The consultation process to build the case for HLF funding to improve the City of York’s provision for archives and local studies came to an end on 1 August. The submission will be made in a month’s time and the result will be known at the end of the year. If successful, the construction phase will happen during 2013 and finish in the spring of 2014, subject also to the planning process now in progress. For those who have suffered the old archive provision and the current mess in the upstairs of York Explore, the improvements can’t come soon enough.
The overall archive and local studies content in York is second only to London, if one includes the Borthwick Institute at the University of York, the characterful York Minster Library and the City Archives and Local Studies department. Records in the City Archives go back more than 800 years and are not confined to just the civic records, though these form the largest element. For radical and alternative historians who like to write against the official grain, what is in there might come as a surprise: vaccination records, poor law administration correspondence, slum clearance plans, council housing construction, 1960s Civil Defence material, to mention a handful. Unfortunately the content is not matched at all by the provision for access.
Among the improvements, other than architectural, funding has already been achieved for cataloguing the civic archives, thanks to The National Archives. There are plans to open up access to archive material through neighbourhood initiatives, combined with a much broader and more inclusive collections policy. There will be links to schools and colleges and a stronger partnership with the other archives and libraries in the city. Architecturally the key element will be a purpose-built, state of the art repository, which is desperately needed. In terms of access for the public, the upstairs of York Explore will be completely re-designed to create separate areas for the secure study of original archive material, informal drop in areas separated from quiet and individual study areas, and a dedicated Family History room. This will be much better, especially for those who want peace and quiet for research.
Congratulations are due to the archive development officer, Richard Taylor, for his open vision for the archives and how they should relate to the wider community, and may every success attend his endeavours to bring this project to fruition. Not everyone will like what is done, some people comfortable in the existing arrangements will have to get used to change and a new professionalism about the place and there will be the inevitable upheaval of construction work. But this project has the potential to improve archives access in the city a thousand-fold from its current dire state and create something with which the people of York can more readily and enthusiastically engage.
If there is one issue over which concern might still be expressed it is the uncertainty of the City Council’s commitment to the future of libraries and archives in York. The current budget indicates that from 2013 there is to be a £200,000 saving scheduled against the establishment of unspecified ‘social enterprises to operate in areas including libraries and community education’. It is time the Council came clean on what exactly this means, especially as it continues to make cuts in grants to other ‘social enterprise’ provisions in arts and culture, year on year. Or are they going to spring it on us as a fait accompli in March 2013, as is their usual practice?