A strong contender for the most unpopular word of the year, at least in public debate, is ‘cuts’. With so many budgetary ‘tough decisions’ facing local authorities across the country it is inevitable that the arts and cultural services will be affected. As far as the archives are concerned, the impact of service cuts could have far-reaching long-term consequences.
The potential loss of archive staff is of most concern. These are the key people who conserve, catalogue, store and retrieve the original records in their care, whose work makes it possible for the public to find and access the documents for their research. Another key function of their role is to provide advice and assistance to archive visitors, explain their collections and finding aids, run courses, give talks and behind-the-scenes tours to schools and groups interested in our history. Many archive staff have specialist knowledge and have undergone years of study and training to become experts in their field. Losing or not replacing such valuable staff will have a knock-on effect on access to archives through reduced opening hours as well as affecting the resources available to admit and catalogue new accessions and continue vital conservation work.
Volunteers are one ‘solution’ to this resource shortfall and there are very many dedicated and knowledgeable people who give their time freely to provide help and advice, particularly in the field of family history, but also with cataloguing and conservation work. Record offices welcome these volunteers as a supplement to their already limited resources yet it is difficult to see how existing services could be maintained simply by replacing staff with volunteers.
Much of our cultural heritage originates from the primary sources cared for by our archive services, whether local history centres, county record offices, research libraries or The National Archives. These unique records are our history. They are the source material from which we learn about the past and develop our understanding and appreciation of our heritage whether economic, political, social, environmental, community or our own family. We need to keep the expert archive staff to conserve and administer these priceless collections and make them available to researchers. Without access, the records will effectively be lost to us all.