Cinderellas arrive late at the ball

November 14, 1997

Brian Dyson appeals for longer-term funding of archive collections, until recently the poor relation in the library service, as they flower on the web

Information technology buffs have a habit of referring to their old documents and files as "archives". For those of us used to dealing with things on parchment, paper, or even tree bark (as is the case with some of the South-East Asian manuscripts held in my repository) this takes a bit of getting used to. It has also taken some time for most archivists to get to grips with the potential offered by automation, but we seem to have shot from the archival equivalent of the steam age to the space age almost within the span of a few years. There have been good, practical reasons for this delay. By definition, most archival and manuscript items are unique, and most rare books are, well, rare, so there has not been the potential for shared cataloguing and similar data that you find in academic and other libraries.

Those associated with the administration of archives, manuscripts and special book collections in most British university libraries will also know that if ever there was a Cinderella service, this was (and in many instances still is) it. The high and continuing costs associated with library automation have, if anything, exacerbated the situation for archives and special collections during the past couple of decades, as resources have inevitably been concentrated within libraries on those areas of highest student demand. There are honourable exceptions, of course, but I will not embarrass them by naming them here. The rest of us have usually had to manage over the years with minimal funding and staffing, to the extent that until relatively recently many collections - in some cases amounting to quite significant accumulations - were effectively in the care of at most one or two staff.

And then came the Follett report on academic libraries, which appeared in December 1993 and was followed less than a year later by the Specialised Research Collections in the Humanities initiative. The latter has been a very welcome shock to the system. To date, more than Pounds 45 million has been spent by the three higher education funding councils and the Department of Education, Northern Ireland in supporting such collections throughout the United Kingdom.

Has it been worth it? Well, yes but with qualifications. The benefits are easy to see. One cannot but be impressed by the scale and value for money of the projects described in Accessing our humanities collections: a guide to specialised collections for humanities researchers (, published this year by the Archives (NFF) Committee of the Joint Information Systems Committee, which has overall charge of the programme. This lists all the component projects currently or recently funded. And quite a range it is, too: non-formula funding (NFF) was provided on a non-recurring basis for some 146 projects in 48 institutions during 1994/95, and recurring funding for periods of up to four years has been given to more than 170 projects at 63 institutions from 1995/96. Funds were allocated on a competitive basis, and emphasis was placed on projects which would improve awareness of and access to collections, either by the provision of proper catalogues (ideally in electronic form), the conservation of previously unavailable material, the production of facsimiles, or improvements to basic reading room opening hours.

The collections have varied in age from medieval to contemporary, and valuable support has been given to, for example, the South Wales Coalfield Collection at the University of Wales, Swansea, the East Anglian Film Archive at the University of East Anglia, the cathedral archives at Durham University, and the John Hewitt Collection at the University of Ulster. One of the outstanding features of the programme to date has been the extent to which information about most of the collections has increasingly become available in electronic form via the World Wide Web. Indeed, a number of projects have been transformed since their inception by the rapid development of this medium. A good way of sampling the results is to check out the web pages maintained by the Historical Manuscripts Commission ( and by Simon Wilson at Liverpool University ( uksites.htm) which facilitate access to many of the NFF projects.

The information on the Web comes in several forms. At the macro level there are general guides to holdings in particular institutions. Probably the most detailed of these is HUMAD2 at Hull University ( lib/archives/), where the amount of detail provided for some of the larger and more significant collections runs to several thousand words of text. This system also increasingly provides access at the micro level to descriptions of individual documents or files - the sort of information traditionally located in finding tools known as calendars or catalogues. Searches can be made by subjects, key words, personal names, dates, and so on. Other good examples include sites maintained by Sussex, Durham, Southampton, and Dundee universities, reachable via the HMC or Liverpool URLs mentioned earlier.

But possibly the most exciting and revolutionary aspect of the programme has been the production by some of the projects of electronic or digitised representations of original documents. Given that many repositories contain hundreds of thousands, even millions of documents, it would seem unrealistic to expect that more than a fraction of them will ever be available in this format. The need for selectivity in this area is probably therefore greater than in any other, so it is right to concentrate initially on items of particular rarity or interest. One of the best examples to date is the Aberdeen Bestiary. The digitised version of this religious text which originated in England c.1200 includes full colour images of the original folios accompanied by explanatory notes, together with transcriptions and translations from the Latin original. The potential use of such images clearly goes beyond the researcher and into the lecture theatre or classroom ( best.html).

And what are the results, apart from archivists and special collections librarians sleeping more easily in their beds as cataloguing backlogs are reduced or held in check and public awareness of their collections is raised? There has already been a notable increase in professional standards, thanks to the discipline imposed by the use of computer systems, the requirement to adhere as far as possible to published British Standards in such areas as conservation, and the need to provide regular progress reports to an overseeing funding committee. Researchers receive better quality information, and the documents and books are better cared for.

Above all, perhaps, new or previously unknown or little used collections of primary research material are rapidly being made available as a result of intensive cataloguing projects funded by the programme. Consequently, knowledge of what is available is growing at an astounding rate within the academic community. Humanities researchers have an increasing amount of research material available to help them produce more books, articles and research papers. At the same time, physical access to collections is increasing as a result of the conservation programmes under way, and the extension of reading room opening hours made possible in many repositories by the additional staffing provided by the programme. These are real benefits for real researchers.

There is a downside, though. The wisdom of pouring sizeable sums of money into a previously starved area is not in doubt. However, as with starving animals, one might question the advisability of allocating it both suddenly and all at once, or at least within a very short time span. It would undoubtedly be nice to receive continuing funds after the current projects are completed, preferably in regular doses, as a means of sustaining a healthy body archivistic in the longer term.

Second, it could be argued that there has been an over-emphasis on project management. Projects naturally have a beginning, middle and end, and invariably produce "final" reports, with details of objectives met, what was achieved, and when and how the money was spent. This is quite right and proper given that we are talking, after all, about taxpayers' money. However, special collections do not disappear after special projects have been completed: they have continuing needs, and these things cost money.

A side effect of the projects since 1994 has been a small explosion in the number of short-term posts in what is a highly specialised field, particularly with regard to archivists and conservators. There is a serious danger that there will be a lot of mainly young, unemployed professionals in these areas as the projects come to an end over the next couple of years. Additionally, one can even envisage a malign skewing effect in which there is a developing over-emphasis on those high profile areas which are likely to attract funds, to the detriment of the less exciting mainstream collections and activities.

Non-humanities academics may well wonder what the fuss is about. Here we are, getting lots of money, and moaning about the fact that it is all coming at once and why can't we have some more? It should be remembered, however, that many of the collections contain items that have existed for hundreds of years. Is it right that their future should be determined by modern project management requirements?

And is it right in any case that the costs of supporting such valuable collections should be borne solely by the holding institutions? One of the conditions of the current programmes is that access to collections should be offered to academics from other institutions on the same terms as the home institution. This situation generally existed previously in any case, together with free access, in most cases, for members of the public. The Dearing report has re-affirmed the principle of regionally distributed research collections. This, and the Follett humanities projects, should be followed up by the continuation of the provision of central funds for special collections in university libraries.

British university libraries contain some of the finest special collections in the world, as is evident from what can now be gleaned from thousands of pages of web information. They deserve to have a secure long-term future.

Brian Dyson is archivist, University of Hull, writing in a personal capacity.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments