Wednesday, August 6, 2008

European vs. North American Archives: The New World Wins

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...

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Worse even than having to provide letters of recommendation and interview in order to use the archives (France), is being told that a certain set of documents you requested does not pertain to your research. Apparently the Turkish state archives is infiltrated with secret police and don't like to provide access to certain records (i.e. the Armenian genocide of 1915, which according to Turkey never happened). Frankly, I'm amazed that they didn't simply destroy anything that portrayed them in a bad light; though the Nazis kept meticulous records of their horrendous actions, so I guess it makes sense. I did not personally go to Turkey, but heard from a Turkish researcher who has been to the archives many times and now gives talks at conferences about the lack of access in Turkey.

Deseronto Archives said...

A particular bug-bear of mine is the phrase 'bona fide researcher', which is used by a fair number of university archives in the UK to describe the sort of person that can get access to their collections. Who decides what constitutes 'bona fide' research? In practice, however, most UK archivists are welcoming to all users and probably don't vet their subject of research too carefully. Publicly-funded archives don't usually have restrictions on access, but do require users to provide proof of identity and get some kind of reader's ticket.

University archives can afford to be more choosy and many users were frustrated by the Bodleian Library's admissions procedures when I worked in Oxford. Here's the PDF form you would have to fill in if you wanted access to Special Collections. It requires quite a lot of forward planning by the user!

Timothy said...

My experience has been conducting doctoral research and beyond in a number of Italian archives and manuscript collections. Interestingly, there seems to be a combination of strictness and openness (some would call it a national characteristic). Upon my very first visit to one institution, it took me an hour and a half to complete the paperwork which, with my letter of recommendation would allow me to use the materials. It was then explained to me that the rules required me to request said materials 48 hours in advance. I explained to the archivist that I only was in town for one more day and she smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and retrieved some volumes pronto, pronto (in five minutes)...

Anonymous said...

But has anyone recognized that have beautiful and well kept European libraries are? Not to mention the fact that a large amount of public libraries are like museums and don't have homeless lying around, no, they have cafe culture and the general public using them as knowledge centers, not a place to sneeze and have your kids run wild while you fill out tax forms. They can be very strict, but when items are artifacts, they should guard them and treat them with respect like they do their materials,buildings, and employees.