I recently gave a talk to a conference for archivists on my perceptions as a disabled user of archives. I have a progressive neurological disease, and sometimes use a wheelchair. More significantly I am very knocked out for a lot of the time, due to brain damage, unable any more to spend long periods working in an archival environment. This is despite me having used archives extensively since the mid 1980s, including a very intensive period a decade ago, when I worked half-time as a Research Assistant for a university project, and my job was just to go to archives and spend long periods there. My disease hadn’t progressed so far at that stage. Things have changed a lot for me since.
Many archives are in cramped locations. I was asked recently to give feedback on a consultation on a particular archive, and one of the points I made was that I hope it might at some point be relocated to a more accessible location. At the moment I struggle to get around there even when just using my stick. When using my wheelchair, which I need to do if I’m going to be there for any quasi-extended period, it’s very hard for me to get in there, and almost impossible to move around the small search room. And as I said at the conference this isn’t just an issue for wheelchair users. Many people have mobility issues, especially older people, and making an archive more accessible can benefit a large number of users, and not always just those you might expect.
Fortunately the archive’s staff are very helpful, and will help me as much as they can. But there are limits to what they can do. This is why I’m such a fan of digitisation on demand. This is very different from an archive initiating digitisation of a major record resource that they decide upon. Rather it’s where a specific user needs to access something – which may be many pages long – and it is digitally photographed or otherwise digitised, so they can work on it at home. I was very lucky during my part-time PhD that various archivists agreed to this. For example my husband photographed nearly 1000 pages of library borrowing records in the Scottish Borders archive at Hawick. And the archivist waived the copying fees (which often have to be paid, even when a visitor does the digitisation themselves) because the copies were needed for disability reasons. And likewise I borrowed many thousands of digital images of testaments and inventories from the National Archives of Scotland, and was able to work through them, looking for evidence of book ownership.
The other key thing for accessibility in my circumstances is good cataloguing of archival material. This is very variable across Scottish archives: some have virtually no catalogues available online, others poor ones, all the way through to better archives with more detailed catalogues. By putting catalogues online, and making them detailed enough, potential visitors or users of the archive can do extensive research from home. If they can then visit the archive themselves then they can make the most of their time there. If, like me, they have to ask for remote copies they are likewise in a good position to do that. Lots of other speakers at the conference also spoke of the importance of cataloguing. I think it’s under-recognised by archive managers, or at least some seem to view themselves as the gatekeepers of archives, and requests for information must be filtered through them. But good catalogues empower users, and give them the opportunity to do essential groundwork themselves. And I think they should be improved where possible.
I closed my talk to the archivists with a list of recommendations for archivists to improve accessibility. I will repeat these here, for the benefit of any reading:
- Would ask archivists to consider how accessible their search rooms are, including the layout within the room itself. This is potentially of great benefit to physically disabled archive users, but a more accessible layout can benefit users in general as well, for example tables and chairs that are easier to move around, paper catalogues easier to access etc.
- As a counterpoint to that ask you to be more aware of the potential need for people to research at a distance, and do not always assume lengthy on-the-spot research is practical or the default approach, and consider enabling other modes of provision for users
- To that end make sure that online catalogues are as detailed as they can be, and improve them where necessary
- As well as archivist initiated digitisation projects archivists should consider supporting digitisation on demand, including permitting digital photography of records, whether a per page copying fee is charged for such photography, or waived for disability users