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Jon Elliott - ARA Head of Public Affairs
Lorraine in Taunton (who, as any fule kno, makes all the really important decisions at ARA) and I have decided to try and get the website blog going again. There will still be ARA Today, of course, plus the occasional tweet. But a blog allows us to at least express a train of thought, and if it seems to you incoherent, patronising or just plain boring, you will of course let us know...
Mid-October started with a push to try and get the UK Parliament's administration committee to think again about its decision to recommend the end of recording acts of parliament on vellum. Part of our worry is that they don't seem to have looked at the total costs of doing so, as well as the huge potential impact on the work of conservators if the one remaining vellum supplier were to go to the wall. Members' letters to their MPs have already had an impact: keep 'em coming. We've also written, and members of our all-party parliamentary group have offered to table questions. Also, we've been getting more involved in the emerging proposals for managing health records by NHS England, many of which (notably on retention schedules) appear... well, inadequate, to put it mildly.
Last Tuesday, archives took centre stage. I popped up to Liverpool for the Northwest ARA region's AGM. Things got off to a bad start when I turned up at King's Cross in London for my train only to realise that it was going from Euston. So after legging it over and missing the train by a whisker, I took the next one up and had the additional pleasure of getting re-acquainted with Crewe while waiting for the (late) connection. (Kevin and his Northwest region colleagues were remarkably forgiving of all this.)
You're probably thinking: typical southerner, or (if feeling more generous) that it must have been a while since I'd made that journey if I couldn't get the right London station. Truth is that the last time I was in Liverpool was in 2006, when my wife and I were planning our wedding in North Wales. For that, we flew from Paris – where we were living – into John Lennon airport and drove in less than an hour to the majestic Berwyn Mountains. We didn't need London to get to Liverpool. In fact, I realised that I had never travelled to Liverpool from London before: it had always been from somewhere else. From Wales, where I grew up; university, in England; and numerous times on trains and planes from points east and west.
In 2006, I remembered how much Liverpool seemed to have changed since my earliest visits as a student and then in early working life. The 1980s and 1990s were painful time for the city but it was never short of hustle even then. When we stopped by in 2006, the bustle was very clearly back. Yesterday, insofar as you can glean anything from a few hours' visit, there was that definitive 'civic pride' buzz that makes the city – for me at least – very special. A few pints after the AGM at the outstanding Philharmonic pub on Hope Street, with its delightful Victorian heritage, old dining rooms and very 'today' organic Liverpool Brewery ales, no doubt helped the general feel-good. (It was also great to see our new President, Alex Buchanan, there).
It's not all good news in Liverpool and the Northwest region, of course. Our local members and their services face staff cuts, mergers, wage freezes, shorter opening hours and seemingly never-ending rounds of having to justify the value of what they do to people who don't really understand the sector. Colleagues elsewhere will recognise this particular tune. What did someone clever once say about those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing....?
Ok, it's a two-way street: there is an onus on us to find ways to 'sell' the value of our members and their services to decision-makers in a language they understand. We have reason to be confident; good decision-making at all levels has always started with good information. And you'll only get good information if you manage and archive your data and records well. That's why, as Liverpool's Margaret Procter skilfully reminded us at the ARA conference in Dublin, some clever people decided to set up archives and records centres hundreds of years ago. But, as Kevin reminded us, his daily reality is now making archives fit 'the growth agenda' of his wider organisation. No mean feat.
Then the question came up: are archives tough enough in charging people for their time, especially media types who make those 'Who do you think you are?' programmes or niche documentaries about Liverpool's extraordinary maritime heritage or the Manchester to Liverpool railway? Are archivists too accommodating at times, because they are passionate about their collections (or just too well brought-up to ask)? The National Archives are pretty robust about charging outsiders, but they are a big beast and get around two TV crews in a week making some kind of programme or another. So, they can hang tough. But if you run a small archive or records office – or are one-person conservation team - and the mighty BBC call up, how do you handle it? Not so easy.
Truth is that several people brought this up in different ways - privately - at conference in Dublin. It has been in the 'must do' tray since. Liverpool was a timely reminder. So, we will put together some guidance for members on how they might handle such situations. We'll first trawl the membership for experiences you have had and how you dealt with them: chances are that we already have a huge body of expertise waiting to be collated. We'll include some scenarios to watch out for, eg tricks that clever people use to try and get for free what they should (and can afford to) be paying for. I hope it'll end up as something 'live' that can be updated according to people's experiences.
ARA members play a vital role in safeguarding our past and ensuring public accountability. Our members would never put an absolute financial value on what they hold or manage, and rightly so. But when providing a bespoke service that others use for their own commercial profit, it is only right that you should receive some recompense to help with upkeep of your offices or collections. It may, in future, mean their survival. In that regard, a little more of good old-fashioned Liverpool hustle might serve us all well.