This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

I’ve always had an unease about the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? Now in its 15th year, the programme does attempt to include a diverse range of celebrities delving into their genealogy, but the reality is that records going back multiple generations and centuries tend to exist mainly for those of white European descent. For those descended from former colonial lands, reliable records are rare.

When the Windrush scandal broke, it reminded me afresh of this strange divide. For a country obsessed with family history, what was the government thinking when they destroyed hundreds of landing card records of Caribbean immigrants from the 1940s to the 1960s, without even offering them to the National Archive in Kew? The destruction helped fuel deportations of legal residents as the now notorious “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants rejected decades of tax paying and public service employment, demanding instead records that simply did not exist.

Memories of visiting New York’s Ellis Island museum added to my bafflement. Now it’s a massive tourist attraction celebrating the United States’ immigration history. The website boasts how the museum has become an archive of 51 million arrival records, including many gathered long after the island stopped processing arrivals in 1957. It thanks “volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” for transcribing this vast historical archive. The Mormon church has religious reasons for investing in ancestral records. But the Windrush scandal prompts a greater question. Who is deciding what to archive? And where is the expertise to manage its value?

I take my concern about Windrush to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals conference, the annual gathering of British archivists and librarians, where the impact of a decade of austerity cuts pushed through by executives, often on protected high salaries, has transformed the profession. Delegates says it’s not just the “absolute travesty” of public library cuts, with branches shut, staff laid off and reduced hours, but academic libraries having their budgets “trashed” and being asked “to weed your collections”. Even as universities boast to prospective students of their lavish library facilities.

When cutting costs is paramount, anything and everything is potentially up for disposal. One local council librarian tells me: “We have large collections of local history often locked away. It’s very difficult to get it archived so it doesn’t get lost. Particularly if there is a drive to save space.” It isn’t enough to have volunteers to keep doors open if there is no one with the expertise to curate the collections and promote their existence.

Even with generous retirees determined to do their best, there is in the long term no substitute for a properly funded service whose value is recognised by salaried managed staff and a chain of support. One librarian recounts how the stopping of routine building maintenance led to leaks and damp destroying whole rooms and boxes of archived materials.

The news media’s focus on battles against closure hasn’t necessarily helped. One local authority librarian tells me: “We hate the well-meaning rhetoric of articles that make it sound like the library is on the way out. ‘Save the library’ makes us sound like a sinking ship.” He points out that many libraries are finding a way to work; sometimes by combining volunteers with a core of paid staff so there is always a paid professional on duty.

Clearly journalists need to change the way they report. But how do archivists change the story? An NHS adviser says they “turned around the narrative” by making the case for NHS libraries being a “business-critical service”. But I warn against the drive to link everything to the current political fashion for costing a financial benefit. The NHS, the theatre and music industries can do this because there are obvious measurable factors at play. I see a potential solution in the observation of one schools consultant who warns, “We’re not showing young students how important it is to preserve the past.”

As news organisations and governments around the world struggle to tackle the proliferation of fake news and mistrust and their measurable consequences, libraries could promote themselves as the front line in educating young people in how to fact-check and think critically. The importance of scrutinising first-hand evidence. A genuine recognition of the ethical case for libraries and archivists could be the best consequence of the Windrush scandal.