View Full Version : National Archives in Peril

Errol Martyn
8th July 2009, 10:01
Copied from Air-Britain's AB-IX site today.

The following letter appears in the Daily Telegraph today:


SIR Britain's National Archives are under threat. Public access to records at Kew are to be cut by one day a week, staffing levels slashed, many documents on microfilm withdrawn and other services eroded.

As a researcher at the National Archives for 34 years, I have seen many changes. There was protest when the Family Records Centre moved to Kew from central London in 2008. It was stated that this was to save money, yet huge sums were spent to house the influx of records and readers in a building already struggling to cope. Staff were crammed into inappropriate work areas.

The National Archives are in danger of becoming a glorified family history centre. There is nothing wrong with family history (on which I used to give classes), but that is not the National Archives' most important function. Their own website says they are "the UK government's official archive, containing almost 1,000 years of history".

The National Archives have striven to make the most-used records such as censuses available online digitally, which is to be lauded. But the digitisation of hundreds of thousands of documents will not be possible by virtue of their size and the costs involved. Many others will never be digitised because they are little used, but they should still be readily accessible for research. Like all the documents at Kew, they are part of our national heritage.

A once fine library is now a shadow of its former self after several strongly contested changes, including the removal of dedicated librarians to become jacks-of-all-trades, answering general queries outside the library area. Walls were removed to make the library more accessible and less elitist and noisier.

There has been a dumbing down and a loss of specialist staff, whose knowledge of records, invaluable to researchers, cannot easily be replaced. Last week, a number of staff received letters informing them that they had been "displaced", an apparent euphemism for sacked.

In the current economic climate, it is inevitable that some cuts will be necessary, but these should not involve tearing the very heart out of a respected institution, vital to the record of the nation's history.

Ruth Wilcock
Brentwood, Essex

8th July 2009, 16:54

Thanks Errol for sharing this information with us. Despite being an Air-Britain member myself (following your suggestion back in 2000 !), I'm not registered on their website.

I too have seen the many changes over the years, especially the family history put forward. I visit TNA about once every two months, and I must say that I've seen improvments in many areas. The use of laptops and digital cameras in the reading rooms, the possibility to take digital pictures directly from the microfilm readers (I even tried on a computer screen, it works as well) enables day visitors like me to picture a large number of documents and then analyse them quietly at home.

I was also worried about the car park, when there was a toll last year. I thought they would charge for it, but not so far. You have to take a ticket and validate it before leaving the main building, but I don't know how the system at the automatic gate knows which is your car, from your ticket ?...

Let's hope that we would still have access to the 10 millions documents mentioned on their website.

If you want to compare effectiveness, just come on the continent...


8th July 2009, 17:18
Hi Errol

Whilst I understand that these issues may look differently to the professional researcher who wrote to the newspaper I have to say that I don't think there is quite the meltdown that is described here.

I have been using Kew for around 25 years now and it is certainly the case that there have been substantial changes in that time. The growth in the number of family history researchers had, for me, become a serious problem. They and their research needs seemed to dominate the operation of the whole place and they tended to monopolise the time of the advisory staff. But I think it is possible to see from the viewpoint of NA managers that, if they were to be able to defend their budgets, they had to show that the archives were important for all sectors of the population not just a select few. Quite a few changes have been made to the arrangements for visitors in the last couple of years which I feel have made a real improvement especially for those who are mainly interested in documents rather than microfilm/fiche and national census databases.

The position over public sector funding in the UK is likely to be very difficult in the next few years especially for departments like the National Archives. Although their budget is unlikely to be large compared to other sectors such as health, education and defence it would be a surprise if they did not take a very big (disproportionate) hit in the size of their operating budgets. On the NA website they make clear that 90% of their enquiries now come via the internet and they need to shift staff resources in order to respond to that. There have been posts on here I think and/or on TOCH! complaining about how long it takes to get a digitised copy of an ORB.

My guess would be that they have chosen Mondays because their figures show that it is the quietest day for callers. I live about 130/140 miles from Kew and it is virtually impossible for me to get there by public transport and to have time left for research. Travelling by car in and out of that corner of London (next to Heathrow) is bad on most days but it is even worse on Mondays and Fridays.


8th July 2009, 23:30

I was for the first time in Kew just a few weeks ago. And I must say, after seeing and working in portuguese archives how pleseantly surprised I was to see the effenciency of the staff and the way things where managed. In Portugal the archives only live because the staff, usually very small, are very professional and because they love what they are doing. I must say the memory of my country lives because some people make - and using a local say - "from the guts, one hart" to save, store and catalog every piece of paper.

Usually You can not ask for a copy of this or that document, or order a research, or make a research trough the internet before going there.

As the most important archives are in Lisbon, and I live 280 km's away (something around 150 miles) in the Algarve area, and I have to work, it is not easy to prepare a visit. You can not make a research trough the net or some other way. Usually you spend some days in there just understanding what is important or not reviewing item's from a lot of paper files. Fortunatly - most of times - you can tell them by phone what you are looking for and they make a research themselfs and try to have some document's ready for you before you arrive.

Before going to Kew I was able to prepare my visit and then, already in, I talked with some of the staff that where great in giving me new information's and directions. And I must say that seeing so many people working, searching and reading in those rooms was something astonishing. I'm from a country with 800 years of history, that discovered half of the world trough the sea and that just burried it's memories - when it did not wasted them - in shelfs where nobody can see.

Finding out - a couple of years ago - that I could order copies of document's trough the net was, for me, something so surprising and new that I did not belived it at first. It seems strange but it was that way. Kew appeared to me like a researches paradise altoug you had to had some money prepared...

In Kew I saw one archive that is alive and not death. The coment about the number of people that go there surprised me. It is much stranger to sit in a reading room with ten tables and you are the only one there, I can assure you.

I don't know the future of Kew but I would not - even as one allien that want's to return there somethime between this and the next year - to see cut's that would transform the place in one document coffin. You can not let those doors close. How many foreinger's where there the during the week I made my research? How many have saved money to pay for a week in London to go there? I have no idea...

Forum's like this one must - I Believe - have something to say about this. Or maybe not...
I don't know, I'm just a portuguese, in country that fergot his legacy...

Best regards

Peter Caygill
9th July 2009, 16:19
I've been going to the National Archives for about 12 years now and the numbers using this facility have increased considerably, particularly in the last 3-4 years. I would put this down to the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme which has sparked a huge interest in genealogy.

The service is not as good as it was. Document ordering used to take 20-25 minutes but is now more like 40 minutes so you have to plan your day very carefully so as not to waste time sitting around waiting for documents to turn up. I hope the planned closure on Mondays is all they are considering, any further closures would greatly affect the serious researcher/author.

As the BBC are the cause of the pressures at the NA, perhaps they could ask some of their overpaid 'stars' (I'm thinking Jonathon Ross and Graham Norton) to take a paycut of a few million and donate it to the Archives!