Monthly Archives: July 2017

Access to Archives – What Price and at What Cost?

Would you pay £31.50 per hour to access your local archives? This is the charge Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Services announced would apply from 21 August 2017. This eye-watering price is just to visit the archives and conduct your own research, (although subsequent information is this charge may apparently include dedicated staff time, whatever that means). It is more than the hourly cost most researchers charge to undertake research on your behalf!

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Archive Storage: Image – Pixabay

There is still free access to their Archives Service. But, according to the notice issued, this is limited to Tuesday to Thursday, 9am-1pm; and the first Saturday each month between April to October, 9am-4pm (note their website now reduces the Saturday hours further to 9am-1pm). In total, over the year, free access therefore amounts to less than 13 hours per week. In contrast, the chargeable access applies Monday and Friday 10am-1pm and 2pm-4pm; and Tuesday to Thursday 2pm-4pm: a total of 16 hours per week.

Yes, money is tight in local Councils. Over the past few years we have seen many cut back the opening hours of Archives and County Record Offices. We have also witnessed a similar reduction in the opening hours of many libraries alongside the closure of others. Museums have suffered similar fates. Culture, history and learning beyond school years are well down the list of Council priorities.

Archives do have a variety of charges already from photocopying, scanning and printout fees to charges for taking personal digital photographs and hiring a circuit breaker to use electrical equipment. These can differ wildly.

For example Berkshire Record Office charges £1 per self-service image taken, with an annual cap of £100 per academic year providing you are a student undertaking an individual project leading towards a recognised qualification. So if you do not fall under that category it could prove very costly. Others have set fees for a specific time-period or number of visits – for example Devon Archives and Local Studies have daily, weekly, monthly and annual photographic licences ranging from £5 to £80.

But £31.50 per hour to simply access archives? This is a step too far. If it is implemented, will other County Record Offices and Archives follow suit? Will there be differential charges for personal research and research conducted by professionals, akin to the charges for commercial use of images? Will it be the beginning of the end of Archives Services as we know them?

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Is this the Death Knell for Free Archives Services?  Image – Pixabay

It is so wrong on so many levels.

  • The free opening hours are so limited. Not everyone who uses the archives lives local to them, so factor in the cost of overnight stays or alternatively having to pay the hourly fee in order to have a full day’s research. The free access hours are also likely to be oversubscribed;
  • It may put off philanthropic people donating valuable historical documents to archives. And will others withdraw their loaned documents and collections?
  • The costs for chargeable sessions, and lengthy waits for free slots, may ultimately drive down the numbers using archives. This in turn may lead the Council to justify further reduction in services on the basis of decreasing footfall. It could be a death knell for archive services as we know them;
  • In the medium to long term it will discourage interest in academic, family and local history research and the use of primary sources in conducting this research. There will be increased reliance on secondary published material or online family history subscription sites. These providers in turn may feel able to push their prices up accordingly. But only a fraction of available documents are online. The result will be a reduction in the quality and quantity of research;
  • Only those with the ability to pay these costs will continue with research in archives. Research will become increasingly elitist and the province of the few;
  • Personal family history research is a popular hobby which provides intellectual stimulation. At a time when increasing attention is focused on mental health and wellbeing and the correlation made between being mentally and physically inactive and Alzheimer’s, the policy of charging for access to archives and reducing opening times may be counter-productive in the long term;
  • The policy seems contrary to the standards of UK Archive Service Accreditation. According to The National Archives, this accreditation “defines good practice and agreed standards for archive services across the UK, thereby encouraging and supporting the development of the archive service” Access is one of the key markers under the ‘Stakeholders and their Experiences‘ heading. Amongst other things, to achieve this core accreditation element, the Archive has to demonstrate “good access to its collections for its whole community and can evidence high quality user experiences. It has a planned, customer-focused approach to improving access and engagement “. It also states that “the archive service demonstrates a good understanding of the needs and interests of the community it is established to serve. It has plans in place which detail the actions that are being taken to meet stakeholders’ access requirements and to continuously improve service provision“. It would be interesting to know the take of The National Archives on this Northamptonshire development. Incidentally Northamptonshire Archives is not amongst the list of those receiving accreditation.

Northamptonshire Archives made their announcement about the new charges to access archives on 24 July 2017. The outcry on social media has been sizeable and vocal. I particularly feel for the archives staff who will have borne the brunt of this public anger. The protests have been on such a scale that this afternoon, 26 July, they have said a further statement about the changes to opening hours will be made tomorrow. I hope that given the widespread condemnation of the move, the Council will do the decent thing, ditch the chargeable slots and revert to free public access.

27 July 2017 Update:

Northamptonshire County Council are unrepetentant about their decision to reduce free access hours to their Archives, and introduce exorbitant charges for research outside these limited free hours. They have issued the following in defence of the changes:

STATEMENT ON ARCHIVES AND HERITAGE SERVICE OPENING HOURS

The County Council is responsible for making sure that limited and reducing local government resources are used as effectively as possible. In the current financial climate, it has no option but to look at how best to remodel service delivery with reduced budgets.

The Archives Service changes to opening hours that will be implemented from 21 August show a commitment to maintaining free public access to archives. The service will continue to be free for on-site visitors from 9am to 1pm Tuesday to Thursday and one Saturday morning each month.

Customers have said that they most need and want online access to resources; numbers visiting the service in person have fallen dramatically in the past two years. This has been taken into account in this revision to opening hours and the intention is that outside the core opening hours, the service’s limited staff resources will be redirected to the work of digitisation and developing on-line access to archives.

In order to mitigate the impact on research of the changes, the service has in fact extended the times during which people can choose to visit. These additional hours are chargeable but are offered in order to support researchers and not otherwise.

This is a bold step in difficult times and we seek your support as we work to ensure that researchers can enjoy and learn from our rich collections now and into the future.

Their decision misses the point totally. They are narrowing access to archives for the majority. Who can afford these charges? How is this encouraging use of archives? Note the worrying digitisation and online access argument, which fails to recognise and understand the realities that not everything is/will be online. It also fundamentally ignores the value of archivists. Also equally worrying is the footfall defence – is this going to be trotted out, not too many years down the line, when the inevitable consequences of these changes kick in?

I would urge everyone reading this to sign the petition to Northampton County Council about these charges at https://www.change.org/p/northamptonshire-county-council-northamptonshire-county-council-don-t-charge-for-visiting-archives

4 August 2017 Update:

This is the latest statement by Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service, released today on their Facebook page.

Northamptonshire County Council has reviewed its decision to change opening hours at its archives and heritage service after listening to the views of its regular users and supporters. 

The archives service will now be open for free access on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm and the first Saturday in each month, 9am to 1pm.

In light of financial pressures and reducing visitor numbers, there will be a review of the service ahead of the next financial year as part of the budget setting process and this will include a full consultation around any proposed changes.   

In 2016, the service was visited by a total of 3,500 researchers, a drop of 50 per cent compared with 2006.  

County council cabinet member for public protection, strategic infrastructure and economic growth Cllr André Gonzalez de Savage said: “Having listened to the views of our service users here in Northamptonshire and across the UK, a decision has been made to reconsider the proposed changes to opening hours. 

“However, given our significant financial challenges, changes to customer behaviour and a growth in online enquiries, we need to consider how best to use our limited resources and will be reviewing the service in the coming months as part of the annual budget process.

“As part of this there will be a full public consultation in which service users will be able to provide their feedback ahead of any changes being implemented.”

They further clarified:

Today’s press release details the hours for free access to the search room, index room and to original documents as follows: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm and the first Saturday in each month, 9am to 1pm.

We would like to clarify that the option to pay for research room time outside of these hours will not be offered. Researchers can continue to book 1-2-1 time with our Research Assistant during the times we are otherwise closed, as has always been the case. It is this service that is charged at £31.50 per hour. The only change to our current arrangements is that the search room will be closed between 1pm and 2pm, though the public tea area and toilets will remain open.

Whilst it is welcome news that free access now applies to three full days and a half day every first Saturday of the month, it clearly is not the end of the matter. The Council will be reviewing the service and now have committed to a full public consultation in advance of any changes. So, although safe in the immediate months, the threat of reduced hours and very limited free access still stands. I suspect this is far from being the end of the matter. And it begs the question why did the Council attempt to by-pass any consultation process this summer? 

Links to Other Blogs/Posts about Northamptonshire Charges

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Will Some Kind Hand in a Foreign Land Place a Flower on my Son’s Grave

Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

I’m back from my latest visit to the Western Front. Yet again I’m left with a sense of awe at the immaculate cemeteries and memorials to the missing. For this, all tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who organise the maintenance of the final resting places of our war dead and memorials to those with no known grave, ‘in perpetuity’. They, and by extension those working on their behalf around the world, do a wonderful job: one which we often take for granted.

Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery – Photos by Jane Roberts

Established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it updated its name in the 1960s replacing ‘Imperial‘ with ‘Commonwealth‘. With almost 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead commemorated across 23,000 locations in 154 countries on land often granted in perpetual use, its task is to:

  • make fit provision in perpetuity for the graves and memorials; and
  • maintain the records of the dead.

One of its fundamental principles is that the headstones and memorials should be permenant. However, over the years, a number of individual graves and sites have been declared unmaintainable and consequently abandoned. This could be due to their physical setting, or a change in the political situation of the country in which they were located. In these cases the CWGC discharge their responsibility by providing an alternative commemoration elsewhere. 

The cost of supporting the work of the CWGC is shared by member governments, in proportion to the number of their graves. In 2015/16 the member governments contributed £60.9 million (up from £50.9 million the year before). Their respective percentage proportions are:

  • United Kingdom – 78.43%
  • Canada – 10.9%
  • Australia – 6.05%
  • New Zealand – 2.14%
  • South Africa – 2.09%
  • India – 1.2%

Money also comes from agency funds used for the care of military graves from other periods and memorials, and grant income. Taking this into account, the total CWGC income for 2015/16 was £60.9 million, up from £59.9 million in 2014/15. In addition, in 2015/16, the Chancellor awarded a one-off award of £2 million to renovate and tend approximately 6,000 non world war graves predominantly in the UK. 

An interesting, and possibly overlooked, fact are the numbers of World War 1 and 2 Commonwealth dead whose burials are located in the UK – over 300,000 in around 13,000 locations. We mostly associate the Commision’s work with those cemeteries and memorials overseas.

Serre Road No 3, Delville Wood, Norfolk and Mill Road Cemeteries – Photos by Jane Roberts

Our group discussed what exactly ‘in perpetuity’ means, and it raised some interesting points. Hopefully “in perpetuity” means what most people, including me, generally understand by the words – that is forever. However there are some question marks about this in terms of English legal definition, i.e. 100 years. We may also need to consider the definitions applicable to the countries in which our dead are honoured.  The potential implication is it may be a question of political will, both by our government and those governments in whose countries the memorials and cemeteries stand. 

Yes, political instability and conflict across the world has an understandable impact – look to Iraq. However now we are coming up to the end of the centenary commemorations maybe, heaven forbid, there may be a push to save money or reclaim land. There have been suggestions that this was indeed discussed under previous administrations. For example the attached link contains correspondence from the early days of the Thatcher government.

Surely it would be too politically sensitive to cut funding and abandon cemeteries as a consequence? Yes, we are coming to the end of the First World War centenary commemorations, but then there are still surviving veterans from World War 2; and beyond we will be looking towards the anniversary commemorations for that conflict. But will it always be the case? What about the small, isolated battlefield cemeteries? 

One final thought: How many of us visit these cemeteries and memorials, look at the headstones and inscriptions then move on. What evidence is there of our visits? Theoretically the visitors register should record footfall. But how many of us sign the books? And if we do is it just one person from the visiting group? Do the government, in times of  so-called ‘austerity’ see the CWGC as a potential easy target for cuts sometime in the future?  Will they use these registers as a proxy for value for money? For this reason I’m now taking a pen with me and signing the visitor registers – and as a result I’m noticing how few others do.

Ongoing Work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium – Photo by Jane Roberts

Footnote:  The title of this post is the inscription on the grave of Pte George Thomas Palmer of the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment who died on 28 April 1917 and is buried at Foncquevillers Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais.

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