Wednesday, July 30, 2008

National Archives of Scotland

The National Archives of Scotland is a government agency charged with preserving, protecting, and promoting Scottish national heritage; and providing an accessible archive of records to the public. It is overseen by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, a government appointed position usually held by an archivist or librarian of some standing in the field. It is housed in three buildings, employs 160 staff, and maintains five websites.
The first building - the General Register House (the one we visited) - was built in the 1780s for the purpose of housing public records. The second, the West Register House, was purchased for the archives in 1971, and the third, Thomas Thompson House was purpose-built in 1995, and is therefore used for all conservation work, as well as storage, since it is the only one with the proper facilities for high-level conservation. Unlike the first two, the last has no public access.
The NAS is divided into two sections, the Records Services Division and the Corporate Services Division.
The Records Services Division is responsible for:
  • Government records;
  • Court/Legal records;
  • Private records; and
  • Outreach services;
while the Corporate Services handles:
  • Accomodation services
  • Finance and Administration
  • Information Technology
  • Conservation
  • Reader services
The main functions of the NAS are to select published records and other historical records, including deciding what should be done with items deemed unsuitable for the archives; preserving records in keeping with current standards of conservation; and promoting public access to records. Margaret McBride, our librarian guide, made an interesting statement regarding the role of digitization within an archive, that the most important reason for it is to try to create a balance between preservation and access. Based on the public survey results conducted by the National Library of Scotland, in which people stated that it was important for them to see original source documents, she is absolutely correct. People want and should have access to the documents, not transcripts, so digital copies are an excellent way to provide that while ensuring that they are physically available in the future. One very surprising fact I learned was that sometimes the covers of books are removed for digitization, and put back on afterwards, so that the copies are clear. I did not think to ask at the time, but I assume this is only the case if the item in question is a book with its original cover, which has not previously undergone any kind of repair (and doesn't need it).
Some of the other functions of the NAS are to offer any needed advice to owners and custodians of archival documents; be a leader in the development of archive and records management practice; and deploy resources effectively and efficiently.

The National Archives of Scotland holdings consist of more than 70km of records, dating from the 12th century, and including Parliamentary papers, register of deeds, church records, wills, taxation records, family and estate papers, court and legal documents, railway records, and photos. Access to these is provided through the OPAC, a paper catalogue, and the five websites:
  • NAS
  • SCAN
  • Scotland's People
Access to these records is free to the public, unless the research has a commercial or financial purpose, such as a lawyer researching records for a client, or accessing property values for the sale of a house.

Some of the interesting new developments in the works are the launch of a site called, where people can order copies of images from the database, and the digitization of the records of the Church of Scotland.

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