spate of council budget proposals and public consultations about services in the face of swingeing funding cuts.

These are some of the recent ones:

  • Surrey County Council’s total budget for Cultural Services 2019-20 may be more than halved from £8.7 million to £4 million. The Heritage Service’s consultation, which closes on 4 January 2019 (am I cynical about the timing of this?) can be found here. The response from The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), which perfectly sums up the concerns, is here.
  • It’s a similar tale of woe in Worcestershire. In what is described as an act of ‘historical vandalism’ the council cabinet this month approved a 2019-20 draft budget which more than halves the funding for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service from £700,000 to £295,000. The Worcester News has more details, as does Who Do You Think You Are? magazine.
  • Kent Libraries, Registration and Archives Service are running a consultation on their draft strategy for 2019-2022. This closes on 29 January 2019.
  • In summer 2017 there was a huge public outcry about the reduced free hours and proposed charges at Northampton Archives. That change was shelved, but radical cuts to services across the board are still on the cards for the financially struggling Northamptonshire Council.
  • East Sussex County Council’s August 2018 announcement that it’s overall services and functions would be cut back to the statutory minimum provision. This was further clarified in the Core Offer document of 13 November 2018 to be considered by the Council Cabinet. For Archives and Records it stated:

We will:
• manage the records which we are required to keep by law. We will meet our basic statutory duties as a Place of Deposit for public records at The Keep including a basic level of public access to those records.
The proposed change from our current offer is that:
• We will not be able to provide the same level of support to customers of The Keep when requesting archive material, both in person and online and we will not provide an educational outreach offer.

And who knows how many more archives service changes are under discussion in councils up and down the country? It looks, for example, as if West Yorkshire Archives are conducting a review of opening hours. Their website includes opening hours for the five offices (Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.) All but Bradford have days on which they are temporarily closed – and these temporary closures have been in force for some time. The Wakefield West Yorkshire History Centre, states with regard to Saturday opening hours:

We are reviewing our opening hours and as a result we are not currently able to offer Saturday appointments. We are aiming to resume normal service as soon as we can.

If anyone does have any other examples of reduced archives services and closures please let me know so I can update this list.

The future facing archives and heritage services, ironically some of which are in new flagship buildings, is an insidious creep of reduced opening hours and closures, alongside staff cuts with a resulting irreplaceable loss of expertise.

The_Hive_-_Worcester_(27316994562)

The Hive, home of Worcestershire County archives, which opened in 2012 – Photo by Esther Westerveld from Haarlemmermeer, Nederland – The Hive – Worcester, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74295190

I’m not going to get into the politics behind these cuts. And I’m sure we can all point to examples of huge wastes of public money which could have been far better spent. But the wholesale demolition of swathes of archive, library and museum services, largely (but not wholly) driven by almost a decade of destructive reduction in central government funding to local authorities, is undoubtedly a retrograde cultural and educational step.

I recognise heritage is an easy target when compared with other essential council services. And these too are under severe pressure and struggling to cope with funding pressures with an immediate hard impact on people, particularly the vulnerable. Impossible choices and trade-offs are being made.

However community-wide history, heritage, knowledge and learning has a far more nuanced impact than front-line services. It is these “softer” services which mark of a progressive, developed and civilised society. And once we get rid of the professional cadre of staff with their unique skills, and reduce access to our history and heritage, it will be very difficult to ever recapture it.

Reducing access to archives, and libraries, results in the lack of incentive for those who wish to deposit records and documents. It so acts as a broader community barrier to accessing knowledge and learning, reducing the chance for many to view, discover and interpret original documents and perhaps reveal new insights into past generations. Ultimately this leads to an overall depletion of heritage and a diminution of education and skills locally. And the brunt of these consequences particularly impact on the opportunities of all but the very rich.

And no. Not all is online. Neither will it ever be.

Updates

  • Suffolk County Council have held a consultation (now ended) to close Lowestoft Record Office, based in the library, and relocate the collections to Ipswich. With thanks to Bob Collis, Chair of Save Our Record Office (SORO), for this information. More details are available in comments section for this blog post.
  • In January 2019 it was revealed Norfolk County Council have proposals seeing Norfolk Record Office reducing its opening days from five to four a week, and those four days will see shorter opening times.
  • An enquiry in early January 2019 to West Yorkshire Archives (Kirklees) to access a specific collection held off site met with a response that due to staffing shortages this was not accessible until 4 February 2019 unless urgent. This collection is not available online.
  • There is an update to the Worcester Archives situation. Full details are in The Worcester News article of 26 January 2019, and in their blog of 1 February 2019. To summarise, the funding reduction looks like being only £250,000 out of the £700,000 budget – not the £405,000 initially mooted. This after a reduction in 2010 when the budget was £1.2 million. The final budget will be confirmed in February. The Friends of Worcestershire Archives have launched a petition against the cuts.

3 responses to “‘Historical Vandalism’ as more Archive Services Come Under Threat

    • Thanks. I’ve just been reading about it. Looks like the consultation about future services there closed on 2 November. Is there any indication of any further announcement? https://www.suffolkarchives.co.uk/about-suffolk-archives/future-record-office-service-in-lowestoft/
      Jane

      • Hi Jane: The “consultation” was a vicarious online box-ticking exercise with loaded questions and had almost as many questions about gender and sexuality etc as it did about archive services in Suffolk. We (SORO) have been fighting the SCC decision ever since the announcement on LRO came on 10 Jan this yr. They now describe it as a “transformation” or “revitalisation” but the reality of the situation is that the staff will be out of work and all our local strongroom contents will go to “The Hold” in Ipswich, where plans are already being made to commercially exploit it in exhibitions. Despite massive opposition including a 7,000+ signature petition and protests from two Town councils and an MP, they are pressing on as if nothing had happened. If this goes ahead no-one in this area will ever trust the Council or SRO with archives ever again. Yrs, Bob Collis Chair SORO

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