Better read than dead
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’