Few can disagree that, as a result of restricted budgets and cut backs, archives are in a state of crisis. Wherever I go in the country and overseas it would seem that archives and libraries are closing or severely reducing their opening hours. The number of trained archival staff has also been drastically cut in many places.
In the light of the current economic climate, although this is extremely worrying, it is hardly surprising. In comparison to many other services county councils have to provide, one can understand that archives will not top the priority list. However, it still comes as a shock to read that Northamptonshire Archives have decided to significantly reduce the number of hours that the archives can be freely accessed by approximately half – unless you can afford to pay a new extortionate fee which will give you more extensive access. Under the new system, which appears to have been implemented without any public consultation, access will be free for four hours on each of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, but anyone who wishes to continue their research into the afternoon or who is not available on these mornings will have to pay £31.50 an hour. This payment must be received three days in advance so you will not be able to gauge how much research time you need as you go along.
It will no doubt be argued that this is a better option than simply reducing the opening hours to 12 in any week but, in my opinion, it creates an unnerving precedent of making archives much more accessible to the very wealthy. It must have been a conscious decision to limit the free access to mornings only on three days a week, rather than giving free access say, for one or two whole days a week. Perhaps this is to try and force those travelling long distances, or those carrying out in depth research, to pay up so they can continue their research into the afternoon?
I do hope this is not an idea that other archives decide to copy. Although I have no revolutionary ideas as to how to resolve the current archival budgeting crisis, surely requests for donations from archive users could be more actively encouraged and would I am sure many users would be wiling to give what they could afford?