The challenge of making archives relevant to local authorities

Publication Date13 July 2010
Date13 July 2010
AuthorGordon Reid
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
The challenge of making archives
relevant to local authorities
Gordon Reid
Scottish Council on Archives, Edinburgh, UK
Purpose – The paper aims to explore the context in which local authority archives and records
services are operating, in terms of national and local outcomes and targets. It considers what
contribution archives services might make towards those outcomes and targets, in general and specific
terms. It aims to show archivists and records managers the importance of aligning themselves with the
priorities of their local authorities, especially at a time when public sector finances are under scrutiny,
and considers some of the challenges that might involve.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper takes the Glasgow City Council cultural strategy as
an example, and considers in detail both how that strategy is shaped by the Scottish Government’s
national outcomes, and as a result how archives are reflected in it, drawing a “golden thread” from the
Scottish Government’s national statement of purpose all the way down to Glasgow City Council’s
cultural action plan with its plans for the archives service.
Findings – The paper shows that, although in principle it is relatively easy to make a case for the
contribution of archives to local cultural outcomes, in practice those outcomes are frequently focused
too narrowly to allow much opportunity for archives to play a part.
Originality/value – This paper fulfils a recognised need by showing the importance of archives and
records services aligning themselves with the priorities of their local authorities, and offers practical
advice to enable them to do so.
Keywords Archives management, Government, Legislation, Managementaccountability,
Public sector organizations, Scotland
Paper type Viewpoint
This paper considers the financial climate in which local authorities in Scotland are
operating and in particular the impact of the recent banking crisis and economic
downturn. It explains a little of how local authorities decide their spending priorities,
how they are measured, and what this means for the archive services they fund.
The planning process is explained in some detail, showing how the Scottish Government
sets the agenda nationally for local authorities to respond to locally. Finally, by focusing
on one specific local authority – Glasgow the paper attempts to show what this might
mean in practice for an archives service, drawing from that some of the implications for
our profession.
Glasgow was chosen as an example merely because this paper is based on a talk
which was given to students at the Humanities Advanced Technologies and
Information Institute at the University of Glasgow. Though a convoluted process it is
possible to trace a “golden thread” from the Scottish Government’s purpose all the way
down to the local level and a city council’s plans, in this case Glasgow in Scotland, for
the archive service as part of the Mitchell Library.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
This paper is based on a talk given to Glasgow University archive students on 13 January 2010.
Received 23 April 2010
Revised 6 May 2010
Accepted 11 May 2010
Records Management Journal
Vol. 20 No. 2, 2010
pp. 226-243
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09565691011064359
It is all too easy for archivists to operate in a semi-detached manner within their
local authorities. Frequently, located in separate buildings far from the makers of
policy, frequently submerged near the bottom of their departmental structure, seldom
given the opportunity to shape policy or even contribute to it, and seldom encouraged
to work in a cross-domain, cross-departmental way, archivists are at risk of becoming
isolated. Now, major changes are taking place in the way that UK local authorities
operate and are funded. Unless we as archivists can find ways to adapt and to
meaningfully engage with these new developments, we run the risk of not just being
marginalised, but of ceasing to exist.
The recession and the consequences for culture
There is no doubt that money is going to become tighter over the next few years, both for
the public and private sectors, as we climb out of the biggest global recession since the
1930s. Depending on what newspaper one reads, the UK Government is currently facing
a massive public spending deficit. Some predictions put this as high as £178 billion[1 ].
To put this into perspective, consider that the Scottish Government Culture Division
currently has an annual budget of around £200 million, which funds cultural
organisations such as Scottish Heritage and the National Archives of Scotland, not to
mention the Scottish Council on Archives, which receives £150,000 a year. But even
£200 million, substantial though that is, is negligible when compared to the level of
public debt; even if the government stopped funding all cultural activities it would
reduce the level of debt by only a very tiny amount. (Of course, it is very unlikely that
any government would just decide to stop spending on culture altogether. But we
should not doubt for a second that the Scottish Government will be looking to reduce
spending as much as possible as it looks to bring that level of debt down. Why should
culture, including archives, be exempt?).
The recession: impact on local authorities
A recession is not of course, measured in terms of its impact on archives services, it is a
measure of how well the economy is performing. In very simplistic terms, the more
goods and services manufacturing industry creates, the more wealth is gener ated,
the more people are employed. This in turn means that more people have a disposable
income to buy goods and services, and pay taxes; taxes which ultimately go to the
Exchequer, and some of which are subsequently allocated to the Scottish Government
to spend on cultural organisations, such as Scottish Heritage or the National Archives
of Scotland or the Scottish Council on Archives – and on local au thorities.
Local authorities raise a proportion of their income each year from their residents,
through local taxes, for example, the Council Tax. Much of the rest of their income
comes through central government grants. It is another gross over-simplification, but
the more prosperous a local authority is, the lower the proportion of grant it generally
needs from government.
Few Scottish local authorities could be described as prosperous. Many of them are
heavily dependent on the funding they receive from central government funding
which often comes with preconditions as to how it should be spent. So their scope, both
in terms of levels of funding and what they can do with it, is already quite limited.
In Scotland, it is perhaps not surprising that Inverclyde and Glasgow, the industrial
heartland of the central belt, are predicted to suffer most from the recession; and that
Dumfries& Galloway,East Dunbartonshire,SouthAyrshire and Argyll& Bute – counties

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