Carmarthenshire Archives: J’accuse, Part 2

In the immediately preceding post, I produced incontrovertible evidence that Carmarthenshire County Council never installed dehumidifying equipment that would have enabled environmental conditions in the archival strongrooms to meet BS5454, the national standard for such facilities, despite provision to do so being set out explicitly, and costed, in the business plan submitted to, and accepted by, the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1998-9. Further proof of this failure, and its direct connection to the outbreak of mould in 2013, is provided in this post. However, some additional thoughts before we proceed.

Of course, not installing the correct equipment was not only taking a risk with the archive material owned by, and often created by, the county council; it was also potentially endangering the survival of the archives that had been deposited at the record office in good faith by their private owners, which included a significant number of collections – perhaps more than at any other Welsh county record office – of national and, indeed, sometimes international importance. Indeed, the business plan explicitly leaned upon the impressive nature of the office’s ‘documents of national importance’, describing the Cawdor, Dynevor, Cilcennin, Rebecca Riots, Carmarthen Borough and Carmarthen Gaol collections under that heading. (Personally, I’d add some of the contents of the two Stepney collections, too, but then, I’m biased.) The Council suddenly seems to have rediscovered this importance, albeit belatedly: the current invitation to tender for the cleaning of the bulk of the archive declares the collection to be ‘UNIQUE and IRREPLACEABLE’. The council’s capitals, not mine, although curiously, that precise form of words actually does appear to be mine – it’s so nice to know that one has such attentive readers, and although I’m not particularly religious, I’m put in mind of Luke Chapter 15, verses 7 and 10… Some rather more substantive thoughts about this invitation to tender can be found here, the latest post on Jacqui Thompson’s blog.

It’s also worth noting in passing that the business plan projected for archives service staffing consisting of a county archivist, two senior archivists, two records assistants, a modern records officer and a modern records assistant. We’ll return to the issue of the service’s staffing in due course.

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The ultimate regulatory authority for archives in England and Wales is the National Archives at Kew, formerly known as the Public Record Office, hereafter referred to as TNA. As part of its duties, this body inspects every archive service once every few years, and, since the opening of the Parc Myrddin building, it has inspected Carmarthenshire in 2001, 2005, and 2011. These reports have been released to me following a Freedom of Information request (to TNA; I’d previously requested the same material as part of my broader FoI request to the county council, but fulfilling this still seems to be causing the relevant parties some difficulty). The remainder of this post focuses on them, together with two more recent documents that have already been placed in the public domain.

Some redaction has taken place under section 31(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, which ‘applies to information the release of which, would or would be likely to prejudice law-enforcement matters, including preventing or detecting crime, arresting or prosecuting offenders and the proper administration of justice’. In this case, it was made clear in the covering email from TNA that the material being redacted relates to the security arrangements at Parc Myrddin: ‘Section 31(1) (a) is engaged when, to quote the Freedom of Information Act, ‘disclosure … would, or would be likely to, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime’. In considering the public interest in this case, as to whether the benefits of releasing this security information outweigh the risks that release poses to the security of these collections, we have concluded that the security considerations are paramount in this case. Disclosure of this detailed information would be highly likely to undermine the measures designed to protect the archival and manuscript collections exposing them to a much greater risk of theft. To place this material in the public domain would undermine the Record Office’s ability to maintain these security arrangements’.

I have no difficulty with any of this – after all, the safety of the documents has been the rationale behind this entire campaign – but there does seem to be rather a lot of redaction on this subject, and the unredacted comment about security in the 2001 report, below, is troubling.

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The 2001 inspection report, which can be viewed in full here – R – Carmarthenshire Inspection Report 2001 – was actually commenced in July 2000, essentially while the new office was being commissioned, so inevitably, many of its conclusions are quite provisional, while others are simply descriptive of the new facilities. The salient points are as follows:

  1. The service did not meet the Historical Manuscripts Commission’s standard, and was not recommended for it, as it was felt it fell short on staffing and security (see above); it was judged too early to judge the environmental conditions. (The current version of the standard can be found here.)
  2. The County Archivist had effectively been ‘demoted’
  3. Although not spelled out by TNA, staffing was one short of the level stipulated in the business plan; the number of archivists was rated as ‘barely adequate’, number of support staff as ‘inadequate’
  4. The County Council ‘forgot’ to install smoke detectors in the searchroom
  5. There was a substantial cataloguing backlog
  6. Strongroom temperatures were within BS5454, but relative humidity was higher than that standard. However, these may have been freak readings; subsequent readings put the main strong room within the standard, although readings in the other strongrooms were unreliable because the heating had been ‘cut off by the builders’
  7. Material returning from the previous out-store had to be reboxed because of ‘problems with damp’
  8. Part of the conservation budget had been diverted to other purposes, as not everything promised for the new office had been delivered
  9. There was a lack of sympathy and interest on the part of senior council officials and councillors

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The 2005 inspection report can be viewed in full here – R – Carmarthenshire Inspection Report 2005

Again, the salient points are as follows:

  1. The county archivist was excluded from important decisions, e.g. budget setting, and the budget had been severely cut, leading to a reduction in the amount of conservation work that could be carried out
  2. Staffing remained inadequate, and the modern records staff had been transferred to a different jurisdiction
  3. There was still a substantial backlog of cataloguing
  4. The originally projected expansion space had been largely eaten up by large transfers from Llanelli Library and elsewhere
  5. The HLF grant was dependent on continued investment by the Council in the service, but this had not happened- ostensibly because of heavy spending on school buildings.
  6. There had been several incidents of flooding following leaks from offices above and blocked drains, although no documents were damaged in these
  7. Searchrooms 1 and 3 were too warm, and all areas had humidity levels in excess of BS5454. Variations were substantial, and exacerbated by the heating being turned off overnight, at weekends, and on holidays. All of the strongrooms contained radiators and pipes, with the largest containing a rising main. There had been water penetration from above into both strongrooms 1 and 2, while a flooding incident may have contributed to problems with the shelving in strongroom 3, the largest. The large roof area of this room heated up in the summer, the reverse in winter, with temperature difficult to control due to the lack of air conditioning. In the TNA’s opinion, many of these problems were caused by the fact that the original conversion work was not thorough enough. ‘The dehumidifiers are totally inadequate for the size of the strong rooms.’

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The 2011 inspection report can be viewed in full here – R – Carmarthenshire Inspection Report 2011

Once again, the salient points are as follows:

  1. Budget control had returned to the County Archivist, and an archives action plan was supposed to be drawn up in 2011-12; there were proposals to upgrade the service, or to move it again, but these were being affected by cuts in Welsh government funding
  2. Staffing remained unchanged
  3. The cataloguing backlog had grown worse, and as in 2005, very little conservation work could be carried out
  4. New drainage seemed to have eliminated the flooding problems, although many water pipes continued to flow through the strongrooms
  5. The comments about environmental conditions are essentially repeated from the 2005 report – i.e. too warm, humidity too high, etc. There was now clear evidence of damp damage on the walls in Strongroom 2, and of dry rot in Strongroom 1. ‘Residual heat from hot water passing through heating pipes to other areas of the building also impacts detrimentally on environmental control within the strongrooms.’ Once again, the dehumidifiers were said to be ‘totally inadequate’. Various concrete proposals were made to improve conditions (see full document, pp.5-6).

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Taken as a whole, the TNA reports, when compared with the original business plan, undoubtedly provide a clear explanation of the sequence of events that culminated in the shocking state of affairs that came to light from November 2013 onwards, described in this document and this one, released under a previous FoI request (not mine, and previously flagged here). This leads me to the following conclusions, based on the evidence contained in this and the immediately preceding post.

  1. According to TNA, the staffing of the archive service in the period under discussion has never been more than barely adequate at best, meaning relatively little could be done to address the huge backlog of cataloguing and conservation work.
  2. During the period to 2011, at least, the TNA reports suggest that the attitude to the archives service within the council could be regarded as dismissive, viewing it as something of at best marginal importance, with little attempt being made to understand it on the part of either officers or councillors, and with the archivists themselves being sidelined or ignored in relation to strategic decision making. Whether all of that continues to be the case today remains to be seen; but anecdotal evidence, such as the failures to appoint a new county archivist, to explain the current problems with the archives on the council’s website (a situation remedied only after many months had passed), and to respond to correspondence about those problems (notably the case of the letters sent by the Friends of the Archives to every single county councillor, not one of which received a reply), does not provide much cause for optimism.
  3. Finally, though, on the most important matter of all: From the evidence presented in this and the preceding post, the outbreak of mould in Carmarthenshire Archives would appear to be a direct consequence of the failure to install proper dehumidifying equipment in the strongrooms when the conversion of Parc Myrddin took place, relying instead on domestic-style dehumidifiers which were never adequate for the task. This was exacerbated by what TNA regarded as the inadequate nature of the conversion itself, which meant that the nature of the strongroom roofs, along with the presence of active water pipes, the frequent turning off of heating throughout the building to save money, and so forth, all contributed to an environment in which conditions were often well outside the national standard, BS5454. The council seems to have been warned about the strongroom conditions on a number of occasions, most obviously by the TNA reports of 2005 and 2011, but appears to have disregarded those warnings.

Further posts in this series are likely to follow in due course, so watch this space.

 

3 Comments

  1. Arabella Friesen says:

    Dear John, Please could you email me so that I can email you back? If you remember, I worked on the Cawdor archive a few years ago… and would very much like to be in touch. With best wishes, Arabella Friesen (Stackpole)

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  2. John Davies says:

    Hi David, Excellent posts! Re staff…Mary Ellis (CyMAL) frequently said to me the service was barely viable with five staff members. It now has three(?)

    I remember reports written by Maureen Patch in c.1973 asking for an increase in staff numbers…which never occurred! I think the last real increase in staff numbers was in 1971…when c.250 researchers used the archives! In recent years the managers used to manipulate the figures by including the councils records management staff (records management itself being totally under staffed and resourced) part of the archive staff compliment even though r.m. had nothing to do with the public service.

    Regards,

    John

    >

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