Bet­ter read than dead

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator - Leslie Ged­des-brown

THE ques­tion is fun­da­men­tal: who owns the archives kept in our na­tional li­braries and public-record of­fices? There has been a re­cent row in Northamp­ton­shire, where the lo­cal coun­cil de­cided to charge £31.50 per hour to see its records out­side a weekly 12-hour slot, un­til the out­cry made it back down. In a letter to the Daily Tele­graph, Roger White wrote that, 20 years ago, public-record of­fices and private archives ‘were un­fail­ingly help­ful and free of charge, see­ing the en­cour­age­ment of schol­arly re­search as part of their rai­son d’être. Un­for­tu­nately, in the past 20 years or so both cat­e­gories have in­creas­ingly come to be run by peo­ple who seem to know the price of ev­ery­thing and the value of noth­ing.’

In fu­ture, he adds, schol­ar­ship will be limited to those with private in­comes or fat re­search grants.

The next ques­tion is: should the coun­cil or gov­ern­ing body of these li­braries be al­lowed to make de­ci­sions like Northamp­ton­shire over records that have, in many cases, been given to them by the public to help re­searchers? You might ask an­other ques­tion: what is the point of record of­fices if the books they hold can’t been seen by any­one but the staff?

Hew re­cently had a long cor­re­spon­dence with the Bri­tish Li­brary about an ob­scure book he thought was the only one in the coun­try. He wanted to see An­swers for Mar­garet Park, spouse to Daniel Miller, mer­chant in Greenock, and her said hus­band, for his in­ter­est; to the pe­ti­tion of Wil­liam Glen, in Ferry of Ersk­ine. You might ask, as I did, why he should want to see this 1778 book and his an­swer was that it shed light on the re­la­tion­ships of his an­ces­tors.

The Bri­tish Li­brary replied: ‘It can­not be is­sued to the Read­ing Room for con­sul­ta­tion by any reader with­out con­sid­er­able risk to dam­ag­ing the vol­ume fur­ther.’ It might be able to pho­to­graph it, how­ever.

When he last saw the book in 2014, it hadn’t seemed that frag­ile, he replied. And, any­way, ‘what’s the point in the li­brary hav­ing it if it’s never to be seen?’ The li­brary then con­ceded that the book had been added to ‘a list to be con­sid­ered for con­ser­va­tion work… I can­not guar­an­tee that the item will be pri­ori­tised for con­ser­va­tion as the li­brary has cri­te­ria which vol­umes re­quir­ing work must ful­fil’.

In other words, he couldn’t see the book or have the rel­e­vant pages pho­tographed.

Here’s an­other ques­tion: if a reader wants a par­tic­u­lar book which is in bad con­di­tion, shouldn’t this have con­ser­va­tion pri­or­ity over those no one wants to read? Ap­par­ently not. It’s the li­brary’s cri­te­ria, what­ever these are, that must be ap­plied.

Ear­lier, Hew tan­gled with the Univer­sity of Brad­ford, which had made a rule that only mem­bers of a univer­sity should be al­lowed to see their books.

Hew, then man­ag­ing the lo­cal paper, The Brad­ford Tele­graph and Ar­gus, pointed out that the paper had con­trib­uted thou­sands to­wards set­ting up the univer­sity and that he ob­jected to be­ing refused ad­mis­sion be­cause he had no de­gree. The univer­sity back­tracked, say­ing that, in his case, they would make an ex­cep­tion.

Hew replied that he didn’t want to be an ex­cep­tion, but hoped the univer­sity would open its li­brary doors to any se­ri­ous scholar with or with­out a de­gree. He felt that such an ar­bi­trary rule could only ex­ac­er­bate ten­sions be­tween town and gown in the city.

I’m glad to say that Hew’s quest for the 18th-cen­tury book had a happy end­ing. He found an­other copy in the Ad­vo­cates Li­brary in Ed­in­burgh. It was tightly bound and hard to pho­to­graph, but the staff man­aged to copy all the rel­e­vant pages with great help­ful­ness.

‘Schol­ar­ship will be limited to those with private in­comes’

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