Tuesday, July 20, 2010

National Archives of Scotland

Our fourth and final visit in Edinburgh was to the National Archives of Scotland. Housed at the General Register House (with annexes at West and East Register Houses also located in central Edinburgh) and the purpose-built Thomas Thomson House (for conservation and storage), the NAS looks after the records of Scotland and makes them accessible to the people of Scotland. They oversee over 70,000 kilometers of records dating from the 12th century through the present. Organized between the three buildings, the records are separated into two divisions related to records and functions of the archive:

(1) Record Services, which encompasses Government Documents, Court and Legal records, Collection Development and the National Register of Archives--a register of finding aids privately-held records that are accessible to researchers
(2) Corporate Services, including Reader Services, Conservation, Finance, Accounting, and ICT (information and communication technologies)

NAS is responsible for sixteen types of records from charters (on vellum) to e-records of the recent Scottish Parliamentary session. The most significant collection (from size and scope standpoint) are the State and Parliamentary Records (pre-1707 and post-1999), and the Registers of Deeds and Sasines [seizins] as well as Wills (1501-1901), which are digitized and available to the public, as well as valuations and railroad records. Most of the records are used for the purpose of genealogical research, which is a major focus of the Scottish National Archives.

The ScotlandsPeople Centre, established in has 80million records online including wills, births, deaths, marriages, census records, coats of arms, and Catholic and Protestant parish registers. ScotlandsPeople creates revenue for the National Archives of Scotland. Visitors receive a free two-hour introductory session. From there, visitors can books a $15.00 day ticket or purchase time to do research online at home. The website includes information on how to use both the site and the records a researcher might encounter.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this visit. Not only were we given an informative and well-designed tour by an enthusiastic guide, we were given the opportunity to handle a selection of primary sources--with or without white gloves--that represent a cross-section of the Archives' collection.

When our guide, archivist Tristam Clarke, mentioned that the Archive remained in the same building since it's founding I asked whether this was due at all to the fact that Scotland had not had an independent Parliament for the years 1707 (Act of Union) through 1999 (Scottish Parliament restored). Therefore, all Scottish governmental records would be held at The National Archives in Kew Gardens for that era. The archivist paused, reflected, and remarked that it was certainly one of the major reasons. I enjoyed conversing with him about the archive's organization, his own background (PhD in Church History), and the structure of the NAS' General Register House (a Robert Adam building). The General Register House, built 1774-1780 was purpose-built by famous architect Robert Adam to house the records of Scotland. The first reading room opened in the 1880s, now it is the reading rooms and the public's access to the records that make the NAS, and nearly all other archives, integral parts of a community and of significance to resource allocators and governmental officials. The fact that a national archive like the NAS devotes so much space and attention to genealogy is something that we all, as library professionals, should take note of.

The archive's digitization program concentrates on the creation of surrogates for preservation and conservation purposes. They have partnered with the Genealogy Society of Utah and created unified online collections including the National Register of Tartans, the National Register of Archives, the Scottish Archive Network/SCAN and a paleography--handwriting--site, Scottish Handwriting.com, to help researchers access and understand records.

The National Archives of Scotland also functions as the records-collector of the Scottish government. Similar to most archives, NAS is facing a space shortage--they need to deaccession existing records and hope to create best practices for governmental divisions to limit the amount of files that are submitted to them. The court and legal division of NAS are in constant dialogue with the Scottish courts, visiting every one to two years to educate court record creators about weeding and accession policies. They have been successful in many ways: the government has set up an office and created staff training to create records retention schedules and best practices. The goal is to get governmental offices to do the first selection and narrow down what is submitted to NAS--thereby making NAS accession more straightforward and limiting the need for deaccessioning.

On a personal note: can I say how cool it was to have the chance to handle, investigate, and experience primary documents again. This tour felt like more than "library tourism" and I thank our hosts, Dr. Clarke and Margaret McBryde for the opportunity to see the inside, the underside and the inner workings of their institution.

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