The National Archives are making historians history

Restrictions on the National Archives are a disaster for historians

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

The next time you settle down in the evening to enjoy the latest work by your favourite historian, treasure it, because it may be their last for a while. This is for the simple reason that historians are effectively being denied access to one of the most essential tools of their trade — the National Archives.

For many, this non-ministerial government department may just be an ugly slab of 1970s concrete that sits on the Thames in Kew, but it is actually nothing less than the nation’s memory — for it is here that millions of documents produced by the British state during the past thousand years are held. From the Domesday Book to the measliest memorandum sent by the lowliest civil servant in the most wretched ministry, nearly everything could be looked at by anybody, so long as they could prove their name and address.

But now, thanks to absurd new access restrictions, it has become all but impossible for historians to carry out any decent amount of research there. These restrictions do not just hamper professional historians and PhD students, but also anybody using the archive to look up, say, what great-great-uncle Eric got up to on the Western Front, or even the documents associated with his divorce.

The current restrictions are oppressive. Kew is only open for four hours and 50 minutes per day, four days per week. On these days, visitors are only permitted to access nine documents, and they are only allowed to visit once a week. A small number of two-day appointments are available, during which visitors may access 20 to 40 documents from the same record series. Access to computers, microfilms, research advice and copying are no longer provided.

In addition, it appears that booking a slot to visit the archives is about as haphazard and difficult as booking Oasis tickets back in the 1990s. I have been told of many instances in which slots are taken within one second of the booking page being opened, which is no doubt a product of a reported tenfold oversubscription.

This means there is a de facto lottery in place to access the National Archives, and even if you are lucky, you are only permitted to consult a handful of documents. While this may be adequate for occasional users, for professional historians and students, nine documents is parlously few. In addition, the stipulation that only documents from the same record series may be consulted on a rare two-day visit is also absurdly restrictive, when most research projects will involve consultation across numerous record series, such as those from, say, MI5, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.

These numbers can be put in the context of my own use of Kew for the past 20 years. Until recently, users were able to access as many documents as we could, and documents could be ordered when in the building. I would regularly consult some 40 to 60 a day, and would sometimes spend four to five full working days a week at the archive. In this way, some 150 to 200 documents per week could be consulted. The service was always brilliant, and the documents arrived speedily and efficiently.

Historical research is an inexact process. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to go through nine documents. On other occasions, a single document can take three hours. Historians need to be flexible, and the discovery of a piece of information in one document may necessitate immediately going down a different path. It is obviously essential for those who engage in such research to have as few restrictions as possible when accessing what is, after all, a publicly held and publicly financed archive, which comes under the auspices of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

It would be too easy to blame Covid, but these restrictions were already coming in before the pandemic. Back in January, to the exasperation of historians, Kew announced it was launching a trial that would limit users to accessing a pitiful 12 documents per day. Of course, because of the pandemic, the restrictions have become even tighter and are now in place indefinitely. As with so many other organisations, there is the fear that Covid will prove to be the Trojan horse that ushers in permanently poor service.

Doubtless poor management and underfunding are to blame, and the man who needs to sort this mess out is Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for DCMS. He might also like to ask why the archives of the Imperial War Museum, which is sponsored by his department, is completely closed until some point next year. He could compare this with the archive of the MoD-sponsored National Army Museum, which has been open since July. No one is saying that staff at Kew should be put at risk, or that the restrictions are in any way the fault of the archivists themselves, but there is clearly room to allow a greater amount of access than there is at present.

What Mr Dowden and the government need to understand is that the effect of these restrictions is creating something akin to dementia, in which memory can no longer be fully or quickly recalled. And just as a person without a memory starts to lose their personality, a nation without a properly functioning national archive is a country that starts to lose its sense of history — and ultimately its identity. Countries that control their pasts are not usually particularly pleasant ones, but somehow Britain is accidentally becoming one of those places. If we are not careful, history may soon be history.

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Guy Walters is currently doing his best to write a biography of Josef Mengele which will be published in January 2022.

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