Friday, 12 January 2018

My Complaint Filed with Spain's Ministry of Culture

Here is the English text, the original Spanish version already having been blogged here:

A few days ago at the National Historical Archive, when I asked about obtaining copies of a 19th century record, I was told by a member of staff that the Urgent Photocopy Service (a policy that allowed archive users to obtain up to 50 copies a month within 24-48 hours) has been 'suspended indefinitely' and, perhaps as a result of this, the backlog wait time to receive any amount of copies requested through 'normal' service is now around SIX MONTHS.

In these conditions reprographic services at the principal archive operated by Spain's Ministry of Culture are not merely unworthy of the 21st century; they don't even limp up to the benchmark for the 20th century. I am certain this is not the fault of the searchroom staff; I'm not sure whether what is lacking are photocopy machines or supplemental, even temporary, staff to operate them, but neither seems like they would require a heroic effort to provide. I think this lack of material and/or human resources reveals officialdom's disinterest, if not disdain, for archives mainly but also for researchers. Let's imagine a hypothetical research project requiring work in several different archival units of records. Suppose they are especially long bundles of documents, perhaps written in one of the more challenging hands (such as the 'encadenada' script used by the Inquisition) which really puts our palaeographical skills to the test. Well, in what would be normal conditions for the year 2018, a researcher could: either request, using the Urgent Photocopy Service I mentioned above, copies of the most crucial pages in the record, have them in hand within 48 hours and then take as much time as needed to decipher them; or, take his or her own photographs of whole record (paying, if the archive charges it, the appropriate daily fee for use of a camera) and then later select and work on the passages of interest; or, order photocopies of the whole thing and then spend extra time on the records, nights and weekends - but not after having had to wait for half a year to even get started! Under current conditions the only way to work with the records at all is to spend however many hours it takes on-site at the archive, conditions detrimental in many ways to researchers: those who travel from outside Madrid will have to pay for more nights at a hotel; those who aren't students or researchers on a grant will have to take more time out from their other obligations to spend more hours sitting at a desk in the searchroom. Those who have doubts about the meaning of a specific abbreviation or have trouble making sense of some ancient record's archaic syntax won't be able to take home a copy to spend more time with, but instead will have to make snap decisions about the contents, with all the possible pitfalls that come with rushing one's work. I have no doubt that such logistical hurdles will lead to more than one research project being abandoned altogether, owing to the sharp increase in the number of hours they require researchers to spend on-site at an archive, compared to what it could and should be.

And all this when Spain's government happily pours millions into the bottomless pit of bailouts for banks and toll roads. Further comment is superfluous, shame sadly lacking.