Electronic access to Public Records Office plea

September 1, 1995

Historians are launching a campaign for easier access to the archives held by former imperial powers such as Britain.

The Public Record Office at Kew in London came in for particularly heavy criticism as historians of imperialism met to discuss archives in a session forming part of the 18th International Congress of Historical Sciences, which is meeting in Montreal, Canada this week.

A working group of participants in the session will draw up proposals for action by the International Committee on Historical Sciences. Theo Barker, president of ICSH and emeritus professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, said the committee would take up its concerns with national governments and international agencies such as Unesco.

The PRO came under fire from several speakers for the complication and inaccessibility of its cataloguing. Eunan O'Halpin of Dublin City University said that on one recent visit he had to work his way through an 1,800-page catalogue of items while Ishmael Rachid, a postgraduate student from McGill University, Montreal, said he had spent most of a recent one-week visit working out his way around a catalogue.

Dr O'Halpin said most of these problems could be addressed by making the PRO catalogue available electronically: "I'm not asking them to scan documents or anything elaborate - simply to provide electronic access to the catalogues." He said this would allow researchers to do basic preparatory work before going to London.

Dr O'Halpin compared the PRO's electronic aids unfavourably with the Irish National Archive, which is now offering a keyword search, and its US counterparts which provide a regular electronic update on recently declassified material. "My worry is that the PRO shows no sign at all of going in this direction."

Concern was also expressed about the charging policy from the India Office Archive, which bills researchers Pounds 3.90 plus VAT per page of microfilm. "This is costly even for established academics - what is a student with limited time and money supposed to do?" said Chandra Sundaram, a postgraduate student from McGill.

Sandra Guillaume of the Ontario archives said that archivists should not be blamed for such policies. "All over the world archives are coming under pressure from governments to make money and recover their costs," she said. Several speakers argued that archives including imperial records should be regarded as international rather than national patrimony.

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