My presentation from yesterday’s Historic Libraries Forum on Hard Times looked in more detail at those hard times: why we are under threat. I then went on to offer key messages and top tips to librarians, based on my experiences at Bradford and insights from the Handbook and the new Unique and Distinctive work. Here’s the slides:
Worrying news from Camden, where the Camden New Journal highlights threats to close the Local Studies Archive.
I was particularly struck by the suggestion that this was in response to a questionnaire about the future of library services – 38% suggested that the archives could be sacrificed to make savings. Not living in Camden, I haven’t seen this particular questionnaire. I would however make two points about this sort of questionnaire – I’ve seen a few. They tend to be worded in a way that does not make the implications of cuts clear (I bet if you said that the priceless heritage of maps, photographs etc was to be in effect destroyed people would be less keen to sacrifice the archives), and often it isn’t even possible in the question structure to oppose cuts.
In general, I would argue that questionnaires are not the way to determine policy for a service like archives which has a value beyond the day to day needs and wishes of individuals and which requires continuity of care and expertise. Many of the important things the public sector does are not visible to everyone and might not appeal to individuals compared to services they personally use (I’m thinking of many of the services offered to disabled people, refugees, people with drug problems, and, in the library sector, mobile and other specialist services). Such services improve society as a whole. Public services should not be a beauty contest; they should be about need.
Mind you, I’m not defending everything local councils do (I work in Bradford – those who also work or live there will know what I am talking about). Nor do I think that every single branch library must always remain open. But I do think the closure of any archives service is a very serious matter for society as a whole. And, as I keep saying, in the context of council budgets, such services are pretty good value for money.
If, like me, you’re following the stories of cuts to archives, local studies and other special collections in UK local authorities, check out Action4Archives. The group, which includes historians, academics, and other archive users, began as a response to serious cuts at The National Archives, but are now campaigning to help other threatened archive services. I found their twitter account particularly useful today for updates about the Hammersmith and Fulham archive service. This is due, so we hear to close on 28 February, though the situation is changing fast: the latest news suggests that a merger of three services may take place.
Some happy news! Thanks to campaigns by Friends of Devon Archives and other concerned folk, Devon County Council has restored £100,000 to the budget for Devon Record Office. This has been all over twitter since Saturday, but I haven’t seen anything about it elsewhere.
A grim picture is beginning to emerge of the impact of local authority cuts on local studies and archives. From March, Hammersmith and Fulham Council are to suspend public access to the materials held in their Archives and Local History Centre.
The earliest reports I saw suggested that a chargeable remote service would be put in place instead. This will hurt access for anyone who can’t afford the charge, or who can’t pinpoint exactly what they want to know. But it’s worse than that. They are dispensing with archivists, and the chargeable searches will be done by volunteers. Report in the Fulham Chronicle – (note that the archives issue dominates the comments – people care).
How on earth can volunteers be expected to have the skills to offer such a service: the history of the area, the subjects covered, the wide range of sources and materials held including objects and rare books, issues around records management, customer care … And where will these volunteers come from? What’s in it for them? How will they be managed and the service be monitored and organised to make sure the complex laws that relate to archives and records are not broken?
It’s such a pity. For a saving of £70K, which won’t make much of a dent in other budgets, an area’s heritage will be taken away from its people and damaged forever. I’m personally sad because they have collections relating to William Morris and his circle! Depositors may remove their collections, the remaining materials may suffer neglect, and, if professional staff are ever employed again, they will face the difficult task of rebuilding care and services.
There’s more, alas:
Major staff cuts are proposed for Devon Record Office and in Oxfordshire, where services are merging. These will mean serious reductions in services. It’s encouraging to see that people in all these areas value free access to their heritage, and campaigns are springing up.
Updates on cuts and campaigns:
On Friday, Archives-nra, the UK archivists’ mailing list, contained some very worrying stories of proposed cuts to local authority archive services. As I know from my many contacts, these services are already operating with minimal funding, so this is serious.
The concern about these cuts is not only that services to people now will be damaged (offices may close, hours will certainly be cut, cataloguing backlogs will grow), but record-keeping will suffer. Now that most records are digital, benign neglect is not an option: if action is not taken early in their lifecycle, they will not survive for the future. The Archives & Records Association (UK and Ireland) is urging archivists to let them know about proposed changes or cuts to archives services in local authorities and other organisations.
I’ve had plenty of response to my original post about this issue. Now for a round-up of some practical stuff. I find twitter is the best way to keep in touch with cuts and campaigns. I’d follow @ukpling and @cilip_lsg for starters!
Here are some of the professional organisations which are monitoring proposed cuts to services. CILIP of course for the library side, including Local Studies Group, Rare Books and Special Collections Group, plus CILIP branches and home nations. For archives, the Archives and Records Association and the National Archives.
I’ve only talked about the UK so far, but services are under threat all over the world. Witness for example California, where a budget proposed last week would eliminate all state funding for public libraries.
I’ve been following the overwhelming response to recent announcements of cuts to public library services by local councils. Voices for the Library is a campaigning website that brings together many of the stories, maps the cuts, and offers advice. The reductions in library services are often deeper than the cuts to funding require, and hit areas that need services most, like remote rural areas and deprived areas in large cities.
Naturally, the debate has centred on closures of branch libraries, and books/reading, as these are the most visible cuts and best-known services. Public library services have more to offer though, as librarians and others have been pointing out during the debate. Outreach, community information, internet access for all, IT support, e-books, remote access to reference sources, neutral non-commercial public spaces …
As far as I can tell, the historic collections held by public libraries have not cropped up in the debate. Every city centre library I’ve encountered has some kind of historic collection, as do some branch libraries. Local Studies services must be threatened by the scale of the cuts, though hopefully the popularity of these services, their visibility, their clear local mission and links with archives and museums may help. Other historic collections may be even more at risk. Staff working with Special Collections in public libraries already have much to contend against, made worse by the serious reductions in professional posts in recent years. Staff may not have the relevant expertise, or be supported in seeking it. Other problems include the short-termism driven by changes in council control, the one-size-fits-all marketing approach which means so many local authority websites do not do justice to historic collections, and the risk of benign neglect, or even being sold.
Britain’s public libraries have a wonderful history of enabling anyone to explore information and culture. The furore about the closures suggests that people still value what they have to offer. Historic collections are part of the story too, and offer real measurable benefits. Like historic buildings, they are part of a region’s heritage, what makes it special and distinctive, real, textured, not a clone-town.