Open Letter about FCO 141- the ‘migrated archives’

Mr Jeff James
Chief Executive Officer and Keeper
The National Archives

14th July 2022

 

Dear Mr James

On behalf of SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa), I am writing to
express our concern about the recent withdrawal of the FCO 141 series from public access,
due to insecticide contamination.

As you know, the history of these records, as well as the fact that they remain relatively
under-researched, makes them particularly high-profile among colonial records.
The importance and political sensitivity of these documents is evident in the many
publications by academics and archivists on their history and significance – Tim Livsey’s
article in History Workshop Journal being one very recent example (Tim Livsey, ‘Open
secrets: the British “migrated archives”, colonial history, and postcolonial history’, History
Workshop Journal, 93 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbac002).

We were glad to see TNA’s statement of 11 July giving further details of the problem and the
steps you are taking to deal with it. We appreciate the fact that you have also made recent
improvements to the information given in the catalogue about the unavailability of these
records.

In addition to the information given in your statements to date, we would like to ask whether
The National Archives have a view on how insecticide came to be applied to the documents?
Since these archives were preserved in 3 7 separate former colonies, it may be that whether
individual sub-series are affected depends on the varying practices of individual colonies. In
addition, perhaps this is a problem specific to the bound volumes; we are aware, however,
that many sub-series of FCO 141 consist of files or folders. Do you have a view on this?

Alternatively, if insecticide was applied to the whole series, this could presumably only have
occurred after their arrival in the UK when they were stored in the Foreign Office facility at
Hayes or at Hanslope Park. Are you in contact with FCDO to shed any light on this, and are
you aware whether they have any record of this operation, if it occurred?

We would also like to request that you send us a list ofreferences for the volumes in which
insecticide has been detected (or, if this is not possible, a list of the colonies whose records
are so far known to be affected).

We are very glad to read that you are ‘working with specialist consultants to establish a risk
assessment and safe handling guidance to create avenues for access to the collection’, and
that you hope to ‘be able to restore access with the appropriate mitigations in place’. Given
the importance of making these records available to the public, we would urge you to make
FCO 141 available again as soon as possible, and to set out a likely timetable for doing so. If
it is necessary to commit extra resources in order to achieve this, we request that you do so.

Finally, may we request that information about the progress of this project is made publicly
available on a regular basis.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Lucy McCann
Chair, SCOLMA

cc Sir Geoffrey Vos
Master of the Rolls and Chair of the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives

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