Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Site 12: National Archives of Scotland

July 21, 2008

If I've learned one thing about the United Kingdom's present reading culture, after scouring Charring Cross bookstores, and really any chain of Waterstone's, it is this: crime novels are big. Roomful-discount big. And it's with this thought that I enjoy the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect that the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) uses in its website: MIND OF A KILLER -- accompanied by side-by-side mugshot, naturally.

In all seriousness, though, the NAS maintains a pertinent website, and physical research space, for all users (however high or low their sensationalist tastes may be): residents of Scotland, those of Scottish descent, and any parties interested in Scottish history and culture. Our host on the day of our visit to the NAS is Margaret McBride, from Education Services. She welcomes us warmly to her workplace, and it cannot be denied -- it's a pretty grand place of work.

Situated in Edinburgh, the NAS is a government agency (working within the Ministry of Europe) composed of three branches: General Register House and West Register House in central Edinburgh, both open to the public; and Thomas Thomson House in west Edinburgh, which houses the NAS's main depository as well as conservation department. The NAS is further organized through two primary divisions: Record Services, which covers governmental, legal, private, and outreach matters; and a Corporate Services, who in turn concern themselves with accommodation, finance and administration, conservation, reader services, and information and communication technology.

Their general role is to maintain the country's records, upholding national archival standards. The added responsibility as a national archive means that presentation selection, access, media transfer, and provision of user services and advice, must all answer to greater expectations. Discussion at the NAS ranges from how best to preserve records, in what formatting, to identifying records are of special interest to users -- and anticipating the Scottish public's current and future searches.

Their mission highly takes into consideration that, as a national archive, the NAS's foremost duty is to its people, of whose records they hold in their care. As such, the NAS aims to preserve, promote, and protect Scotland's records in whatever medium; making these records available through exhibitions, talks, workshops, and like endeavors. Providing the best services is, by their own definition, perpetuating "lifelong learning." And more than meeting educational standards, the NAS hopes to engage its readers with their own rich history and culture.

The historical search room at the NAS encourages such public interaction. Functioning like most archival reading rooms, i.e. most belongings must be stored in a locker upon entering the building, those items allowed in are to be kept in a see-through bag, the historical search room is set aside as a quiet research space. Its OPAC is still a work-in-progress (public feedback influences the reconstruction), but an electronic ordering system is in place, retrieving "virtual volumes" for users. Excellently, use is free of charge for personal (read: not commercial) research. A good deal, with all due respect, especially when considering that the reader's pass for the NAS is valid for 3 years (for access on-site).

Our class was fortunate enough to be able to view some of the NAS's holdings (which total some 70 kilometers of records, from the 12th century onward). Margaret laid out for us on tables and under clear plastic cover (archival-approved, I'm sure) samples of family and estate papers; state, parliament, and church records; legal documents; photographs and drawn maps; and wills (1500-1901, after which date census data is used for reference). The detail is amazing -- that which goes into the information gathered, such as on farms (two words: sheep count), very often illustrated. The fact that these records are moreover handwritten makes translation a little difficult for my print-trained eyes, but it takes everything to a level that is so personal.

Of course, for users who are researching their own past, it must be an entirely other experience. At the moment, genealogical searches are of prime interest, and in 2009, Scotland is hosting a homecoming. The NAS is gearing up for a crowd of thousands, many of which will no doubt be curious about their origins. How to accommodate a huge influx of visitors, and whether to extend working hours, are some of the questions that the NAS, and the greater government of Scotland, are seeking to answer -- satisfactorily.

(And I, for one, am hoping to discover some Scottish in my own murky genealogy [i.e. thank you, birth and marriage records that... do not conform]. Hopefully nothing criminal, but I'll keep you all in the know.)

National Archives of Scotland homepage

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