Most of us who spend time delving into dusty archives as part of our jobs know the pressure county record offices are under financially. Council budgets are being stretched so much that they are about to snap; libraries have already seen the brunt of this, with curtailed opening hours and lack of facilities. When councils have to cut back, it seems that history and culture are little valued, and are slashed at with little compunction.
The latest archive to try and cut costs is Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service, which is doing so by passing the cost of research onto users. On its Facebook page, it has published the following post:
It is basically restricting its ‘free access’ to three mornings a week, plus one Saturday a month; and if you want to visit in the afternoon, you will have to pay for the privilege. It’s not just a nominal sum – it’s a rather hefty £31.50 PER HOUR.
You can see what is going to happen. There will be a reduced footfall, because researchers will balk at the cost of visiting. The council will then state that because fewer people are visiting the archive, its hours can be restricted further – or even, that the archive is not needed at all.
‘Free access’ should be the fundamental part of visiting an archive. Many of those visiting simply do not have the money to pay to view archive documents; many are students, for example, and surely we should be encouraging them to take an interest in their local history, and to gain a curiosity and inquisitiveness about original documents, and to find the stories hidden within them, rather than put measures in that put them off finding out information?
In addition, many people visit archives that are not near where they live. When I was researching in the archives for my PhD, I visited Northampton, a good 90 minute drive from my house, and I know people travel far further than that to access the information they need. Factor in transport costs as well as archive access costs, and researchers may simply not bother. That’s if the archive is accessible in the first place, and many are not, shoved away out of town centres in areas where you have to have a car in order to get there.
In addition, if I had been charged £31.50 for every hour I was in an archive, I would have been financially stuffed. Sometimes, you have to order a bulk load of documents, and spend hours poring through each individual item until you find the one page that is what you were looking for. Sometimes, you may not find that item at all. Think of what you might miss if you are counting the pounds you are spending, anxious to get your work done before you go into your overdraft.
Four years ago, I wrote an article for The Guardian, expressing concern about the various fees charged to access documents in the archives. My main concern at that time was the photographic copying fees levied by record offices, which could be varied and even prohibitive. I never realised that in 2017, we would be facing charges simply to walk in through an archive’s doors.
This move will be detrimental to all but the wealthiest researchers. It will put many off taking those first steps in archival research, and will further reduce the importance of history in the minds of many. Northamptonshire clearly has little truck with its value, and sees it as a good place to cut costs. That’s both sad, and worrying, as it is setting a precedent that other counties may follow. And the more record offices that set an ‘admission charge’, the less research will get done as a result – and that’s a real loss for historical research.