Archives for the 21st Century

November 24th, 2009 by

Mike Peel of WMUK points out the new governmental policy on public archives. A couple of interesting figures to highlight:

  • There are about 300 publicly funded archives; half local government, a quarter universities, then museums etc making up the remaining third.
  • Per-capita funding for archive services by local government varies by a factor of twenty-two between the best and least funded regions. (In absolute terms, which is a bit less meaningful due to sharp population distinctions, it’s a factor of forty)
  • Less than 50% of material is described in online catalogues; less than 1% is accessible via digitisation programs. (I suspect the missing word there is vastly less than 1%…) [p. 14]
  • The National Archives provides 170 digital documents for every one used in a reading room, and given the overall figures (112m) that suggests a reading-room usage of 650,000 per year. [p.18]

One figure that would have been very helpful would be an estimate – even an order-of-magnitude ballpark estimate – as to the economic value of public archives. Section 2 talks at some length about the tangible benefits of archives, and indeed mentions economic benefits twice alongside things such as supporting public decision-making or academic research, but the whole section is quite vague and devoid of numbers to quantify what those economic benefits are.

Whatever the plan that follows this report turns out to be, it’ll imply government spending in some way or another; to help make the case for supporting these services properly we need to be able to say – archives are [potentially] worth fifty million to the country a year, or a hundred million, or whatever number it might be. People make these numbers for libraries, for museums, for school playing fields… it shouldn’t be too difficult for the sector to say, upfront, this is what we’re worth to you, treat us accordingly.

(It may seem a bit blunt – but, well, arguing for more public funding without hard numbers is like going unarmed to a duel. You may go through all the motions, but unless your opponent is very scrupulous, you’ll lose)

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