Listening to the Past, Speaking to the Future

Carl Newton (Visiting Professor of Archives, Northumbria Univeristy, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

Records Management Journal

ISSN: 0956-5698

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




Newton, C. (2004), "Listening to the Past, Speaking to the Future", Records Management Journal, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 133-134.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The Archives Task Force was set up in 2002 by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, then known as Resource. Its 20 members, chosen by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, included politicians and historians and no less than six current serving archivists. The brief was to analyse and review the state of British archives. The report states that it is “one of the most comprehensive consultations with the archives and records management domains for over 50 years”. In truth it is difficult to know when such a consultation ever took place before and 50 years ago the records management domain in the UK did not even exist. In fact the report hardly touches records management at all, and only one contributor represented records management per se in the consultations. The authors may be being modest or are they simply unaware? No fewer than 700 individuals gave evidence, including Diane Abbott and Tony Benn, but it is difficult from the list to separate those giving evidence on their own behalf from spokespersons of organisations. It is surely also a matter of remark that the Records Management Society and the Society of Archivists sent one representative each, a restraint not observed by many user organisations.

The report is beautifully produced and illustrated and contains much valuable information, notably in the appendices. It makes eight recommendations, the two most interesting being the creation of a digital gateway to all archives and the development of business, private, and specialist archives by, among other things, tax incentives and the creation of a forum bringing them together in a mutually supportive manner. There are also more controversial proposals for the creation of “centres of expertise” and increased commercial exploitation of archives. Otherwise the recommendations seem to be very much in line with current political thinking about social inclusion, voluntary effort, and “community”. A total budget of £12 million over three years is postulated as necessary, of which no less than £10 million is earmarked for the so‐called “Gateway”, although there is some obscurity about the funding proposals and especially about the relationship of public and private funding.

Archive legislation is not addressed and apart from the reference to business and private archives already noted (recommendation 5) there is a considerable emphasis on the public, mainly government, sector. Service structure was apparently left out of the discussions on the ground that it must follow vision and objectives, and nothing is said about the large number of organisations with a finger in the archive pie. A spot check on the contributors suggests that this is at least 50, not counting “Friends” organisations, and is surely one of the major reasons for the weakness of the public profile of the archive/records domain in contrast to libraries or museums, a fact to which the report itself refers (pp. 35‐6). Records management receives its only mention on page 40 where it is acknowledged to be making a major contribution to the economy and efficiency of British business. Oddly no reference is made to the fact that it is also making a major contribution to the creation and preservation of the archives of the future. The issue of the unfortunate division in the UK between archives and records management is not addressed. This is one of a number of areas where one feels that prudence has overcome vision. The desire not to scare government is obvious and understandable, but it is hard to see why, having made a convincing case for the importance of the sector, it is awarded a derisory budget and even then only for three years. If it cost the Royal Geographical Society, a single organisation, £7 million to create digital access to its archives how wide an access can we expect for a national total of £10 million (about 16p per head of the population who are supposed to be receiving fantastic benefits as a result)? Nor does the emphasis on the government sector help. Of the 2,000 repositories mentioned as existing in the UK probably only about 200, at most, are in the government sector.

Perhaps the most serious criticism is that the report does not address outcomes. What are the consequences of adopting the recommendations, what impact would result on existing services, are the qualified staff going to be available when needed and what are the measures of success? As always it is going to be people as much as finance that will determine the results. The report makes glowing reference to the work done and being done by archivists. This is indisputable but the problem of being very good at what you do is that it may prevent you doing what you ought. The compilers of the report have made an excellent job of data gathering, although I wonder if they have always asked the right questions, but while they hint at a wider vision they appear, for whatever reason, to have fallen back on the assumption that doing more of the same, with a bit of extra pump priming, a dash of commercialism, and a touch more co‐operation, is all that is needed. If this is a blueprint for British archives in the twenty‐first century their future is distinctly uncertain.

Related articles