Northamptonshire Record Office
An Appeal from the County Archivist
It’s been a very busy, and rather challenging, few months at the Archives and Heritage Service. As you may have seen, we hit the local and national press because of the announcement of an intended change to opening times and introduction of charges for using the archives during closed times. Among other things, over 3,000 people signed a petition objecting to these changes. The positive side of this was that there was clear widespread support for keeping the service open for as many hours as possible, and for the importance of heritage generally. The negative side was that staff were introduced to the unpleasant side of social media and subjected to some very offensive postings.
The planned changes were then reviewed and an amended and little-changed option has been adopted for the time being. This is the introduction of a lunch-time closure, between one and two o’clock each day, so members of the team can have a lunch break.
The County Council is, like local authorities throughout the country, facing unprecedented challenges because of pressure on resources. The council has no option but to make difficult decisions regarding the services it provides, and the way it provides them. The Archives Service is included in this process and will be reviewed ahead of the next financial year. This review will include a consultation around proposed changes.
Visitor numbers are falling. Despite 3000 people signing the petition and numerous comments on social media, visitor numbers have remained very low and this shows no sign of changing. If those people who voiced their concerns so strongly about the planned reduction to opening hours started to visit on a regular basis, we would be in a stronger position as we undertake the review: resources simply cannot be directed to areas where there appears to be no public demand.
Falling visitor numbers to archives is not a Northamptonshire phenomenon, of course. Colleagues in archives throughout the country tell us that they, too, have seen significant falls in visitor numbers. The reasons for this include the increase in online resources and a change in expectations around how to access information. Interestingly, the number of enquiries and copying requests the service receives has not declined, so people are still engaging with the service in significant numbers, but not in the traditional way of travelling to visit. Using original archives for research is important, and includes a ‘wow’ factor but, for many people, obtaining the information they need from an online index, or via a digital image or photocopy, is sufficient.
In the not too distant future, there will be a consultation about changes to this service, and these are very likely to include proposals around opening hours. Staff are working hard in difficult circumstances to ensure the service is sustainable into the future. My message to those reading this article is, if you want the Archives Service to stay open, especially in the afternoons, then you need to come and use us in person.
Archives and Heritage Services Manager
Northamptonshire Record Office