J D Davies

Carmarthenshire Archives: The Future

For those who might be new to the fraught saga of Carmarthenshire Archives, you can catch up on the ‘story so far’ herehere and here.

I expected this to be the first of two new posts about the situation in relatively short order. However, I’m still waiting for a response to the Freedom of Information requests I lodged with Carmarthenshire County Council, despite the deadline for this being today (12 August); I’ve received a holding reply, stating that ‘due to the fact that we having to carry out a manual exercise to identify all relevant correspondence, combined with officer’s leave commitments, we will be unable to respond within the 20 working days required by the Act’.

(I half expected this, given the difficulty of contacting pretty much any organisation during August; and to be fair, the Council’s Information and Data Protection officer has apologised fulsomely for the delay. Of course, the 64,000 dollar question will be the duration of the delay, but I’ll keep everyone informed about progress through the Facebook page.)

The post derived from the FoI material is likely to focus heavily on historical matters, namely the question of how and why the mould problem in the archive strongrooms was able to develop. However, my principal concern since beginning this online campaign has been with the future: namely, with ensuring that the collections are cleaned and made available again as quickly as possible, and that a new, properly staffed record office opens at a suitable location within a reasonable timeframe. In that respect, a little more information is now available, so I’ll place that in the public domain immediately, without waiting for the full response to the FoI request.

First, the Council has fulfilled a promise it made to me to provide a page on its website explaining the closure of the record office, and, in turn, I’m very happy to fulfill my promise to link to it on this site. However, this page still begs the critical questions of location, timeframes, and so forth, and provides no specific contact information for those like the several people who’ve told the Save Carmarthenshire Archives Facebook page that they were planning trips to the record office, in some cases from very long distances, but simply didn’t know that it was closed. (One wonders how many have turned up in the last few months at the former record office in Parc Myrddin after lengthy journeys, scratched their heads, cursed the Council, and set off forlornly for home again?) Perhaps most concerning is the single sentence about the bulk of the collection, ‘Phase two of the work on the remaining material is currently underway‘, which gives no indication of duration and which is then ‘parked’ to concentrate on the ‘good news’ story about the family history service that the Council clearly wants to trumpet. (As I’ve suggested before, though, I wonder what the chances are of this apparently so-successful service surviving in the long term in addition to a new record office…?)

Secondly, I wrote some weeks ago to Linda Tomos, Director of CyMal (the Welsh Government’s Museums, Archives and Libraries arm), and Jeff James, Chief Executive of the National Archives of England and Wales and Keeper of the Public Records, the individuals who head the two organisations responsible for oversight of Carmarthenshire Archives. I posed three questions:

  1. Does your organisation propose to take any punitive action against Carmarthenshire County Council for its clear and demonstrable failure to safeguard these nationally important archives?
  2. Is your organisation engaging with, and exerting pressure on, the Council to expedite the cleaning of mould-damaged documents, with the aim of making them available to the public again as soon as possible? If so, are you satisfied with the response from the Council?
  3. Is your organisation engaging with, and exerting pressure on, the Council to identify an appropriate new site for a replacement record office as quickly as possible, and to ensure that such a site is in Carmarthenshire itself, not outside the county boundaries (as has been widely rumoured)? If so, are you satisfied with the response from the Council?

They have both now replied, and the substance of their replies follows. First, Linda Tomos of Cymal.

The delivery of an archive service is the responsibility of Carmarthenshire County Council. However, in the current circumstances specialist staff from the Museums, Archives, and Libraries Division (MALD) of the Welsh Government are working closely with officers in Carmarthenshire to support the authority to address the issues facing the service.

Measures are in place to stabilise the environmental conditions in the archive storage areas. With the co-operation of officers in Carmarthenshire, MALO staff are monitoring the conditions in the storage areas and providing advice on any actions required to prevent further deterioration in the condition of the collections. Regular on-site visits are being undertaken by a MALO official (an accredited Conservator).

The Authority has assured us that firm plans are now in place to ensure the uplift and removal of the archive collections for cleaning and decontamination by the end of December 2015. The Authority is also discussing with neighbouring and other archive services in Wales, interim arrangements for the storage of, and access to, the collections once they are free of mould. We expect that these arrangements will be finalised in coming weeks and that the Authority will make details of the arrangements publicly available as soon as possible afterwards.

Once the uplift is completed. cleaning and decontamination of the collection will commence. This is a major undertaking and we do not anticipate that the majority of collections will be available until sometime in 2016. To assist researchers, we are working with the Authority to identify and prioritise the most in-demand collections for cleaning and return.

In the meantime, you may be aware that some material has already been cleaned and taken to Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff for storage. We have asked the Authority to explore what measures can be put in place to allow access to this material as soon as possible. This is now well in hand.

The future location of the Carmarthenshire Archive Service is a matter for the local authority to determine. However, we do expect Carmarthenshire County Council to explore all of the available options for the effective and efficient delivery of an archive service. This includes the potential for a partnership arrangement, as well as the development of an independent facility within Carmarthenshire. This is based on our experience in Wales of successful and highly regarded services provided through joint arrangements between up to six local authorities, as well as by individual local authorities.

Any new arrangement will require the Authority to draw up and submit to the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism a revised scheme for archives to comply with s60 of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994. The Authority would need to have regard to any advice that the Deputy Minister provided. The Deputy Minister would need to be satisfied that any proposals would enable the service to meet the Archive Service Accreditation Standard in relation to governance arrangements, collections care, access and user experience.

This letter provides significantly more clarity than the Council has provided about the current location, and schedule for cleaning, of the archive collection. However, CyMal’s evident liking for partnership schemes rings alarm bells; while it is true, for example, that the multiplicity of ‘county boroughs’ in the historic county of Glamorgan share two facilities, this is a consequence of very different historical and geographical circumstances, as is the situation in Powys. Not that a partnership is necessarily a bad thing per se; indeed, some might say that anything that results in the County Council having less direct control over the archives can only be a good thing. Ultimately, everything hinges on the question of location.

Next, the reply from Jeff James of the National Archives.

I would like to reassure you that I am aware of the issues facing Carmarthenshire Archives Service. To date, The National Archives has sought a commitment from the County Council that the archive collections will be cleaned, properly preserved and made available to the public. This is a significant task, however, for the Council and its staff. [Especially as the record office has always had too few staff – D]

A number of actions have been taken already in order to achieve these objectives and ensure that collections are safe and secure in the short term, whilst plans for tackling the immediate mould problem are developed and implemented. A proportion of the collection has already been removed and treated, with the aim of making it publicly available at an alternative location. It is my understanding that the access arrangements are currently being agreed.

I have been informed that plans are being finalised to remove the remainder of the collections for treatment, which should result in the completely cleaned collection being made publicly accessible during 2016. The National. Archives will continue to monitor the response of the County Council to the issues and work closely with the Museums Archives and Libraries Division of the Welsh Government, which is providing practical support.

The accommodation at Parc Myrddyn is no longer suitable for archival purposes [it never was! – D]; however, the choice of location for the Carmarthenshire Archives Service is a matter for the County Council. My role as Keeper of Public Records is to ensure that any new arrangements are sustainable and meet archive standards for a Place of Deposit under s.4(1) of the Public Records Act, as well as the Archive Service Accreditation standard. To achieve this, ·The National Archives will seek to work with Carmarthenshire County Council in exploring all options, including partnerships. A considered approach should help to establish and maintain a service that will be viable in the long-term, ensuring that the collection is accessible to the public and preserved for generations to come.

There’s the ‘P’ word again, which, as I’ve previously suggested in this blog, might be an euphemism for ‘Swansea’… On the other hand, one could hardly demur from the sentiments expressed in the final sentence, which surely ought to be the objective of everyone responsible for, or simply interested in, the future of Carmarthenshire Archives.

Significantly, both letters ignore my first question about possible punitive action against the Council; clearly, this is not on the agenda, although readers of this blog might well think that it should be. However, both letters are models of openness compared to the vagueness and obfuscation one encounters elsewhere, so I want to thank both Linda Tomos and Jeff James for their responses, and for replying to me in person, rather than delegating the replies to subordinates. Above all, both contain clear statements that the supervisory authorities expect the entire collection to be available for public viewing, albeit at a place or places to be decided, during 2016, a significantly clearer commitment than the Council has yet given. This is clearly something for all of us to monitor, and to hold the Council to account over if it fails to deliver.