Monday, 21 July 2008

National Archives of Scotland

After a short break from our visit to the National Library (during which some of us ate at the Elephant House [where J. K. Rowling supposedly penned some of the first parts of Harry Potter] and saw Greyfriars Bobby), we visited the National Archives of Scotland. Margaret MacBride, the education officer, told us about their organization.

The Archives are an agency of the Scottish government, so the archivists are actually civil servants. They are headed by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland (an archivist or librarian of standing appointed by the government), and the national collections are the responsibility of the Minister for Europe, External Affairs, and Culture. One of their missions is to preserve, protect, and promote the nation's records. The Archives consists of three buildings in Edinburgh, which host 160 staff (including IT, maintenance, and 30-40 archivists), and five websites. They are organized into two divisions, each under the head of a Deputy Keeper: the Record Services Division (government records, court and legal records, private records, and outreach services) and the Corporate Services Division (accommodation services, finance and administration, information and communication technology, conservation services, and reader services). The latter division is the one that makes use of the documents and makes them accessible to the people.

The building we were in was the General Register House, which dates from the late 1780s and was the first building to look after national records. They have a second building which is a 15 minute walk away, which is the West Register House. That building houses public search areas, storage, and offices. It opened to the public in 1971. In 1995, the Thomas Thomson House was opened at another site. It has an entire floor for conservation and storerooms within storerooms. This site has no public access.

Ms. MacBride discussed some of their conservation techniques. They even have a box-making machine that can make boxes for any sized book or document. They also do a lot of digitizing. They have digitized three million records of Scottish wills from 1500-1901 in order to preserve the originals.

She also discussed national versus local storage of records. The British Standard (BS5454) determines if a building has the proper quality to be an archive, so that sometimes comes into play when determining where records are housed.

The functions of the Archives are as follows: to select public records worthy of permanent preservation; to acquire historic records of national importance; to make suitable arrangements for the disposal of that which is not transferred to an appropriate repository; to preserve documents using archival standards; to promote public access to information; to increase electronic access; to make use of copies. catalogs, exhibitions, and publications; to provide advice to owners who wish to retain their own records; to develop archival practices; and to deploy resources effectively.

They have over 70 km of records dating from the 12th century onwards, including state and parliamentary papers, all legal transactions, registers of deeds and sasines (land registers), church records, wills and testaments, taxation records, valuation rolls, family and estate papers, court and legal records, government records, business records, railway records, nationalized industries, maps and plans, private records, and photographs. Access to these records can come via their electronic catalog on their website, paper catalogs in search rooms, and websites such as,,,, and Ms. MacBride discussed the various uses that people made of these resources. Scotland has a different curriculum than England, and students of about 16 or 17 have to write a paper on Scottish history, for example.

They have strict rules in their reading and search rooms in order to conserve their documents. Only paper, pencil and laptops are allowed in the historical search room at the General Register House. They can carry personal items in a clear plastic bag. With the presentation of a form of ID, they are given a reader's ticket, which is valid for three years. There is also the West Search Room, or Charlotte Square. There the reader has an allocated seat from which they order records electronically. They don't charge for public services such as historical searches, as those belong to the people of Scotland, but readers have to pay for legal searches: £17 a day or £13 a half day to access wills or other legal documents.

The Archives is currently working on a new setup which will divide free and charged access areas. They plan to have certain computers which readers can use free of charge for two hours. If their two hours are up and they decide that they wish to continue, they can enter the reader room for £10. There are also 40 seats in the dome area that are designated for professionals. These professionals have to pay for a season ticket. They aren't sure yet how this system is going to work. They are going to have a soft launch for six weeks in August and September before it officially opens in October. They are also developing a new look (

She also discussed more of their digitization projects. They have digitized the Church of Scotland records, and they are working on digitizing more of their collection. Copies of digital records costs readers £2.50 for five pages, but it is more expensive for non-digital records, as they have to pay to set up the camera.

She then showed us both digital copies and actual manuscripts, which we were allowed to examine with gloves. They ranged from an 18th century cookbook to a modern government file on devolution. There was a file from 1914 on the suffragist Fanny Parker, who was imprisoned and force-fed when she went on hunger strikes, a surveyor's book with beautiful illustrations, and a criss-cross letter (written that way to preserve paper). We were also shown around the building. We saw the various areas that are going to be the different levels of reading rooms (free, paid, and professional) and the room in which they were digitizing and/or making digital copies for readers. I hope their new system works out well for them.

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