Archive bodies unite to defend records from cuts

Initiative seeks sustainable ways to preserve collections. Matthew Reisz reports

August 5, 2010

Britain's university archives own everything from medieval court records to prime ministers' letters, with definitive collections including subjects like theatre companies, pressure groups and leading businesses.

Yet while essential for researchers, they are unlikely to escape the "deep cuts" that the Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable has warned are coming for higher education following the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn.

Against this backdrop, the National Archives has launched a range of linked initiatives to find ways of building a sustainable future.

As well as lobbying for the value of archives in the House of Lords, the organisation has joined forces with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to send a report, Archives for the 21st Century in Action, to vice-chancellors and leaders of local authorities to help senior archive professionals engage with funders. This was followed with regional events to "develop bigger, better and more sustainable services".

Oliver Morley, acting chief executive of National Archives, said archivists have to face up to the economic situation if their collections are to emerge intact. "We want to avoid short-sighted solutions and find ways of maintaining records in the ways researchers value," he said. Yet within a focus on sustainability and "preserving the records", Mr Morley said that some tough choices may be required in the name of cost-cutting.

One option is that pursued in Hull, where the archives of the city council and the university were merged in the Hull History Centre.

Judy Burg, university archivist, said the merger was an attractive option because "both sides wanted to build the reputation and educational attainment of the city".

But there were several challenges to overcome in the six-year process, including "learning about each others' collections and creating a joint service, where anyone can come in and ask for anything".

Mr Morley said there had been few mergers so far of different university archives, and as a result "that is still open ground".

But he added that "if universities decided to go down that route, (National Archives) could offer expertise on how to merge archives, how to store them and how to make them accessible - all the operational challenges of running a larger archive."

Another possible scenario is that archives will be required to generate a greater share of their running costs. Here again the National Archives are available to help.

"It took us four or five years to get digitisation right," said Mr Morley, "so we can draw on our experience. That can offer opportunities for revenue generation for some archives, although they need to keep a balance between what researchers and family historians need. Any money generated by digitisation should also be used to digitise less popular material."

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