Whether speaking as an archive user or as member of the archive profession I won’t need to tell you that archives can often be seen as the poor relation in terms of cultural collections. This may sound a rather gloomy and self-pitying statement but I think it’s something we encounter daily as user or practitioner.
Having worked in archives for over 15 years it never fails to astonish me how seemingly few gains have been made in convincing the powers-that-be of the importance of archives. Yes, people enjoy history programmes and like speaking of the past, history is very prevalent in many forms be it in the retro packaging of toiletries, the monuments we pass on the street, or the current blockbuster film about a time gone by. However, the disconnect between the enjoyment of history and the necessary funding required to continue that enjoyment doesn’t seem to register. Advocating for archives and justifying investment in their existence seems to be a perpetual and increasingly wearying battle.
One can obviously argue, and indeed completely understand, that when times are tough fundamental services like education and healthcare come before the funding of, say, a reading room to view archival collections in, but is our written heritage really only a luxury to be valued when it can be afforded. It’s not even as if our colleagues in galleries and museums are revelling in an excess of funding themselves, but more evidently visual collections that appear to be more easily digestible to the public are certainly given more prestige in terms of profile. Belief in their value doesn’t have to be fought for like we do for a ‘box of papers’.
Surely that is due to an inherent ‘problem’ with archives. Archives aren’t easy to work with, in fact they can be pretty tricky to navigate and require effort either to simply read them (oh the 19th century hand!) or to understand the context. Research is slow and labour intensive and the quick consumption of a neat online transcript about a great great grandparent doesn’t just end there – it leads to more and more questions (the beauty of it perhaps!).
This is all after finding the relevant collection of course which can be a struggle in itself. The legacy of neglect for our archival heritage is not only the loss of history (although that is certainly a major consideration) but the difficulty in using and working with it. If a collection has never received resources to care for it in the form of a person employed to comprehensively catalogue it and store it correctly, then at the most basic level how can it be identified as of relevance and its context understood to realise its full value? This is a vicious circle and one that doesn’t look as if it is going to be broken any time soon.
The dream of ceaseless resources to tackle our legacy issues or even our future considerations are unlikely to be a reality, so in the meantime we can continue to do what archivists and researchers have been doing for generations. We can participate in the archive advocacy campaigns such as Explore Your Archive, we can engage with the Irish Archive Resource to help make our collections more findable, we can work hard to create exhibitions and to help interpret our collections to reveal the history of them and most importantly we can keep battling for the role, function and visibility of the archive to be more prominent in the minds of the public, you never know it might just reach the ears of the powers-that-be.
Natalie Milne, IAR Archivist