The Archive in Decline: The Emergency of Archival Collections in Italy
By Marina Iní (@MarinaIni_)
During part of the last academic year, I travelled to several archives and libraries collection in the Italian peninsula for my PhD fieldwork. It has been an extremely rewarding experience on the research side, but it was also thought-provoking. I saw with my own eyes the disheartening situation of different Archivi di Stato (Italian National Archives, usually one per provincial capital), Archivi Storici Comunali (City Archives) and other public archival collections and libraries.
As an Italian citizen and historian of early modern Italy, I am aware that for several decades, both right and left-wing governments have progressively slashed the amount of funding for our Cultural Heritage. In 2017 alone, the Financial Act diverted 1 million euros from the ordinary management of museums and archives to extemporaneous projects. These funds were diverted to archival digitalisation projects owned by unions and political parties, which could dispose of the sum in loosely defined ways. In the last 20 years, archival funds have been cut by more than 50%.Museums – but above all libraries and archives – are consequently suffering from a shortage of both staff and funds.
Archives and libraries have started to adopt strategies to cope with the lack of qualified staff, including reducing opening times and restricting the number of folders available to order per day. The Archivio di Stato di Palermo, for example, has recently extended the reduced summer opening times to apply year-round. Extensive research projects have also been halted by the new regulations at the Archivio di Stato di Firenze: the documents accessible to researchers have been halved, and the archive is fully operational only three days per week (almost the norm in the archives that I visited). Thus, researchers have less time to do their work, especially as they have to wait longer periods for fewer documents. Historians know that when visiting archives every minute matter – it can make the difference between a day spent pointlessly flicking through documents and a meaningful discovery.
Moreover, the financial costs to researchers increase as documents become more inaccessible, as each archival visit requires a longer stay to be productive. The consequences do not only impact the work of historians or researchers – the lack of high-quality, specialised research is reflected in the absence of knowledge dissemination among the wider public. Compared with public-facing museums, the value of archives is more difficult to grasp without coherent research. Even authorities, sometimes, do not understand their significance. Researchers on Venetian history have been concerned by rumours that the Biblioteca Correr, part of the Museo Correr in Venice, will be transferred by the City Council to Mestre on the mainland, 14 km from the city centre. As a result, the museum will be separated from its archives and the city – from part of its history and heritage.
Cuts to funds have also prevented a generational turnover among the staff of libraries and archives. At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, a legal deposit of the same importance in Italy as the British Library, the number of staff has been reduced from 400 to 150 people in 35 years. This means huge delays in cataloguing new books and in the normal operation of the library, but it also means that the knowledge gained by senior staff over the years is not passed on to younger employees. The same is happening at the Archivio di Stato di Taranto, which has lost part of its managerial staff, including the director. The situation at the Archivio Storico di Napoli is even more disheartening: the archive is open only one day per week as its staff has been transferred to different offices. Moreover, the building is strongly in need of renovations, with water leaking on the documents.
Reducing funds to archives puts at risk not only historians’ work, but the community as a whole. Archives, libraries, and museums are the repositories of our knowledge. Their documents and books build our identities and memories, not only from the distant past; currently, in Italy, there are no investments to create space for twentieth-century documents. Archives represent the past, the present, and even the future. Our documents – the events that shape our present – should be preserved inside them in the future, and their plight today should be met with outrage and not indifference.
 Comunicato Stampa ANAI (Associazione Nazionale Archivisti Italiani), ‘Un milione di euro per digitalizzare i documenti dei partiti’,22 December 2017, [accessed online at http://www.anai.org/anai-cms/cms.view?munu_str=0&numDoc=1220].
 Comunicato Stampa ANAI , ‘Archivi e archivisti italiani a rischio estinzione’, [accessed online at http://www.archiviodistatocremona.beniculturali.it/sites/default/files/allegati-notizie/anai-naz_comunicato-stampa-20111010.pdf].
 Antonio Passanese, ‘L’Archivio di Stato è al collasso: Prof e ricercatori scrivono a Roma’, Il Corriere della Sera, 20 June 2019, [accessed online at https://corrierefiorentino.corriere.it/firenze/notizie/cronaca/19_giugno_20/archivio-stato-collasso-e890cbb2-9343-11e9-b5af-4674c22ab56f.shtml]; RSA Announcements, ‘Notice of Reduction of Hours, Service at the Archivio di Stato di Firenze’, [accessed online at https://www.rsa.org/news/457278/Notice-of-Reduction-of-Hours-Service-at-Archivio-di-Stato-di-Firenze.htm].
 Alberto Vitucci, ‘Correr, la biblioteca va a Mestre La protesta degli autonomisti’, La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre, 10 May 2019, [accessed online at https://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/venezia/cronaca/2019/05/09/news/correr-la-biblioteca-va-a-mestre-la-protesta-degli-autonomisti-1.31172179].
 Marco Ferri, ‘Biblioteca nazionale Firenze: 9 milioni di testi, zero archivisti. L’istituto trascurato dalla politica (e dove a volte pure piove)’, Il Fatto Quotidiano, 10 Agosto 2018 [accessed at https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2018/08/10/biblioteca-nazionale-firenze-9-milioni-di-testi-zero-archivisti-listituto-trascurato-dalla-politica-e-dove-a-volte-pure-piove/4539343/]
 CISL (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori), ‘Puglia. Archivio di Stato di Taranto al collasso, sindacati: “Senza nuove assunzioni niente servizi al pubblico e all’utenza!”’ [accessed online at https://www.cisl.it/notizie/dal-territorio/12543-puglia-archivio-di-stato-di-taranto-al-collasso-sindacati-senza-nuove-assunzioni-niente-servizi-al-pubblico-e-all-utenza.html]
 Valerio Esca ‘Via gli impiegati comunali, chiude l’archivio storico di Napoli: a rischio i volumi dell’Unità d’Italia’, Il Mattino, 4 November 2019, [accessed online at https://www.ilmattino.it/napoli/cronaca/archivio_storico_napoli_chiuso-4839618.html?fbclid=IwAR2OTpA8NegU4QwBLFPv3QTm-qdPEvQH422vQFfpHwE0F8bR-r7A85_8Vjg].
 ANAI, ‘Dove eravamo rimasti? Alcune proposte Anai per il rilancio del sistema archivistico nazionale’, 16 September 2019, p. 3, [accessed online at
Featured image: Author’s own, Archivio di Stato di Livorno.