Sunday, 28 April 2013

Democratising or Privileging archives conference - day 2

Friday past saw the second day of the Democratising or Privileging: the Future of Access to Archives conference in Dundee, at which I attended and participated as a bod from the genealogy community. For a summary of Day 1's proceedings visit

There are two ways you can start a conference day (after the requisite cup of coffee). One is to have a talk on an uncontroversial topic to gently set the pace. The other is to have a speaker in full blown attack mode against aspects of the archival sector, crying "Havoc!", letting slip the dogs of war, spouting Calvinism and going for the jugular with all the theological verve of a modern day Andrew Melville or John Knox. We didn't see the former! Allan Macinnes, a historian from Strathclyde University, started his talk with a few interesting tales of being served lunch by a butler whilst researching archival material at Dumfries House and also being imprisoned at the Vatican Archive. With the room suitably begging for more, the fun then began - both tubes were armed with photon torpedoes, and all hell appeared to break loose! He lambasted National Records of Scotland with experiences on trying to gain access to materials at the institution, citing antiquated policies that made it incredibly difficult to carry out research, to the point where he is now trying to construct research topics that actively try to avoid using the facility - instead preferring to create research that involves visits to what he describes as more user friendly environments, such as the archives in Aberdeen. I had previously described the feeling of search room feudalism in my talk on Thursday, where at times it felt as if researchers - especially family historians - were still being treated in some large institutions as mere humble vassals to the institutions' self-perceived role of superior. It's fair to say Allan was a wee bit further down that road in his thinking!

The following discussion, including a spirited defence from ex-keeper George Mackenzie and some current members of NRS staff, as well as from other archivists on both sides of the debate, was one of those rare moments when getting it all out in the open was not only thoroughly educational, but actually entertaining. One archivist tweeted that he had wished Allan had supervised his university work. This was, of course, a long-running issue between him and the NRS and other sectors, which is precisely why they should, and did, invite him as the opening key-note speaker - and the conference was all the richer for it. The only comment I didn't agree with was his statement "we all get frustrated with the genealogists" - though to be fair, probably about as much as I used to get frustrated with some academic egos when I worked in TV - but beyond that, it was a powerful and very useful 'blast' in the old John Knox tradition!

With the talk over, and the casualties taken to dressing stations to have their wounds attended to, we then heard from Michael Moir of York Universities Library in Canada on how to manage access to sensitive information in personal archives; Jean Dryden on copyright issues, and how some archives should have the courage to adopt actual or likely risk as a factor when contemplating which records to digitise and put online (instead of self-censoring for the hell of it); and the wonderful Zofia Sulej from South Africa, who provided a great overview on the changes in South Africa in the archive sector since the fall of apartheid.

Francois Cartier from Quebec then opened the next session with a talk on archives, networks and public policies; Cathryn Spence talked about both the frustrations and successes of working in a community archive twice a week, using Edinburgh City Archives to help her in a dissertation looking at women in the city from 1560-1640; and Vivienne Dunstan provided a disabled user's perspective in using archives and libraries.

After lunch George Mackenzie then gave a a quick spiel on the International Council on Archives ( You know the Sale of Goods Act 1979, which allows you to go in to a shop and demand certain rights when a product is not fit for purpose? Well, here's a useful equivalent to read up on! The ICA has several principles, and to all us humble genies, here's at least three worth being aware of - 1) The public has the right of access to archives of public bodies. Both public and private archives entities should open their archives to the greatest extent possible; 7) Users have the right to appeal a denial of access; 8) Institutions holding archives ensure that operational constraints do not prevent access to archives. I have in the past been told at NRS that records such as kirk session material are not available for conservation reasons ("computer says no"); but when I then asked what the level of damage was, how long it would take to be conserved, etc, the archivist went and checked, returning soon after to say that it's perhaps not as bad as it might have been, and could perhaps be consulted under supervision, which I can more than live with. Ye don't ask, ye don't get - Matthew, Chapter 7, verse 7!

Karl Heinz discussed the brilliant European Monasterium project (, providing many of Europe's virtual documents from medieval times online. All I can say is go and play with it, it's brilliant. Maria Gussarson Wijk from Sweden then discussed the Archives Portal Network at, something of a parallel project to Europeana, which "provides access to information on archival material from different European countries as well as information on archival institutions throughout the continent". A map was shown with participating countries - guess which one was not involved? Little Britain...

Amanda Hill was then front and centre, discussing her Deseronto community based archive in Ontario, which has little money, a small population, but a lot of heart. Amanda's solution to granting access was crowdsouring through social media - she overcame her distrust of Facebook, for example to discover it to be the most useful hunter-gathering tool in archive terms for her project, with dozens of contributions submitted by users in virtual form to her collection. The archive blog is at The final talk was from Frances White on the Iris Murdoch archive (

Closing the whole thing off was a panel of some of the previous speakers, including shug here as the token genie! I mentioned how there had often been a perception by some in the family history community of researchers being treated as second division players in the order of priorities, and yet also seen as a major cash cow for archives, which frankly irks at times - but also that some of the topics discussed by the archivists in the room had actually affected my thinking on some of the projects that we as family historians sometimes get sucked into creating as offshoots from our research (my Ruhleben project as an example) - perhaps we can also learn some practices from the archive sector on how best to operate these? Crowdsouring is not just there to serve archives, as a crowd we can also serve our own projects but using some techniques that they use. George Mackenzie confirmed that family historians did indeed used to be treated in that way by the archive sector, but that there is a growing attempt to change that. After all the panel had said their bit, Caroline Brown then demonstrated the real skill of an archivist with a final summing up that clearly demonstrated how some archivists can catalogue material into a sense of order, neatly describing all the various points raised over the two days!

A fascinating event, an interesting glimpse into a world I've never been invited to engage with before, and a lot of food for thought. The real test though, as with any conference, is to see if any changes and approaches emerge within the archive sector as a consequence - and the sectors that engage with it (not really sure how constructive boycotting an archive might be!).


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.

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