Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service issue artists impression of new secure archive designed to prevent easy public access
[Image: Public Domain via Wikipaedia]
At 15.00 on 24 July the Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service took a leaf out of the Donald Trump playbook and announced a major change of policy on Social Media, on Facebook to be precise. Unfortunately for the reputation of the East Midlands Council, like the President’s predilection for policy making by Twitter, Northamptonshire’s announcement too proved to be highly controversial, but with one key difference. Unlike most of the dawn chorus of Tweets from POTUS, the Facebook post announcing that from 21 August  it would cost £31.50 per hour to access documents from the county archive two mornings a week and every afternoon Monday to Friday was actually true.
Within hours the council was facing an avalanche of criticism, much of it on its own Facebook page . A petition was also set up which has achieved a total of over 3000 signatures up to the time of publication, including many senior archivists and published historians and researchers, all of whom have stressed how important access to local archives is to all levels of historical research, from family history to academic research at doctoral and post doctoral level and that in any case the “free” hours offered are utterly impractical showing no understanding of how archives are actually used by researchers. It has also been argued that the imposition of such a charging regime sets a dangerous precedent that could see a significant reduction in access to archives, effectively pricing out anybody without a substantial disposable income.
Typical is the reaction of Mary Ann Lund who posted on Facebook,
“Oh my goodness! I’m really shocked. That’s a hugely significant change that will have a real impact on amateur and academic researchers alike. I’ve never seen anything like this pay-to-research system before. And a very reduced set of hours for free use of your archives. Please could you tell us more about why and how this has come about?”
While another critic of the proposed new hours and charges, Roger Arborfield, alluded to Northamptonshire’s famous poet John Clare’s hatred of the enclosure of common land in the early 19th century, posting the following, also on Facebook,
“So what is a Clare scholar to do? £31.50 an hour will simply mean that the archives will retain their secrets until a more enlightened generation control ‘access’. The Tories have brought the ‘Enclosures’ up to date. Will there be ‘No Trespassing’ signs at the door too?”
Adam Chapman of the Victoria County History project summed up the core issues presented by the imposition of such a charging regime in an article published on the Institute for Historical research blog,
“By reducing the hours to this level, serious research into the history of Northamptonshire is impossible. ‘Popping in’ will be limited to school groups or the retired and a public archive mandated by law and protected by it is effectively made into a private one.”
Faced with this initial firestorm of criticism from researchers, largely from within Northamptonshire itself, the Council announced that it would be issuing a further statement. However, hopes that it would announce a postponement, or even the rescinding of the charges were dashed when the second statement dropped, again on Facebook.
The key message the Council put forward was that the changes were the result of,
“limited and reducing local government resources”
and that taking the changes as a whole the Council felt,
“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,”
In a note which some critics feel is almost Orwellian, the Council statement added,
“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.”
Cynics might say that Northamptonshire’s new policy on access to the county archive is “supporting researchers” in the same way that heretics in Tudor England, of whom there were many from Northamptonshire, were supported on the rack in the Tower of London.
In fact intention to make such changes appear to have been signaled in Council’s minutes of 14 February 2017 where the following passage appears,
Following a review, it has been identified that a number of Archives & Heritage fees and charges for 2016-17 are currently below market rates. It is therefore proposed that increases are made to bring the price in line with competitors and the market.”
However, critics of the new charges were also quick to point out that it is entirely unclear what competitors or market the Council had in mind in setting the price of £31.50 per hour simply to sit in the searchroom.
By their very nature county archives are unique to that county and so there can be no competition driven marketplace. In any case, looking at the major county archives surrounding Northamptonshire, which could be seen as “competition”, access to the search room in Cambridgeshire is free, the same applies in Bedfordshire which even offers some evening opening by appointment. Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire, in common with most archives, levy charges for copying, the use of cameras and other services, but not for basic access to documents in the searchroom. In other words, if the Northamptonshire archive wishes to keep in line with its “competitors” it would remain free at the point of use, apart from copying charges.
The only area where such hourly charges are levied routinely is on the provision of one to one support by a professional archivist or researcher. However, that is not what Northamptonshire will be offering visitors after 21 August. Effectively they will be paying more for a seat in the archive search room for an hour than a seat at most football grounds outside the premiership.
In the light of this it is perhaps not surprising that a former employee of the Northamptonshire County Archive Service described the proposals as being almost certainly a “knee jerk reaction to budgetary pressures.”
At the time of writing it is not clear whether anyone else in the Council was given advance warning that it was facing a situation which could easily rebound and could see the council facing severe embarrassment and reputational damage on the national stage.
It is also not clear whether the proposed charges are even fully complaint with the eight separate pieces of legislation which govern the provision of, and access to, archives and public records. One particular area of regulation has been pointed out as being potentially difficult for the Council.
Regulation 8 (2) of The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2004/3391/contents )reads:
A public authority shall not make any charge for allowing an applicant—
(a) to access any public registers or lists of environmental information held by the public authority; or
(b) to examine the information requested at the place which the public authority makes available for that
It can be argued that such environmental information includes, for example, current and historical mapping, and associated documents. If correct, application of this regulation then sets up the potential anomaly in which a researcher looking at such material in the Northamptonshire archive would do so free of charge at any time the archive is open, even if they were working for a commercial client, while a retired person researching their family history would be forced to pay during most sessions.
Meanwhile the situation is also moving rapidly beyond one which the County Council can have any hope of controlling. Not that the Council has shown any ability to spin the situation since the news of the new charges broke in the first place.
The Council’s principle difficulty is that an increasing number of national representative expert bodies are weighing in to the controversy. The latest is the Association of Genealogists & Researchers in Archives who have written to the Leader of Northamptonshire County Council, Councillor Heather Smith, stating,
“We acknowledge that these are challenging times for all local authorities but these changes have come as a complete surprise. They have not been subject to any form of public consultation and no alternatives have been presented for public comment. The plans may be a ‘bold step in difficult times’ (words taken from the Council’s recent statement); but AGRA’s view is that they are drastic cuts, not fully thought through, and the worry is that such a step will set a precedent to be followed by others.”
Meanwhile John Chambers, the chief executive of the Archives and Records Association (ARA), told “Who Do You Think You Are” magazine that the ARA had no warning about the proposed new hours and charges and thus had not been able to take any pre-emptive action. As a result Mr Chambers concluded,
“There are bound to be questions about the sustainability of the archive service in Northamptonshire, its status as an official Place of Deposit and the county’s ability to retain custody of part of its local heritage over the long term,”
Even more significantly a spokesperson for the National Archive at Kew, which exercises a leadership role regarding archives in England, told thePipeLine,
“The National Archives is aware of the situation and we are in discussion with the archives service.”
The apparent sidelining of organisations such as the the ARA and even the National Archive, coupled with the short lead time before the new charging regime is introduced on 21 August , has fueled suspicion that the initiative was the result of a cost cutting decision, made, almost certainly, by tight circle of council officers and councilors who did not fully understand the wider local, national and even legal implications of what they were proposing; or that if they did understand, they did not care and thought that they could brazen out any controversy until the changes were a done deal.
Certainly it is being reported that the decision was seen by officers as an “operational matter” which did not require wider consultation with the services users and interested parties such as the ARA.
Of course, even an “operational” decision should be subject to proper projections and above all legal and practical risk assessments, especially as a serious risk is that the archive service ceases to be viable with the knock on effect this would have on the provision of support to Northamptonshire’s statutory roles such as planning.
For example, Archaeological desk top assessments, required by the National Planning Policy Framework in many cases, are often based on mapping and other information from the local county archive.
It remains to be seen if Cllr Smith now invites her colleague, Cllr André Gonzalez de Savage, the portfolio holder for Heritage Gateway, Archives, and Archaeology, who holds the direct political responsibility for the developing debacle, to explain how Northamptonshire County Council has apparently become simultaneously both a laughing stock and a symbol of all that is most short sighted and incompetent in the management of irreplaceable historical records held in trust for the public and future generations.
Northamptonshire County Council has been contacted and asked to comment on the criticism of the new hours and charges as well as a number of specific questions relating to the decision making process which led to the announcement.