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Historians furious as Kew archives are 'dumbed down'

As opening hours and expert jobs are cut, is public access under threat in the name of saving money?

As the home of unique documents ranging from the Titanic passenger list to top-secret cabinet papers, the National Archives is Britain's single most valuable source of primary materials for social historians. But concern is growing that public access is under threat after an announcement that it is to reduce opening hours, limit access to original documents and lay off a number of specialist archivists.

Leading historians, including Antony Beevor and Saul David, have this weekend expressed anger and dismay at the proposed cuts. Professor David told The Independent on Sunday: "The future history of our country is at stake."

Housed in a vast complex in Kew, south-west London, the National Archives (TNA) is the repository for the country's main public records, including birth, marriage and death lists, national censuses, wills and military records. In recent years, with interest in genealogy growing, the archive has seen a surge in demand for access from members of the public. It is also a vital resource for professional historians, biographers and writers.

The changes come as part of an ongoing drive to digitalise records so that they can be accessed directly online, thereby reducing visitor numbers to Kew. Once records are scanned, the original document is put into deep storage away from Kew. But historians argue there is a case for the originals to remain accessible. "The possibility of seeing the originals should always be available," said Antony Beevor, author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, which was researched, in part, at the National Archives.

Managers closed the facility on 30 June for a special meeting in which they informed staff of the proposed changes. These include reducing opening hours from six days per week to five from March 2010 – the chosen extra day of closure, apart from Sunday, being Monday – and getting rid of 35 of 105 specialist posts to shave £4.2m from the budget. But job cuts will not affect those at management level or in the press or marketing departments. The closure represents a 16 per cent reduction in public opening hours. Yet according to sources at TNA, that will make savings of only around 3 per cent in terms of recruitment because staff will still have to come in on that day to fulfil other functions.

Natalie Ceeney, TNA's chief executive, a former management consultant who joined from the British Library in 2005, said in an interview soon after her appointment: "The public wants information and they don't care if that information is in a book or online." Dr Nick Barratt, a historian and lead researcher for the BBC's genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?, believes the ultimate goal is to reduce visitors to Kew. "The end-line message is that they want to stop people coming to Kew and they want to restrict access to public records," he said. "Cutting into specialists and specialist knowledge is one part of that. It's dumbing down, effectively. The general move is to a mass market."

Professor Jane Ridley, prize-winning biographer of Edwin Lutyens, said: "I am shocked and saddened by this. We live in an old country, and one of the UK's great unsung assets is its huge and accessible public archives. Britain is a world leader here, compared with France or Russia. If digitalisation is to be made a pretext for reducing access to historical records, we are in serious trouble. In the case of some records, such as census reports, it is an incredibly useful tool. But historians need to see sensitive, rare documents which are not suitable for digitalisation, and I worry that these will be much harder to see."

Others concerned at the proposals include the cultural historian Jonathan Foyle, the biographer AN Wilson, and military historian and broadcaster Saul David. "From a historian's point of view, to be able to see the actual documents is absolutely crucial," Professor David said. One source said that the current management team were pushing the cuts through with a degree of "ruthlessness".

But a spokesperson for the archives said the changes were necessary for the organisation – which is funded by the Government – to keep within its budget. "We have looked at ways in which we can make savings across the organisation, and reducing opening hours will enable us to continue to invest in our online services," said Mel Hide. "We have a budget allocation which has been set for three years, but we need to make savings of 10 per cent to enable us to continue investing in digitalisation."

One problem that will never go away is the question of space, as documents are continually added to the archives.

"We do only have a finite amount of space," said Ms Hide, "and at some point you do need to think about where you put the records that are coming in. I think it's a very sensible decision to digitalise as much as possible."