Carmarthenshire Archives: J’accuse, Part 1

…or, if you prefer, rwy’n gyhuddo.

Readers of the previous posts in this series will know that when I first started to express my concern about the future of the archives, and began the online campaign to raise awareness of the situation, there was virtually no clarity at all about what was likely to happen in the future. This, it has to be said, was due almost entirely to the County Council’s woeful failure to communicate with its stakeholders – for example, by providing no information whatsoever on its website about the closure of the record office, and by simply not replying, or not replying within acceptable timeframes, to many of those who contacted it.

Things have improved substantially since then. More information has been provided online, various public statements have been made by leading figures in the Council (not all of them terribly informative, it must be said, but let that pass), and the local press has weighed in, as have various individuals and organisations in positions of influence. It’s become clear that the supervisory authorities, the Welsh government and the National Archives, are on the case, although whether their involvement, especially in the case of the former, is leading to outcomes that are necessarily in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire, and of the archives themselves, remains to be seen. We now know that the documents are being cleaned, albeit at a staggering cost, and timetables exist for them to be made available to researchers once again, albeit in temporary locations that will not necessarily be very accessible or user-friendly. We know that serious discussions are under way about the creation of a new facility, although there appears to be a strong likelihood that this will be outside the county, and, again, might well have serious issues of access, especially for those who depend upon public transport.

So, yes, we are much further on than we were three or four months ago, and in the narrow sense, I suppose one could even say that Carmarthenshire archives, i.e. the priceless documents themselves, have been ‘saved’.

But that leaves us with the 64,000 dollar question, which I’ve deliberately left to one side until now in order to concentrate on the more immediate and more important questions of the future of the archives.

That question, of course is: why did mould develop in the record office in the first place?

This will be the first of a number of blog posts to address this issue. For a number of reasons, I’ve yet to decide on the exact timing of these posts, although they’ll probably appear over a matter of weeks rather than days – except in the case of Part 2, which will be posted here within the next couple of days. The posts will examine the matter in considerable, and often pretty boring, detail, so they’ll make for very lengthy reading, but I think it’s important that all of this information is placed on the record. I’m going to present that information in as factual and neutral a manner as I can, and leave it to others to draw their conclusions from it. However, I’ll conclude each post by posing the questions which, in my opinion, are raised by the information within it. Again, it’s for others to provide answers to those questions, or to use them as the basis for further lines of enquiry of their own.

***

‘Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.’ (Oscar Hammerstein)

In 1998, Carmarthenshire’s archives were in a mess, and the county record office itself was, to put it mildly, a disgrace. It was housed in three separate premises, four miles apart, and the searchroom could accommodate only about ten researchers at a time, despite the fact that the number of visitors had increased from 1,705 in 1990 to 3,385 in 1997. The searchroom was in the basement of County Hall, adjacent to the cafeteria and kitchens, so that researchers had ‘to study in the constant aroma of cooked food’ (I can vouch for this, because, to quote Max Boyce, ‘I was there’). Staff had to carry documents to the searchroom through the kitchen and dining area. School groups, student groups, and family history societies had to be turned away because of the inadequacy of the facilities. With unwitting irony, too, the county council of the day stated that ‘the strongrooms are not up to the required standard…the documents are in danger of rapid deterioration’, while, plus ça change, a serious outbreak of mould had developed in one of the out-stores – so the current crisis is actually the second time in less than twenty years that this problem has arisen. Unsurprisingly, the ultimate regulatory authority, the (then) Public Record Office, soon to be rebranded as the National Archives, had ‘issued an ultimatum that, if storage and research facilities are not improved, the County Council will lose control of its Archives Service’. The acquisition of further manorial and tithe documents had been prohibited, and the removal of tithe records already held was regarded as ‘a very serious threat’.

To remedy this dire situation, a plan was drawn up to establish a new record office in the former Queen Elizabeth Grammar School site at Richmond Terrace, Carmarthen, a building that would be renamed Parc Myrddin under its new dispensation. A gymnasium and two classrooms would be converted into strongrooms, a laboratory into a searchroom, another classroom into a microfilm and computer reading room, and a further classroom into a public reception area. Other classrooms would be converted into a sorting area for new accessions, a cataloguing room, a public meeting room, and staff rest rooms. In total, there would be accommodation for about fifty researchers at a time. This was all summarised under a total of fifteen ‘project objectives’, which seem to have been listed in order of perceived importance: thus number 1 was ‘to ensure that responsibility for the Archive Service remains locally and with the Local Authority’, number 3 was ‘to ensure the correct storage of the region’s archives in order that they may be preserved for posterity’, number 5 was ‘to provide a modern, effective county archive service’, and so on. Intriguingly, number 15 was ‘to provide expansion space for the next 15 years or so’, hardly a long term solution; but ‘the site is such that it allows for ample space for far greater expansion, which can be undertaken periodically as and when required’.

(The archive then had 300 cubic metres of material; the three new strongrooms contained about 525 cubic metres, hence the 15-year calculation, based on the average rates of accrual at the time.)

One of the other reasons for the conversion which was stressed heavily in these objectives was to re-use a historic building and retain the green field site around it. Serious consideration was given to demolishing the former school and erecting a new build, but it was felt that this would mean the ‘loss of a historic building of great significance to the town of Carmarthen’, while ‘a new build would, probably, not be as substantial and solid a structure as the present building’ and ‘the present building is ideally suited for the proposed project’. A substantial number of representations had been made to save the building, including from Old Girls’ groups.

The Council decided to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a substantial grant towards the conversion costs, with £117,000 being requested – 75% of the total project costs of £155,827, in other words the maximum proportion that the HLF allocated to any project that successfully applied to it. A business plan was drawn up to support this application. This is quite an elusive document to track down – for example, the HLF’s own copy was apparently destroyed during routine weeding in 2010 – but fortunately, the copy of it that was sent at the time to the secretary of the Welsh County Archivists Group was retained by the person in question, who passed it on to me. Unless stated otherwise, all facts, figures and quotations in this post are taken from that document, and from other documents released to me by the HLF, as described below.

The business plan estimated that the number of users at the new office would rise by more than a third, to an estimated 6,700 visitors per annum. Income was forecast to be £108, 781 for the first year, 1997-8, with expenditure at £104,841; by 2001-2, following the opening of the new office, income was expected to be £155,724 as a result of an ‘increased annual revenue grant from Carmarthenshire County Council of £28,500 per annum plus inflation’, while expenditure was expected to be £154,274; this point was footnoted, ‘increased income will be reinvested in the County Archives Service’.

Detailed costings for the project included the following:

  • £11,675 for the public search room
  • £11,225 for a disabled WC (perhaps a surprisingly large figure when compared with the search room cost; it included £3,000 for providing a new roof and £3,500 for waste pipes and connections to existing drains)
  • £79,005 for strongrooms 1, 2 and 3; this was far and away the largest item of expenditure, and forms the main focus of this post.

The figure for fitting out the strongrooms included £10,700 for ‘works to mechanical and electrical installations’; a further £44,850 was to be spent on ‘strongroom shelving as quoted by Nordplan’. Section 2.12 of the plan described the proposed strongroom conditions. These were to comply with the British Standard Recommendations for Storage and Exhibition of Archival Documents, part of what was then known as BS5454 and is now known as PD5454. The strongrooms were to be controlled within the temperature range of 13-18 degrees celsius, with relative humidity of 55 to 65%. Preliminary readings had indicated constant levels within those ranges, and two wall-mounted dehumidifiers would be installed in Strongroom 1 to maintain them; this was by far the largest of the three new strongrooms, at 370 cubic metres out of 525 in the entire building, and would thus contain the vast majority of the collections. Two portable dehumidifiers would be placed in Strongroom 2, while Strongroom 3 would be developed after expansion space had been exhausted after 10 years, ‘when an air circulation scheme will be considered’ (my emphasis). The temperature range would be maintained by thermostat controls on the strongroom heating system.

(Perhaps confusingly, the room identified as Strongroom 1 in the plan was actually designated Strongroom 3 after the record office was commissioned, the new numbering being based on the distances from the searchroom.)

The business plan was duly submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. This routinely destroys most of the documentation relating to individual grants after ten years, but it still retains both the case paper and the contract relating to its agreement with Carmarthenshire County Council, and both of these documents were released to me under a Freedom of Information request. Much of the case paper simply summarises the business plan, but it does provide some interesting and useful additional information, notably the opinions from the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (more usually known as HMC) and the HLF’s policy advisor for archives and libraries, Stephen Green.

The RCHM/HMC opinion states:

RCHM strongly supported the application. It was reported that the poor accommodation was very worrying given the importance of the collection, a matter of some concern both to the Public Records Office and RCHM. The proposed project was supported by RCHM as a workable plan and an immense improvement on the current situation but it was also emphasized that it must be the first stage of a concerted effort by the local authority to place the service on better footing. RCHM felt this should be the first move towards the Commission’s Standard for Record Repositories. Without lottery support, it was opined that this project could not go ahead. The public benefits were praised but concern was expressed over the backlog of cataloging. While an increase in reader numbers is considered likely, the figures given by the applicant were considered ambitious. A member of the Commission visited the school and considered it suitable for the project. The project was seen as financially and technically feasible. The organisational viability was judged adequate but RCHM would like to strengthen the role of the County Archivist in its execution. It was judged a likelihood that the service would cease if this application fails. RCHM have been involved in advising the applicant on the project and feel on the whole their advice has been followed. They are strongly supportive of the project but would seek a clear strategy on the continued investment and development of the service and an undertaking to implement and sustain the service over the next five years to meet the Commission’s Standard for Record Repositories.

Stephen Green’s verbal advice was:

SG supported the project strongly and endorsed the points made by RCHM. He confirmed the importance of the collections held by the service. He provided additional comment to the issues raised by RCHM. He felt the over-estimate in user numbers was not a serious issue, given that it is likely that there will be some rise in reader figures especially given the new facilities and ease of access. SG recommended that the application be supported in full but a special condition should be included in the contract that the applicant provides a strategic overview of the service taking account of cataloging and conservation of the existing archive.

The HLF committee for Wales approved the grant of £116,500 at its meeting on 10 December 1998, thus effectively rubber stamping all of the financial provisions in the council’s business plan. A contract was signed on St David’s Day 1999; this is provided here – Carmarthenshire Archives Project contract. The case paper contains one additional proviso at the behest of RCHM, namely that ‘a condition should be the full involvement of the County Archivist in the implementation of the project’.

The building at Parc Myrddin was duly converted, opened to the public, and served as the county record office until its closure in 2014, following the discovery of mould in the strongrooms in November 2013.

Finally, then, we come to the nub of the matter.

Contrary to the stipulations in the business plan, as submitted to the HLF, dehumidifiers that would have made the strongrooms compliant with BS5454, especially the two wall mounted dehumidifiers explicitly specified for the largest strongroom, were never installed.

To quote the recently retired former County Archivist of Carmarthenshire, in a public comment on a previous post in this series: The three strong rooms at Parc Myrddin have domestic dehumidifiers installed – the sort that work in one’s kitchen. They are useless as a means to regulate the environment in archival strongrooms.

***

I suggest that the evidence presented in this post permits the following questions to be asked.

  1. Why is it that a location which, in 1998-9, was regarded as being so ideal by the Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and others, should be condemned by the Council’s own spokespersons little more than fifteen years later as being totally unfit for purpose? 
  2. Why was the appropriate dehumidifying equipment not installed at Parc Myrddin, when it was stated explicitly in the business plan that it would be – in order to fulfil what the Council claimed to be its third most important priority for the new record office?
  3. What happened to the money specifically allocated for such equipment? (In revised form, questions 2 and 3 could also be asked of other aspects of the business plan that were apparently never implemented, notably the failure to provide the public meeting room.)
  4. Did the regulatory authorities, namely the HLF for the duration of their 10-year contract, the National Archives, and (then) CyMal, know about the failure to act upon the business plan by not installing the specified dehumidifying equipment? If so, what action, if any, did they take, and how did Carmarthenshire County Council respond?

It is principally to questions 1 and 4, and the many ramifications of the answers to them, that subsequent posts in this series will return.

2 Comments

  1. Jo Walton says:

    An intriguing Part 1 which highlights the shameful neglect by the County Council who are clearly found wanting.

    Like

  2. John D. Smith says:

    It is of the utmost importance for the generations to come that the Carmarthen Archive Service is preserved and treasured. The history of a nation is the birthright of its children.

    Like

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