In my previous post, I presented the situation at the archives as I understood it, and noted that I had not received any reply to the email that I sent to Carmarthenshire County Council a fortnight earlier. Perhaps coincidentally, I received a detailed email from Jane Davies, Senior Cultural Services Manager, some six hours after that post went ‘live’ and I also simultaneously launched new social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Before I consider the Council’s reply to me, I need to thank everyone who has responded so positively to the campaign – quite frankly, I’ve been staggered and deeply humbled by the scale and speed of that response, with over 400 people ‘liking’ the Facebook account in less than 48 hours, not to mention hundreds of hits on the blog (some from as far away as the USA, Russia and New Zealand). There have also been very many supportive comments on both Facebook and Twitter, so this cause certainly seems to have struck a chord, and local media have also picked up the story, which can only be to the good.
In my reply to Jane Davies, I made the courtesy gesture of asking her permission to paraphrase or quote directly from her email to me – or, indeed, to post it in its entirety, without any commentary from me. As I have not received a reply as yet, and as many people on Facebook and Twitter have expressed real eagerness to learn what the situation is, I shall instead provide the main body of my email in response to her, with clarifying commentary.
I am reassured by many of the points that you raise, although I cannot help but feel that many of the concerns that have been expressed about the situation in the archives, and many of the unfounded rumours that have circulated, would have been allayed if the council had engaged as openly and directly with the users of the service throughout the last 15 months or so.
That said, I am delighted to hear that the council remains committed to the preservation of the invaluable archival materials in its care [‘We remain committed to the preservation and retention of these documents…We continue to work closely with The National Archives and the Welsh Government through CyMAL to ensure the long term preservation of the collection as well as delivering an improved service for our visitors’] and that the process of cleaning is under way, contrary to some of the information that previously came to me. [The Council has contracted Harwell Cleaning Services to deal with the mould, and they have completed Phase One, on exposed bound volumes, which are being housed temporarily at the Glamorgan Archives until they can be returned to Carmarthenshire. Phase Two, however, on the remainder of the collection – which would probably be the vast majority of it – is apparently going to take longer than anticipated, with no timescale provided.] I am also pleased to hear that you are considering options for a replacement building within Carmarthenshire, rather than outside the county boundaries, and hope that the search for such accommodation proves successful. [Options both within and outside the Council’s existing estate are apparently being considered, with the appraisal due to be completed by the end of the year; but see the point at the end of this post.]
I am particularly grateful for your point about sending a list of specific manuscripts…I shall certainly act on that in the near future. However, I hope you will be able to reassure me that this is an option that will be available to all other historians who need access to original manuscript material, not just to myself, and that this option will be publicised – say, through a message on the ‘archives’ page of the council’s website.
This last point was particularly important to me; the offer made was not of immediate access to any documents, but of the production of a timescale in which the documents I require to complete my book might become available for consultation, so even though this might not have much effect in the immediate term, I was determined that this option should be available to all.
So while the response I received provides some reassurance, it also leaves several unanswered questions, and there might well be a case for filing Freedom of Information requests to address at least some of these. There is, of course, the question of why the catastrophic mould outbreak happened in the first place, but I didn’t see much point in indulging in finger pointing in this particular correspondence, which was concerned with what ought to happen in the future. (Others, of course, are free to point as many fingers as they wish.) Above all, though, there’s the question of timescale. I strongly suspect that the Council itself, and even Harwell Cleaning Services, have little idea of how long the process of cleaning will take; knowing the extent of even the fairly limited fraction of the archives that I’ve worked on over the years, I imagine it will be a very lengthy process indeed, even leaving aside considerations of cost in an age of severe cuts in council budgets. That being so, and given the provisos about the timescale of the search for new accommodation, it’s difficult to see how there can possibly be a functioning record office before late 2016 at the very earliest, which will mean that the great bulk of the Carmarthenshire Archives will have been completely inaccessible for the best part of three years, quite possibly longer. Whether depositors of important collections will accept that sort of timescale, or will continue to trust the Council with their papers, remains to be seen, and is, of course, completely beyond the Council’s control in any case; as far as the perceptions of depositors are concerned, I suspect that the damage has probably already been done, both literally and metaphorically. The complete absence of any reference to original documents on the council’s inaccurately titled ‘Archives’ page of its website – and, indeed, the complete absence of any reference to the mould problem anywhere on that website – also remains a concern, as I noted in my previous post. Finally, the wording of Ms Davies’ email to me is also slightly ambiguous on the issue of the future location of a record office, seeming to allow the possibility of it being outside the county if no suitable building can be provided within it; if I am misinterpreting her words, though, I’ll gladly provide a clarification.
Given these unanswered questions, then, I think the case for maintaining an ongoing campaign to save the Carmarthenshire Archives is overwhelming. So please keep following the Facebook and Twitter accounts, and above all, keep spreading the word!
Finally, I’m very glad to be able to publicise another online campaign to raise awareness of another threatened part of Carmarthenshire’s heritage, Parc Howard in Llanelli, where I spent many happy hours as a child and which contains a museum with some superb local history collections. Please follow the link from the previous sentence and support this cause, too!