This morning I received my second phone call in two working days, asking me not to attend the Glasgow Genealogy Centre tomorrow, as their computers cannot connect to the ScotlandsPeople service following its recent disastrous upgrade. Whilst I do not know the specifics of Glasgow's issue, I do know that an equivalent centre in another part of the country has been unable to connect to the service because its computers are older, and not compatible with the new set up in Edinburgh. It would seem that some of the other centres have had similar issues, with no warning given to them in advance on possible compatability issues that would be created by the upgrade, which appears to have been rushed and with no extensive testing regime in advance. The ScotlandsPeople tech team has been struggling to fix a parallel mess of issues since the launch of the revamped service 3 weeks ago - you can follow its updates and the catalogue of disaster of 'small issues' (its words) at https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/content/what-we-are-working-on.
The last two years have seen an appalling level of service problems encountered by the user base of the National Records of Scotland (www.nrscotland.gov.uk), both within its archive rooms and the ScotlandsPeople service. When the pandemic started in 2020, the natural assumption was that the NRS, in its statutory duties to document the mortality rates caused by Covid, would be run off its feet with the workload. When the search rooms at the NRS and ScotlandsPeople closed, there was a support and sympathy from many in their user base who wished them well. Lots of good folk were run off their feet trying to work in the most appalling of conditions. But when pandemic restrictions began to ease, it soon became clear that the NRS seemed to be holding back. As other archives opened their doors again - with cautious restrictions against Covid - we cheered them on, and looked with increasing suspicion towards the NRS, which had seemingly gone into hibernation, and appeared to be refusing to wake up. The year long delay to the release of the 1921 census, which was actually digitised a decade ago, added further to the growing anger.
In the last year in particular, the relationship between many in the history, genealogy and academic communities in Scotland towards the NRS has broken down, with the continued lack of service provision affecting many people's incomes and academic studies. In June, genealogist Fergus Smith penned an open letter to Paul Lowe, Keeper of the Records of Scotland and Registrar General, condemning the ongoing restrictions in service - you can read this at https://www.oldscottish.com/blog/open-letter-to-nrs. The letter was signed by dozens of genealogists, historians, students and academics (myself included), endorsing its many complaints with suggested remedies. Several weeks later, the service finally resumed, almost a year after its equivalents did so in London and Belfast.
When folk like myself criticise the NRS, one thing has to be stated up front, loud and proud, it is absolutely NOT the staff, archivists and registrars that we are criticising, who do a Herculean job on our behalf - it is the leadership. Throughout the past year I have witnessed colleagues trying to get information from the NRS through letters, through Freedom of Information Act enquiries, letters to their MSPs, and even to Scotland's Culture Secretary. I've never witnessed anything like it in my near 17 years working as a genealogist in Scotland. It is fair to say that whilst responses were received by many, answers to the issues raised were not forthcoming, and in some cases disingenuous, to the point where even the Information Commissioner rapped its knuckles (see http://scottishgenes.blogspot.com/2022/03/the-nrs-was-wrong-to-deny-access-to.html).
As with others, I tried to get some answers also. As well as receiving a fairly standard response from Paul Lowe over criticism of points raised, several months ago I also wrote to my MSP (an SNP MSP) to ask the Culture Secretary about future plans concerning the NRS estate, following an announcement in 2015 that it hoped to move towards a more suitable purpose built facility at some stage in the future (see http://britishgenes.blogspot.com/2015/01/national-records-of-scotland-estates.html). Despite her valiant efforts to secure a response from the Culture Secretary, none has been forthcoming - I wrote again to her yesterday to suggest that she no longer try, as it is clear he has no interest in responding.
From another direction, I also complained to the Archive Accreditation Standards team at the National Archives in London, asking whether the NRS was in breach of its statutory service obligation to users - only to learn in a response in July that the NRS had been given a free pass from adhering to the standards because of the pandemic (see http://scottishgenes.blogspot.com/2022/07/response-from-archive-service.html). It was no surprise to see the NRS retain its accreditation status just two weeks later (http://scottishgenes.blogspot.com/2022/07/national-records-of-scotland-retains.html).
There is seemingly absolutely no accountability at the NRS towards its user base. And there is equally no transparency about its work. Do you know what it is cataloguing just now? Do you know what it is conserving? Do you know what it is acquiring by way of deposits? Releasing the Queen's death certificate does not a transparent archive make!
One of Fergus Smith's demands in his open letter was for the NRS 'To agree to the establishment of a user-led forum for regular and
meaningful consultation with a range of researchers and other
stakeholders'. I fully support that, as someone who is on a similar such forum for another national archive (PRONI), and who can see the abundance of good work that it it does in fostering a sense of community not just with its user bases, but with partner institutions. I am not seeking a role in a Scottish equivalent if one is set up - there are plenty of other good independent minded folk out there who can do so. Such a body is absolutely needed in Scotland, but it does need independent minded folk to populate it, not rubber stamps. If the NRS won't agree to do so with its user base, the user base (genealogists, historians, academics, general public, media, partner institutions, etc) should perhaps consider setting up its own 'Friends of' type body to offer constructive engagement on many fronts.
As it stands just now, the NRS gives the appearance to many of being an unaccountable clique to its user base. I've often quipped in the past that it seemingly employs 'search room feudalism', with its user base as the mere vassals seemingly required to doff their hats to their superiors in General Register House and New Register House. What is required is a new partnership with its user base, not a culture of deference. The NRS also needs to get off its comfortable Edinburgh enthroned posterior and get out and about to meet the people of Scotland, to whom it owes its income, for whom it holds the nation's records in trust, and to whom it is supposed to serve. It should take its exhibitions and services beyond Edinburgh to libraries and archives across the nation, from Portpatrick to Lerwick, from St. Andrew's to Stornoway (http://scottishgenes.blogspot.com/2022/10/what-does-national-mean-in-our-national.html).
But before all of that, I really think its current leadership needs to go. I'm hearing rumours from a few sources of some forthcoming changes which will be welcomed if true - but whatever is happening, the NRS absolutely needs to reset its relationship with those who fund its work in Scotland.
* NB: All of the above is purely drawn from the experience of one of many folk who were affected by the NRS service provision. Criticisms on other fronts, much more political, surround the performance of the archive with regards to its delayed 2021 census enumeration, finally carried out earlier this year. But I'll leave that one to the politicians.
My new book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors Through Land Records is now available to buy at https://bit.ly/IrishLandRecords. Also available - Sharing Your Family History Online, Tracing Your Scottish Family History on the Internet, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet (2nd ed), and Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records - to purchase, please visit https://bit.ly/ChrisPatonPSbooks. Further news published daily on The Scottish GENES Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.