banner1 SoG report of TNA User Advisory Group Meeting   a genealogist reflects

The first meeting of The National Archives User Advisory Group (TNA UAG) took place on Wednesday 22 June. Draft terms of reference were circulated and these are under discussion. The draft terms of reference have already been published and are for comment on the Society of Genealogists blog  and will presumably be available online through TNA when they are formally accepted.

The names and contact information for each representative will be published on the TNA UAG web pages  along with minutes and papers of the group’s quarterly meetings. However all the representatives have undertaken to represent, feedback to and communicate the UAG’s activities – so here goes.

The meeting’s first agenda was pretty much a case of getting to know each other (though many already did – this is very much an off-shoot of the more informal monthly users’ forum though with more users from the Map and Large Document Room and academics.) Chaired jointly by Jeff James, Director of Operations and Services and Chris Mumby, Acting Director of Customer and Business Development the meeting was set in the context of TNA’s business plan for 2011-2015 (already published online). This is scary as it shows TNA’s 2014/5 spending allocation £9m below that for 2011/12. TNA has to produce a lot more for less though Jeff and Chris are very gung ho.

Feeling suitably subdued we then looked at a very dense document relating to proposals for a User Participation Strategy – which is a technical term apparently for volunteers’ projects. We saw how prospective projects were analysed for their benefit and potential to the business of the organisation. Having gone through this process eight proposals are to be carried forward including projects to create user generated catalogue descriptive content; digitisation of images for the Caribbean and other material from the Commonwealth Office pictures and conservation projects. Having decided on these projects TNA intends to bring the User Advisory Group in to discuss methodology and approach at this “strategic” level. Though as usual, TNA is establishing a “Board” to manage (or provide governance) for the various projects.

I was amused to see how this meeting clearly showed how a group of professional civil servants have seamlessly taken on board the wishes and whims of their new political masters as I can’t tell you how many times the phrases “fits in with the Big Society etc” were bandied at his point. But TNA has always had to be pragmatic and work in the political context it finds itself and I make no criticism of civil servants doing what civil servants have to do. But it can feel a bit “Yes Minister” at times.

We then learnt more about a project to digitise and accession digital images of a subset of the Home Guards records to act as a pilot for the full Home Guard collection of 4.6 million records. The decision to access only the digital images of these documents and not the originals has been somewhat controversial. There has been public consultation about the transfer of these and three other large Ministry of Defence Collections and much discussion at higher level to get to this point (I am also on the TNA Advisory Council and contributed to the MoD consultation paper in November 2010 on behalf of the Society of Genealogists and the British Genealogical Record Users Committee). But it’s down to TNA project managers to make sure TNA does this project properly. It has to ensure the digitisation is done by a commercial partner to the standards it and its customers require. The HG records for Durham have been chosen for the pilot as it’s a small enough collection, but representative of most of the records and potential problems that might arise. The User Advisory Group will get to look at these “closed” records and comment of how they might be used and what searchable fields of data should be captured. The fields proposed are:

Name – surname and forename(s), Date of birth, Area or County, Place of Birth where given and address.

Once UAG members see the documents we might have other suggestion to add such as occupation or battalion.

I remember this same process 10 years ago with the 1901 census and I know that whatever advice we give will be tempered against what the commercial partner will consider to be practical and commercially viable. So the Advisory User Group can advise but whether this advice is heeded. in the end will be down to TNA and its partners.

The meeting concluded with TNA giving some rushed but tantalising indications of Public Service developments – British Nationality Cards will be made more readily available, Work will continue to scan and make digitally available material from film. We hear there are plans for TNA to use web chats or instant messaging – presumably as part of the advice and help services. UCL’s collection of rare books will be hosted at TNA while it is being refurbished and it’s quite likely that the London LDF Family History Centre’s collection of films and computers will also be housed at TNA while the centre closes for a 9 month refurbishment plan.

Do look out for the formal minutes of the meeting when they are published by TNA http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/get-involved/user-advisory-group.htm

I’ll keep you posted about what we learn about the Home Guard records. The next meeting of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group will be on 6 September

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