Why Archives Matter: A Historian Writes

By - Friday 11th January, 2013

Those who support this cut would have us think this is a rarely-used archive with little relevance to present day issues. They couldn’t be more wrong

Croydon Council’s Local Studies section has three boxes of material about the life of its composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor that it has accumulated over the years. This material was useful to Jeffrey Green in researching his major biography on the composer published in 2011. Material in it was used during last year’s Croydon Festival commemorating the life of the composer, and by the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network (which I co-ordinate) in its newsletters, which have a readership across the country and in the United States. Chris Bennett, the Local Archivist, was able to use some of the material for the display he mounted about the composer in the Central Library. There is a lot more material that can be used in the future. This demonstrates the value of Local Studies and Archive services. It was my intention to deposit a batch of material generated last year, but given the Council’s intention to cut the funding to the services I am now in two minds about this.

I am having to think about what the proposed Croydon cut means and how it can be questioned. I am doing this in the midst of my work as an independent historian working on the Heritage Lottery funded North East Popular Politics Project editing large quantities of material found by volunteers working in a County Record Office, 2 regional archives, 8 local archives/studies, an independent library, and 2 University Special Collections. The edited material is being put onto a database which will be publicly accessible from mid-March. Back in 2007 my involvement with volunteers in 4 libraries and archives in a Remembering Slavery project led to a complete reassessment of the role of North Easteners in the slavery business and its abolition. Some of this material has fed into the University College London’s ‘Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’ project looking at who benefited from the £20m compensation to the slave owners and what they may have invested it in. The foundation for this work is the extensive files at the National Archives of the Compensation Commission. The database will be publicly accessible in a few weeks time, and will be searchable to see what Croydon’s involvements were.

Reducing the role of local archives and studies (and museum) services can be damaging. Having angered about 20,000 people in 2007 when it closed its museum, Wandsworth council changed tack and adopted a pro-active role to promoting the borough’s history. This included improving the resourcing of its Heritage Service which combines local archives and studies. It set up the Heritage Wandsworth Partnership which brings together specialist workers in the council and members of the local amenity and historical societies. I am a member of the Partnership because of my long term involvement in work on the borough’s history. The Partnership is consulted about the development of the Heritage Service. Its comments have been included in the new policy draft. The Partnership also organises the annual Heritage Festival.

Archives provide valuable insights into the dynamic of what happened in the past

Why are archives important? Because they help us examine past and present events. As we develop new interests and perspectives shaped by contemporary events and issues, so archive material is re-looked at and often leads to new interpretations, or enables the background to be explained to politicians and the public. It is as a result of work like this that we have a much better understanding of the history of women and of black people in Britain (dating back to the 15th century). The work of staff in local archives and studies services can play an important role in supporting schools in providing local material to the national and international topics they study as part of the National Curriculum.

Croydon’s Local Studies Library is one of these vital institutions where readers can find archival records of organisations, such as local authorities, hospitals, businesses, churches, trade unions, friendly societies, and charities. Nationally, the thirty year rule sees government documents released by the National Archives thirty years after they were written. Requests under Freedom of Information legislation sometimes enable earlier release of some documents. This is part of the way in which government is held accountable to the publicly preserving records that enable citizens to monitor the conduct of government agencies and public servants. Archives, including Croydon’s, are consulted every day for a wide range of reasons, for example in respect of current land development, planning and conservation issues.

Croydon Council should think very carefully if it approves the proposed cut to its Local Archives and Studies. I have emailed Councillors asking them to consider the matter as part of the Oversight Review process and have set out a series of questions on my personal blog that I very much hope will be answered.

Click here to read about why the Croydon Citizen supports the Local Studies Archive, and why you should too!

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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