Somebody I know recently returned from doing historical research in a number of British and French archives and libraries. As I am very much interested in European history (as well as archives and libraries generally), I found this interesting to hear about. However, to my disappointment, these institutions are very restrictive to the point of silliness. In order to access some materials, the person referred to above (who is a PhD student in history) had to present letters of recommendation from their doctoral supervisors, go through interviews* and other obstacles in order to access the materials which date from roughly about 1640 to 1800.
As I listened to these travails of research, I couldn't help but contrast it with my experience of research in North America. Archivists and librarians make it so easy and welcoming here. The whole point of these institutions is to connect people with information and I think barriers to access should be as few as possible. The Library of Congress gave me a library card simply on request and it was great. My impression is that most Canadian libraries and archives are likewise open and welcoming to users.
I suppose one could argue that European archives have more fragile materials that are much used and they need to ration access. I could grant this, but there is a relatively simple solution - providing reference copies. Even so, I got the impression that the staff were being overprotective. As far as I'm concerned, North American archives are better to their users. It pains me to admit that since I tend to admire many aspects of European culture but that's what the evidence indicates so far.
Based on this evidence (and I am certainly curious to know of counter-examples), it seems that North American archives and libraries are more open, more accomodating and perhaps even more democratic than those in Europe. I would like to hope that any interested person could, on request, ask to see the papers of Sir John A. MacDonald (Canada's first Prime Minister) and there would be none of thise nonsense about letters and interviews. I shudder to imagine the difficulties one would have in trying to do the same in Europe.
*On the other hand, collecting this sort of information would make it so much easier to understand one's users...