A THREAT TO RESEARCH
The June issue of Backtrack contains a very serious editorial. Kevin Jones is in total agreement with its content, but would argue that somebody should start a petition to the Prime Minister on the Prime Minister's website along the lines of that currently organized by Roger Ford of Modern Railways to promote railway electrification, or on the lines of the notorious petition against road charging. The Editorial is reproduced in full below. As a Librarian Kevin believes that "free library services" are a chimera: in Norfolk loans from libraries outside its own extremely modest collection carry a charge of £2.50 (this is hardly "free"). Access to Cambridge Uinversity Library is absurdly difficult. The new Prime Minister was the man who abolished musuem charges. Gordon Brown, a man from Carnegie's Kingdom, must be in favour of free libraries for all.
Almost by definition Backtrack readers are interested in the history of railways and probably, but not exclusively, those of the British Isles. What is perhaps not so obvious is that the development of our railway network took place more or less in parallel with that of the newspaper industry. Probably the best-known London-based paper is The Times, first published in 1788, but there were already other papers in existence when it appeared, for example those published in Bury St. Edmunds, Gloucester, Northampton and Oxford.
As early as 1809 local newspapers such as the Perth Courier began appearing, many starting as weekly publications with a small number, such as The Scotsman and the Dundee Courier, later becoming dailies which are still with us. The 1840s saw the advent of the 'Railway Mania' and this was mirrored to some extent by so many publications all devoted to the doings of the railway companies: for example, The Railway Herald, the Railway Record and Tramway Register and perhaps the most famous Herapath s Journal. Not all these early papers continued in existence for very long, some for only a year or two before ceasing publication without warning competition was as strong then as now. Others amalgamated with their great rivals and then went from strength to strength.
You may ask what relevance these newspapers have to railway history? Surely the most important answer is that they are a wonderful primary source of information about the development of the railway network. Many contain information about "meetings of gentlemen" to promote railway companies, while The Times reported on progress of Bills through the Parliamentary process. Most record in greater or lesser detail local opening ceremonies as well as major incidents while some even reported on relatively minor occurrences such as a shunter being crushed by a truck ("Melancholy Accident at... "). Publishers of early newspapers were required to pass a copy to the Stamp Office for taxing and these were later delivered to the British Museum for its embryo collection. In 1869 newspapers became subject to the legal deposit rules.
In the 1930s a purpose-built depository and Reading Room was opened at Colindale in North London and this is now part of the British Library. Anyone over the age of eighteen can make use of this huge source of information with, in many cases, wonderful flowery language. As with modern-day editions, however, one must beware of reporters' flights of fancy; in some cases two newspapers published and circulating in the same town could have widely varying accounts of the same incident.
But what is the 'threat to research' in the strap line? It is twofold but, put simply, it boils down to money or rather the possible lack of it. Ever since the magnificent new British Library building was opened at St. Pancras there have been plans to move the Newspaper Library there as well, to provide modern reading facilities. Colindale's storage space is completely full and for nearly twenty years all new acquisitions have been available only on microfilm with the originals being stored offsite. So far so good. The problem is that St. Pancras is also full and current plans are that when the move takes place, possibly around 2012, only the nationals and the most popular regional local papers will be available there on microfilm or digitally. The less popular volumes will be moved to store at Boston Spa in Yorkshire but with no guarantee that they will be available for reading.
Now comes the crunch for, on 8th March, The Independent published an article saying that the Treasury had asked the British Library to take a 7% cut in its budget. The BL has responded by saying that would mean charging admission fees, reducing the permanent collection, closure of the Newspaper Library Reading Room and focussing only on "collection and storage, abandoning the Library's strategy to open up access".
The introduction of admission fees for museums led to a drastic drop in usage of such establishments. Charging for admission to the British Library would also be seen as a tax on knowledge and could be used as a precedent for cash-strapped local authorities to follow suit with their local libraries. The worst aspect, however, would be the closure of Colindale leading to an 'Alice in Wonderland' situation where, although the papers would still be collected, they simply would not be available to be read, thus denying access to a world-leading collection which deserves to be preserved for the nation to use.
Perhaps the best way to prevent this happening is for all readers of Backtrack to ensure that their MP is made aware of the consequences of such a cut - they too would suffer for their researchers would also lose a valuable resource. Write to him or her at: House of Commons, London, SWIA lAA. In the meantime why not go along to Colindale and see what is on offeruse it while you still can.
Alistair F. Nisbet