Why Archives Matter in 2018

on Friday, 08 June 2018. Posted in Archives

Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.

P40770 Postcard of Stonehenge with a biplane overhead, 1919

An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.

This sense of archives being vital to defend people’s rights has come home to me very strongly in 2018 with the Windrush scandal. One of the most shocking things I read is that the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips, against the advice of staff, who knew how important these records could be for people experiencing immigration status problems. The records were destroyed in 2010 when the organisation moved offices and staff were moved to a new site. The reason given for this destruction was ‘Data Protection’ to ensure that personal data was not kept ‘longer than necessary’. Well, why wasn’t ‘necessary’ at least the lifetimes of the individuals concerned? Over and over again ‘data protection’ has been used as an excuse to destroy or delete data prematurely and there is no justification for this in law. I am pleased that the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the EU, which came into force on 25 May, acknowledges the importance of keeping some records permanently “for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific research, historical research or statistical purposes” - see: http://www.wshc.org.uk/home/data-protection.html for the relevant articles.  It horrifies me to learn, from some local organisations who have contacted me, that lawyers who should know better have been scaremongering and telling them to redact personal names from minute books and to destroy all files which mention individuals! This is potentially creating a black hole in the historical record and goes against the spirit of GDPR which is about treating individuals’ personal data with respect, not wanton destruction. There is further guidance on the National Archives’ website.

Archives don’t just matter in terms of providing legal evidence to defend people’s rights – they also tell us personal stories which help us understand what it means to be human.
It has been heart-breaking, of late, listening to the testimonies of the families and friends of the deceased who perished in last year’s disastrous Grenfell Tower fire. Removed from the bare statistics of how many men, women and children died, we are reminded that each one was a human being; each one was loved by someone. It has reminded me how people live on through the memories of those who knew them, and archives can also preserve their stories. Reading the letters of Victor Perowne, a soldier suffering shell shock (PTSD) who was at Craiglockhart hospital, c1917-1918, is interesting for his eye-witness account of fellow patient, the author Siegfried Sassoon. Perowne describes Sassoon as ‘nice looking in a Greek way – rather light hair, small eyes – talks about himself a lot in a bashful, modest way & lives for hunting…’ (4259/2A/2)

Ref WSA 4259/2A/2 Letters and a poem from Victor Perowne to Moyra Goff

Yet, I found it far more powerful reading his memories of other, unnamed patients, who are too frightened of the dark to sleep with the light out, and see the wallpaper around their beds ‘saturated with blood’. Their names may be forgotten, but their story lives on in the archives, and this is just one, very small, example of why archives matter.

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist


Accredited Archive Service