Archives are part of the heritage sector in the UK. Or are they? Archives benefit from grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, although as the HLF gives out about £375 million a year and has provided only £281 million to archives (and libraries) over a 17 year period, I think it it is fair to say that archives come rather low down in the heritage pecking order. Archives are often thought to be very similar to museums, but they are in fact very different. Museums preserve items from the past, or from other cultures, and make it possible for people to view them in ways that enhance their understanding of the items’ context. Archives preserve documents so that people can access their contents for themselves. While the users of archives are often looking for historical knowledge – whether this is general historical research, family history, or house history – this is by no means always the case.
Local authority and government archives also have a function as a place of record. Many of the documents they hold still have legal force. It is not unusual for local authority corporate structures to include archives under their legal department rather than as part of leisure and culture. There are many uses for documents which go far beyond the preservation of heritage. Enclosure records may be used to prove the existence of a right of way; the police may want access to archived coroner’s records when an old case is reopened; or someone may need to prove they were resident in a particular place at a specific time. It is not only public sector archives which have uses which go further than just preserving the history they contain; for example, business archives will often have records which can still be of use commercially.
In a time when public finances are particularly tight (and getting ever tighter) culture and heritage are being squeezed with ever shrinking budgets, and this is certainly true for archives. Most – if not all! – local archives are trying to function with less staff than they had a few years ago, and there have even been attempts to close some smaller services completely. We have to hope that archives are able to raise their profile and increase understanding of just how important it is that they survive and continue to provide access to records for everyone. They are a vital part of our heritage, yes, but are also so much more than that.