Local record office: aims

I thought then that in important ways we archivists behaved like amateurs ourselves. There was no plan for any activity, whether inside the office or out. The county archivist had devised a wonderful scheme, which we all called classification, for structuring reference codes (I can still recognise its characteristic formulas), but there was no pattern for listing; there were no indexes at all. There was an outline plan for parish visiting, but other outside work was largely left to chance; most of the emphasis was on outside work. There was of course no stated collection policy. When pressed, we would say that we sought to acquire anything that related to the county. On these grounds we received on deposit (no clearly-defined agreement) a variety of archive accumulations. We had the papers of a former prime minister, an early geologist, many family archives with varying interests, local industry; we clearly would have accepted anything that could be connected with the county.

Since then, both collecting and general policies have become clarified in most places, and perhaps the worst of the undiscriminating approach to collecting has been modified. But in recent years I have seen a continuing determination in some local authority archivists to insist on acquiring materials that really would have been much better in a specialist repository.

Historically speaking, the behaviour of the county record offices in the 1950s seems to me to have been modelled (despite vehement declarations to the contrary) on the behaviour of local library collections. Library services were relatively weak in the counties, strong in the cities, so it was natural for the newly-founded record offices, spurred on by their sense of an urgent need to build up big, important collections, to expand into the vacant area. In doing this, they did in fact improve standards and introduce a professional element for the care and use of the material they collected. It became clear over the succeeding decades that even big libraries could often not provide the levels of staffing, conservation or storage capacity that the counties had made customary.

In spite of the outline standard for the constitution and staffing of archives services issued by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and other leading bodies in the 1980s, the questions of division of labour, and getting the right resources, remain largely outstanding. There should be a more organised plan for bringing the libraries, specialist repositories and local record offices, together in an agreed pattern that would ensure adequate resourcing, sufficient capacity and appropriate standards of service.

Inside the council offices, the Devon Record Office of the 1950s did have a rudimentary records management operation. We kept the county's title deeds and the files of the Clerk's department, and we had a generally good relationship with the officers of that department. Professional standards could hardly be applied to any aspect of this job, but it was clear to all of us that the service should logically have been expanded to cover the other departments of the council and that we should have developed a better system for controlling the material. There was no retention schedule, but then most of the material concerned the ownership of land, and there was no obvious case for large-scale destruction. The files were kept, for the most part, in the same storage areas as the archives, and neither came up to any conservational standard that might have been proposed.

Looking back, it is possible to place this period into a better historical perspective. Local archivists could all remember the time when their service was first started. The only practical handbook that gave them guidance was Redstone and Steer, and it was easy to see the line of development from Fowler's original seminal work at the very beginning of the local record office movement. Many who had their formation in that time still tend to belong to the bootstrap and small pieces of string classes; we were more concerned to do something immediate, than to do it to a proper standard. One of the most significant changes of the late twentieth century, in this field, is the general acceptance by archivists of a standard of conservation and environment for the service that is externally assessable. I have not seen any study of how this (entirely natural) change came about, but suspect that the main influence may have come from the museums. In the same period museums moved from the dusty show-case to the polished public face that we now recognise as normal.

(Cook M. Changing Times, Changing Aims)

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