Archives state sparks fears

November 21, 1997

THE ROYAL Commission on Historical Manuscripts has voiced deep concern about the condition of heritage documents held by five "well established" universities.

In its 1996/97 annual review, the commission says it inspected the universities on a voluntary basis to see if their repositories met standards of maintenance and management laid down by its Standard for Record Repositories. It was "disappointed" that none of those inspected during the year was found immediately suitable for HMC approval.

The review says universities have "recently enjoyed something of a boom in funding" - a reference to money from the four funding councils for cataloguing special research material in the humanities.

But the commission complains that "much of this money has been spent on short-term cataloguing, conservation or information technology projects, while major shortcomings in terms of accommodation ... have not been addressed".

The commission has brought its concerns to the attention of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. A CVCP spokesman says there is now an appreciation that "standards of care for manuscripts and archives in the university sector may not in every case meet those looked for in the commission recognition scheme". The two bodies are working to achieve improvements where needed.

Christopher Kitching, the commission's secretary, declined to name the five universities inspected over 1996/97. "The visits were made in confidence. In most cases the problem is not having the accommodation for the material ... (or) not being able to control the storage condition, the temperature, humidity. There is also understaffing."

He says that in some cases the problems could be solved by "fine tuning", such as upgrading the air conditioning. But in others, "they need to start from square one" and fundamentally review their objective in holding archive material.

Michael Hannon, librarian at the University of Sheffield, says his institution is among the five that failed to gain HMC recognition during its round of inspections over 1996/97.

But Mr Hannon, who is chairman of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries' advisory panel on manuscripts, believes a recent Pounds 100,000 investment will enable approval to be gained from HMC.

Of the HMC's concerns he says: "They only inspect a small number of universities each year, and quite rightly they follow their standard to the letter. I think in most instances where approval is not gained, it is really just a matter of tweaking. I do not think the HMC's comments indicate we are on the tip of some catastrophe in managing repository universities."

Patricia Methven, of King's College London, is chair of a body set up by the funding councils to ensure that money for cataloguing and conservation of humanities research material is well spent. The scheme has been allocated Pounds 45 million from 1994/95 to 1998/99.

She echoes the HMC concerns and said that the general standard of housing for archive material in universities needs to be improved. "Some repositories are fine, many need modest improvement and some universities need to recognise the overriding importance of long-term strategy for finance and maintenance," Ms Methven says.

Dr Kitching says there are well over 100 university archive repositories in Britain. Some deal only with administrative records, but most old institutions have holdings intended for research by staff, students and scholars nationally.

The opportunity to gain HMC recognition for repositories was extended to universities in 1994/95.

In 1995/96 those winning approval were Southampton University library, Warwick University's Modern Records Centre and Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.

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