The National Archives, Cinderella of culture
By Humbert Hernandez
I often ask myself what it is that makes governments, Left and Right, treat as Cinderella certain aspects of our cultural life, or at best, simply to pay lip-service to their existence.
A case in point is our National Archives located where most people would consider the most awkward of places: within the complex of The Convent.
However, this is a first, but not the most serious consideration concerning the issue which could be summarised as follows:
A woeful lack of space
Having visited the premises on numerous occasions in order to carry out some research, I have been struck by the fact that the place is like a rabbit-warren crammed to its limits with all sorts of written/printed information closely packed on shelves upon shelves so as to produce an air of claustrophobia.
Facilities for research
While every effort is always made by the archivist, Mr Anthony Pitaluga, and his staff to accommodate and help all researchers, the fact is that if more than six or eight people happen to be working then there is no more room for anyone else to sit and research. This has happened to me several times and I have simply had to walk away despairingly hoping to find a space for myself next time.
Having mentioned this point to members of staff, their only answer has been: “We have been promised for years to be re-located to larger premises.......” The disused Police Station at Irish Town would have been an ideal place, central, spacious and with lots of potential for expansion and development, especially its educational aspects, digitalisation and further high-tech progress. But this was not to be. Other more, lucrative projects always take priority; the National Archives go on the back burner.
There was talk at one time of transferring the National Archives to the premises of the old Chronicle printing works in Governor’s Parade. Again, this would have been a most satisfactory solution given its proximity to the Garrison Library (another research centre), the space it offers and its potential for expansion. Of course, the place would need to be adequately refurbished and money spent on it. Any chance of getting this? Not a sausage! The National Archives can wait! Clubs, sports associations, drama and dance groups and other charity organisations all seem to have done rather well in being assigned their own premises, but...... the National Archives can wait!
Expansion and development
Any nation worth its salt would guard, treasure and develop its physical, literary and documentary heritage as one of its historical jewels. Why is that not happening here in Gibraltar? We are always vaunting the fact that we are one of the top economies of the world, yet we don’t always put our money where our mouth is.
The present premises of the National Archives are cramped, dingy, grubby and what is more, anyone on a wheelchair would find it well nigh impossible to sit at ease and work. Clearly the disabled are barred from the place by its layout. The question comes to mind: what room (pun intended) is left for the development of its activities and for expansion? None as far as I can see. As a retired schoolteacher I can think back to the times I wished to take a group of schoolchildren to carry out some research, but I always had to give up the idea given the inadequacy of the place. Yet, no one would deny that the possibilities of the educational component of this historical treasure ought to receive urgent attention when the potential exists.
The present staff, headed by Mr Pitaluga, is friendly, quietly efficient and usually go the extra yard in helping with any research or project. However, there is no doubt that they are miserably short-handed and their work is complemented by some voluntary workers who help with certain chores. Clearly this is another aspect where investment is required so that a larger team of permanent officials, under the present strong leadership of the Head Archivist, can develop in the different directions which a national archival centre ought to go.
Inform yourselves of the different areas of activity of any National Archive Centre and you will soon realise that it develops a multiplicity of activities at the hands of a large well-skilled staff. The following are simply some of these area, though the list is not exhaustive:
(a) filing, cataloguing and aiding research;
(b) archival skills training;
(c) undertaking documentary projects, etc;
(d) resourcing for teachers and students;
(e) digitalisation of documents, newspapers, etc;
(f) developing online resources, information management, transfer and re-use;
(g) investing in relevant new technology.
As I said, the above-mentioned areas is not an exhaustive list and I am sure, since I am not a professional, that I am missing out some important components. However, one is not asking for the moon here in Gibraltar.
What one would like to see is a firm commitment by GoG to re-house the National Archives in central, spacious premises as soon as possible so that the work of the archivists may develop and adequate space and opportunity are afforded to those wishing to carry out research.