Saturday, 12 January 2013

Comment: In Defence of Archives

 From LSHG Newsletter, # 48 (January 2013).

I haven’t researched this, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that in a society where many are happy to get their knowledge on something from Wikipedia [an excellent source provided it is checked] and communication is often via 24 hour rolling news and Twitter [I use both] the idea of visiting the archives to discover [or perhaps not discover] some information may seem anachronistic.

Yet, as people consistently find out, checking assumptions and making sure facts are correct are important things even in an ‘instant’ society. It is in this context that the concerns over the archives at Ruskin College have arisen. At one level Ruskin has perhaps attracted unfair attention because it is well known. Many labour movement organisations do not look after historical records that they have and are quite often to be found chucking them out without concern for their value for future generations. That indicates the scale of the task historians still face.

At one point I had in my garage some of the original Plebs publications dating back to the 1910s which had been rescued from a skip to give just one example. Even so, the spotlight has been on Ruskin not only because it has been destroying records that are valuable as historical documents to historians but also because its reasons for doing so, both stated and presumed, suggest a state of the art approach to historical archives.

Firstly, when it comes to records of individual students Ruskin claims to be concerned about data protection issues. If the students are still alive there may be an issue here but a moment’s thought can see a solution. No historian would refer to the detail of such records without trying to check with the individual first if it was OK to use it. A bottom line would obviously be that if they did not and published something that turned out
to be incorrect or damaging they could face legal action or, rather more likely, their book being pulped by the publisher.

Secondly Ruskin are apparently in the process of moving some operations to a new site. Storing archives takes up valuable space and is costly. Why bother to preserve them only for the odd, perhaps very odd, historian to pitch up once every few years to look at them?

Concern about archives and their fate is not new. The Society for the Study of Labour History has been working away at the preservation of and access to historical records for the last 50 years and more. Even so as commercial pressures on space grow and as we move more and more to an electronic society where paper copies are an anachronism the danger of important historical documents ending up on that skip is growing.

What is to be done? The concern and campaign around the Ruskin archives has been immensely helpful in publicising the issue. In another register, the work of the British Library in trying to archive websites that may disappear as individuals cease to update them — or pay the subscription — is hugely important. It is arguable however that there is a need for a positive legal duty for organisations to preserve and deposit at lease core archives with an appropriate national institution such as the British Library.

Of course that will cost money and we live in times when all the main parties support the idea, in one way or another, of cutting expenditure. Even so there is no point in banging on about what a great history Britain has and how important that history is if at the same time the archives that will allow future generations to understand what it is are being chucked out.

Keith Flett

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