Foreign language records at The National Archives

FOI request reference: CAS-67632-C2Z0N2
Publication date: March 2021

Information provided.

Request and response
1. For the list of languages provided under question 2 of the earlier FOI request (F0050144), do the National Archives currently have the necessary in-house expertise to catalogue all collections containing foreign languages? If so, what does this expertise consist of (e.g. cataloguing staff that hold multiple languages, etc.)? Please provide details.

We believe that we have the necessary expertise to catalogue adequately the records held by The National Archives including those collections that contain foreign languages.

We need to make a distinction between:

1. The core languages of government (currently English and Welsh; in past centuries also Latin and Norman French).
2. Foreign languages particularly relevant to international relations in past centuries (particularly French, German, Dutch and Spanish), and
3. The many other languages that may occasionally appear as part of some of our files (Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korea, Latin, Portuguese, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Vietnamese Chinese, Danish, Japanese, Hebrew, Basque, etc.).

Staff members whose roles primarily involve working with records written in languages in the first two categories have sufficient skills to perform their jobs, including cataloguing-related tasks. Several other staff at The National Archives are also able to work with foreign languages. Some staff engaged in cataloguing work have a foreign language as their first language.

There are more staff with foreign language skills at The National Archives than job descriptions formally requiring language skills. For example, in the Cataloguing, Taxonomy and Data Department only one job description requires language skills (in Latin); however, six staff out of nine have foreign modern language skills.

Cataloguers need to have sufficient working knowledge of foreign languages to be able to extract the key information required to describe a record to make it accessible and searchable online. It is worth noting that full knowledge of a foreign language alone is not enough to be able to describe a record in a foreign language. An ability to identify, analyse and extract key information accurately and succinctly is as crucial skill. A native French speaker may not be able to read medieval French. Some archivists are more proficient in Norman French than in modern French.

Most records newly acquired by The National Archives are now catalogued by staff in the government departments before they are transferred to us. The Welsh Government produces records in both of its working languages, Welsh and English. We work with the Welsh Government to ensure that both its Welsh-medium and English-medium records are adequately described.

In the international cataloguing standard ISAD(G), specifying language is an optional element of description. However, our cataloguing guidelines state that language should be specified where more than 20% of a record or set of records is in a language other than English. In practice, foreign languages are currently being added to catalogue descriptions when found, even if they represent less than 20% of a file.

2. If/where such in-house expertise does not exist, do the National Archives have specific policies or methodologies in place to catalogue such collections, either now or in future? If so, please detail these policies and/or methodologies.

While we have sufficient people and skills to cover the commonest languages, it is not feasible to maintain expertise for every language in the third category that is represented in our records. For some languages, such as Chinese, we may need more expertise in the future. However, for the majority of Chinese-language material in our collections sufficient information in English was provided at the time of transfer.

Cataloguing projects need to be approved by a board before they start. Every cataloguing project proposal needs to demonstrate a business and user need, define the scope and methodology of the project and describe the resources/skills necessary to complete the project. We ensure the allocation of relevant skills to cataloguing projects through good governance, staff and volunteer recruitment and project monitoring. As well as staff and volunteers, international students and academics with language skills often contribute to cataloguing projects.

Whenever a vacancy arises, the job description is reviewed to ensure that the specified knowledge, skills and experience (including language skills where relevant) meet our current needs.

Updated information on the extent of records in languages other than English at The National Archives:

Catalogue level Not in English Total Percentage
Series 837 20,024 4.18%
Pieces 31,226 7,451,221 0.42%
Items 99,443 16716689 0.59%