Friday, 26 April 2013

Democratising or Privileging archive conference in Dundee

I've been a tad quiet in the last few days on the blogging front, for the simple reason it's conference time! Yesterday (Thursday) and today (Friday), I've been attending a University of Dundee conference entitled Democratising or Privileging: the Future of Access to Archives, and tomorrow I'll be at our first Scottish Genealogy Network CPD event - but more on that one in due course!

The first day in Dundee has been thoroughly enjoyable, and quite an eye-opener in terms of understanding some of the issues dealt with by the archive community. The event has been fairly well attended, with archivists from across Britain and with quite a few from Canada. It looks like some conference papers may be published in due course, so I'll just flag up some headlines from some of the talks so far.

Caroline Shenton from the UK Parliamentary Archives got us underway with a session asking whose history is it anyway, when it comes to providing access to records? Some interesting stats were given in that, such as a recent study finding that 15% of adults have never used the internet, albeit that number having fallen, and that only 20% of archive use is for personal research. (I found that an interesting point, but then one has to wonder is that because for personal use, many can't get to archives when they are open, with many doing the 9-5 Mon-Fri routine, which happens to be the work hours for most of us?!). [Correction - the 20% figure is for access to the Parliamentary archive - the national figure is 60%. Thanks to Caroline for the update!]  Questions were asked about who was being served by archives - in London for example, 45% of the population is 'white British', and yet archive use is considerably higher than that by the same population. Caroline also raised the question about whether archives are democratising or privileging access - she suggested in some cases it is becoming about whether some archives can offer ANY form of access in the current climate. Lots of food for thought.

There then followed sessions by Sara Allain and Kelli Babcock on the cuts at Library and Archives Canada, and the impact of digitisation and the rhetoric surrounding it (only 1.5% of LAC material has been digitised, so err, lots not quite online yet, seems a bit optimistic to be decimating access to the provision for the other 98.5%!). LAC did not come off well on that front, there are some truly shocking developments going on there by a government with its blinkers on and its head stuck in the sand at the same time by the sounds of it. Jenny Seeman from the University of Newfoundland then flagged up issues about how the digitisation of certain projects can skew perceptions and usage.

Hugh Hagan and Andrew Kendrick gave a talk about the Shaw Report and the new Public Records (Scotland) Act - various issues affecting those once in care were discussed, and the point made that it took 75 years and an abuse scandal for the law to change with regard to how archives manage records from such institutions (and in general).

In the second session Craig Gauld from the University of Dundee gave a talk on the role of the archivist as a gatekeeper, whilst Grant Buttars, Rachel Hosker and Louise Williams spoke on the practicalities of democratic access to archives. The Q&A after that provided for some interesting and lively exchanges between the speakers and the conference delegates!

Session 3 was on the impact on users of access to archives. Norman Reid from St Andrews University asked how reactive archives should be to public demand, whilst Alan MacDonald offered a historian's perspective on how some of the online digitised materials may be fine for family historians, but may be problematic for historical analysis, for example if only indexed by surname - but also other issues about inconsistencies, such as the charging between different platforms such as ScotlandsPeople and ScotlandsPlaces, and within the sites themselves (by the way, great as it is, I think ScotlandsPlaces is the only records vending site in Britain that advertises a rate - plus VAT!)

Then yours truly was up. I gave a family historian's perspective on various issues about visits to archives - eg the desirability for simple things like wifi and the ability to photograph documents, as well as the need to continue with cataloguing and indexing of non-digitised materials. Possibly ironic - I have written books about research using the internet - but I always make the point in them up front that not everything is online (nowhere near it!). When the brick wall hits us, it is the archive that will be the best and often only chance for progress, so whilst digitisation is important, it is just one aspect. I think some family historians want everything online, and by yesterday, but knowing a record or collection exists in the first place is as important an issue as how you access it, whether online or in person, and cataloguing does not sound as 'sexy' to those giving the money. Not everything in life needs to be sexy to be vital! (take it from who knows, I'm neither!). I should add that I have never spoken in front of a room full of archivists before - there must a be a phobia named after that - but it was great to note that some of the points I made were also covered by Norman and Alan, with the whole thing ably chaired by Pat Whatley. (And we also discovered all three of us had been 'volunteered' by Pat, rather than volunteering, so we're now unionising as a future defence...!). Great to be able to participate.

Wendy Duff then discussed the use of fun in making archives more accessible, particularly in terms of crowdsourcing and interaction with the user base. Sarah Barber gave us an overview of how difficult it is to access Caribbean records (we're in a fine state by comparison), and Caroline Adams discussed how West Sussex Records Office supports communities on its patch to preserve the local historical record. To end proceedings for Day 1, Irene O'Brien from Glasgow City Archives gave a talk on the works of the Scottish Council on Archives.

I learned about some interesting developments today - a) the National Records of Scotland no longer forces you to go out the building to get passport photos if you forget your readers ticket (they now have a swish new digital camera, though there's a charge of £2 to get 4 images done), and there are proposals to try to create a new catalogue platform for Scottish archives, a sort of Scottish Archive Network catalogue with bells on (facilitating user interaction for one thing) - early days on that one, but all very promising.

So far, it's been a blast. I think there are only three genies in the room, but I'd really recommend others to come to subsequent events, certainly within the professional genealogy community. Looking forward to today's offerings!

There's additional coverage of the conference from Amanda Hill at If you want to follow today's proceedings on Twitter, or catchup on yesterday's tweets, the hashtag is #archaccess

UPDATE: Just been told that Ayr will soon be providing access to the ScotlandsPeople computer system, at £15 unlimited access per day. Four terminals on the way - will provide an update if and when I get more.


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. For my other genealogy books, please visit; whilst for my online Scottish based genealogy courses please visit the Pharos Teaching and Tutoring Ltd site.


  1. Only 20% of archive use is for personal research!
    I thought the figure would be much higher. Is that figure from just the Parliamentary Archives or spread across a sample?

    What is the breakdown of the other 80%.

  2. There are plans to publish some of the conference papers in due course - will update if I hear more!

  3. SP spreading its wings - here's hoping Dumfries is next on the list.