Posted By Luis Bustamante on December 9, 2013
If we are to believe the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council report Listening to the Past, Speaking to the Future, Britain’s archives are visited more than 1.5 million times a year. Of the people making those visits, 98 per cent are white, 55 per cent are aged 55 and over and 75 per cent are there to undertake private or personal research. In the last 10 years, estimates the Council, archive use has risen by more than 50 per cent. Sounds like a real success story, doesn’t it?
According to Tim Coates, author of Who’s in charge? Responsibility for the Public Library Service (April 2004, Libri, Charity for Libraries, ISBN 1-84381-0868) Britain’s libraries are in near terminal decline. Book lending has halved since 1984, with book acquisition accounting for a mere nine per cent of library budgets totalling £1 billion. Says Coates: ‘the overall picture is of decline so serious that if current visitor trends continue, by 2020 libraries will have ceased to be used at all’. Dear me, that sounds dire. How can it be that the local authority library systems, which incorporate so many record offices, are experiencing both boom and bust?
`By 2020 libraries will have ceased to be used at all’
First, let’s look at the way in which the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council chooses to present its data to the press. (I will not challenge the 1.5m visits figure, other than to remark that when my local library system in Peterborough last undertook a ‘visitor enquiry’ head count, I was counted three times in the course of one visit because that’s how many times I had to go to the enquiry desk to find what I was looking for in the central reference library.) Yes, I’m white (although my children have at least one black forebear) I’m also in my 55th year and ‘personal research’ would describe the reason for my frequent visits to museums, archives and libraries.
I’m also aware that ‘black and minority ethnic groups and the young barely use archives’ (to quote the Council’s report again) but any appreciation of the demographic and social trends published by the Office for National Statistics would tend to undermine the clear implication that archive users are largely a privileged, educated elite, pursuing their arcane hobbies at public expense.
Ethnic groups whose first language may not be English will hardly flock to visit rooms full of books and documents written in that language. Likewise, if my family history lay in another continent, I might well be wasting my time looking for ancestors in 18th century English church registers. The young read little and have read less and less for many years. People in their twenties, thirties and forties may be so busy earning a living and looking for quick loan funding that the inconvenience of archive and library opening hours effectively disenfranchises them.