A friend of mine, a professional historian, once described himself as an “archive anorak”. Having done some research in county archives recently for a number of projects, I’m starting to see his point.
There’s nothing like the excitement — stay with me on this one — of unearthing a document which only a handful of people have seen in the past 300 years, but which provides the vital missing piece of some puzzle you’ve been working on.
There are constant surprises to be had: parish records, for example, are far more than a matter of births, marriages and deaths, but record all kinds of transactions — charitable, business and the plain dubious. You can find letters giving an instant and shocking access into the life of a person long since forgotten.
Alongside all this, the staff are unfailingly helpful, the silence is incredibly soothing and there are often rare and interesting books worth making the trip for alone. As you might have gathered, I have to admit to falling for the strange and specific allure of the archives.
I say “strange” partly because “local history”, as a discipline, often seems rather unfashionable. As it remains mostly the preserve of amateurs, it’s the direct heir of 18th- and 19th-century antiquarianism — and has inherited many of the latter’s faults, including in some cases that portentous, overwritten style horribly familiar from small-town guidebooks.
Yet as the BBC’s 2010 series Story of England eloquently demonstrated, taking a local perspective is the best way of getting people to engage with the past, if it’s creatively handled. Its device of getting ordinary residents of Kibworth, Leicestershire to read out the words of their long-dead predecessors was almost as startling and effective, in its way, as Peter Watkins’ groundbreaking 1964 documentary, Culloden — a film that changed my whole perception of “history” when I first saw it.
None of this would be possible without the local archives’ rich and detailed resource of material on the lives of ordinary people. Of the 300 or so organisations in England and Wales which keep substantial archives, a large proportion are made up by county archives and record offices: one for each county, and in many cases further city archives and local studies centres, a few integrated with libraries, but many being separate institutions. There are 16 such archives in London alone; this is a huge and valuable body of material.
We shouldn’t take these resources for granted. Along with all local-authority run services, the county and local authority archives are now also under threat in the current financial climate.
The retrenchment starts at the very top: back in July 2010, Jeremy Hunt announced that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, among other bodies, would be cut. It is already transferring some of its “expertise” to the Arts Council, itself facing cuts in its budget — a puzzling conflation of history with the arts that places both at a disadvantage. Worryingly, no announcement has yet been made with regard to its support for the less-visible archive services.
Several councils have already drawn up proposals such as reducing the opening hours of their services and making staff redundant. One local authority, Devon, proposed a cut of 30 per cent in funding to its archives — equivalent to seven full-time staff posts — only partially relenting, and promising a public consultation on any cuts, after pressure from academics and local history groups.
Buckingham is proposing an £80,000 cut: more possible redundancies. Hammersmith and Fulham is taking the step of suspending access to its reading room, with a fee to be introduced for written requests. The list goes on.
Archive services are, unfortunately, a soft target. By nature they take up a lot of building space, space whose conditions have to be carefully controlled; many functions can only be run highly qualified professional staff, not volunteers; they are constantly expanding. They are too specialist to fit well alongside the coffee shops, internet access and other add-ons that have helped keep my local libraries going.
A fair proportion of their users are students or retired: all these things will place them low down on the priority list of councils struggling to plan for front-loaded cuts. But the high number of older visitors also, in a way, points towards the universality of this sort of history. It seems we all become more interested in it as we get older, probably because as time passes and people and landmarks once familiar to us disappear, it’s easier to appreciate that the same process has always occurred: if you haven’t yet had that surprising first moment of thinking “I remember when all this was fields”, trust me, you soon will.
This is social history in its purest and most intimate form. We should all support keeping it accessible and — importantly — free to use, if only in recognition that, in time, all of us will be reduced to a few lines and documents in such an archive.
More than ever, the archive services need someone to speak up for them. David Cameron is fond of deploying the idea of Britain’s “heritage”: well, it is all here, in deeds, letters and maps, as much as in stately homes and churches, and all free for anyone to study. It would be tragic if any of these resources themselves were to pass into history.