Archives and Accountability

I’ve noticed a couple of Tweets today about threats to Archive Services/Record Offices. Notably at Doncaster, one of two archivist posts has been marked for the axe. And in Croydon, although it appears that the Local Studies Library has been saved for the time being, the Archives are still under review. These won’t be the last stories we’ll hear about Archives services being under threat.

Why is this important to those interested in openness? Archives are the ultimate form of accountability – or should be. We are used every new year to the disclosures from the National Archives as public records become just that. We find out the truth as to how decisions were reached. The true legacy of politicians and key figures becomes clear. And soon we’ll reach that point even earlier – the 30 year rule is in the process of becoming the 20 year rule.

Information that is exempt today under FOI will be open to all tomorrow. And the Archivists of this country are the people who will make sure that happens. The importance of their work, be it in the National Archives or in often long under-resourced local government Record Offices is often overlooked. But if you care about freedom of information you should care about what happens to your local Record Office and the Archivists who work there.

In the coming months and years, as councils and other public bodies seek to balance their books, there will be numerous suggestions that Record Offices and archivists should be cut. They’re potentially an easy target. Often they don’t have huge numbers of visitors walking through the door. But they will increasingly be making information available online and serving a much larger constituency around the world. They are a superb source (often untapped) for stories of local interest for journalists. And their true value lies in the long term – the ability for future journalists and historians to find out what really happened. If Record Offices are axed, records that might have been retained for future access will in many cases just be destroyed. Accountability will suffer.

Keep an eye on your local council and make sure that they know the current and long term importance of these services. Don’t let the need for short-term cuts destroy our ability now and in the future to interrogate the past.

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