Despite being delayed by a holiday, Part 3 of this series of posts has still arrived rather sooner than I anticipated, essentially because Carmarthenshire Council finally responded to my Freedom of Information request to release the correspondence between it on the one hand, and the National Archives and Welsh government on the other – and the Welsh government, in turn, responded to my ‘similar but different’ request to it just 48 hours later. Conspiracy theorists may be somewhat chagrined by the fact that the Council released their material to me just hours before a meeting in Carmarthen about the dire state of heritage in the county, previously flagged on this blog, so that I could reveal some of the material’s more damning headlines at the meeting, which, in turn, took place just hours before the press deadline of one of the local newspapers – whereas any half-respectable Machiavellian surely would have delayed such a release until after both of those events.
Let’s face it: House of Cards, Carmarthenshire County Council most definitely isn’t.
Still, these days the Council publicly insists that it’s really committed to the future of the archives, and that the problems there are all historical. Well, then: if they’re so historical, surely it’s only right and proper that a duly qualified historian examines them. Mind you, if they really are so ‘historical’, why does the week before last’s hard copy of the Carmarthen Journal – no online link available – contain a story about the archives losing out on potential six-figure funding from the Wellcome Trust simply because a council officer allegedly didn’t respond to letters about it?
But then, history is a wonderfully elastic concept. After all, my typing the first word in this sentence is now ‘historical’…
This is going to be a very long post, based on a very large amount of information – including file sizes of up to 16MB each, containing literally reams of emails and digitised copies of letters (which, as the saying goes, I’ve read so you don’t have to) – so I’m going to suppress my natural tendencies as a historian and will present the conclusions first, before the evidence. Therefore, if you just want the ‘headlines’ from this post, without wading through the supporting material that follows, you need read only to the end of the following bullet points, which cover both this post and the two immediately preceding ones.
- The Heritage Lottery Fund grant of 1999, for the conversion of part of the Parc Myrddin building into a record office, included funding for industrial-standard dehumidifiers in the strongrooms. These were never actually installed, and a number of other elements funded by the HLF were also not carried out.
- From very early on, the Parc Myrddin office was criticised on grounds of inadequate workmanship and corner-cutting, and the removal of the archives to another location was under serious consideration just seven years after it opened.
- A series of major criticisms was made in such documents as the 2005 and 2011 National Archives inspection reports, a letter from the National Archives in 2008, and a report by the Welsh government (CyMal) in 2010. These centred on: inadequate security, following a catalogue of attempted break-ins, vandalism and attempted arson; the absence of proper smoke detection equipment and fire management strategies; and an absence of adequate environmental controls. Very little was done in response.
- Following the discovery of mould in the strongrooms in November 2013, the entire collection remained in situ for months, and continued to deteriorate. A series of warnings was sent to the Council from the National Archives and the Welsh government, up to and including ministerial level, between May and July 2014.
- Proper dehumidifiers were not installed in the strongrooms until nine months after the discovery of the mould outbreak; the bulk of the collection still remains in those strongrooms, an invitation to tender for their cleaning having been issued only in the last month.
- The total cost of cleaning the collection, according to an estimate made over a year ago, is £625,000.
- The Council initially wanted the archives staff to undertake at least some of the cleaning themselves. This was ultimately vetoed by CyMal. However, despite receiving warnings about the potential health risks for both staff and researchers from the presence of mould, it was decided not to undertake air sampling in the building due to cost.
- At least some depositors are seriously considering withdrawing their collections from Carmarthenshire Archives.
- Carmarthenshire has been threatened by the National Archives with the loss of its ‘place of deposit’ status twice in sixteen years – an unprecedented situation in Wales. That threat remains in place unless the Council demonstrates that it has complied with conditions laid down by TNA.
- A proposal, initiated and strongly advocated by the Welsh government, to move the county archives to be part of a partnership scheme in Swansea, has been under serious consideration since August 2014. Prior to October 2015, no consultation whatsoever about this matter had taken place with users of the archive, and little regard seems to have been paid to the travel issues for those in the west and north of Carmarthenshire.
And so to the evidence that supports the points made above.
On several occasions during the last few months, there have been times when I’ve had such thoughts as ‘they didn’t really do that, did they?’, or ‘surely things can’t get any worse than this?’ And every time, my naive expectations have been confounded in spades. So it was with the revelations in this latest batch of material, which have convinced me that if ever a film is made of the Carmarthenshire archives saga, it would have to be written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Terry Gilliam, with set design by Banksy. Even they, though, might struggle to attain quite the right level of the surreal.
Let’s start on 19 November 2013, the date on which the then (but soon to retire) county archivist sent an email to the Welsh government to say that ‘we have discovered quite a lot of active mould in our main strong room’, affecting material on bottom shelves in different parts of the room. ‘There is very little heating in the room’; relative humidity was 60-70% most of the time, with the temperature varying with the season from 8 to 25 degrees. (By 2011, PD5454, the national standard for archive repositories, specified that the temperature range should be 16-19 degrees for frequently handled material, 13-16 degrees for less frequently handled, and RH 45-60% with 5 degrees tolerance.) A subsequent email on 25 November revealed the discovery of more mould, including some on the top shelves; the temperature in the storeroom was then 10 degrees.
(One of the many things about archives that the county council failed to grasp throughout the fifteen and more years of this ongoing shambles is that if you turn down the temperature in a council office by two degrees, nobody will die; if you turn down the temperature in an archive storeroom by two degrees, invaluable and irreplaceable historic documents can and will ‘die’. Another is its apparent belief that the archives are almost exclusively to do with family history, which can largely be done online; but that’s another story.)
By coincidence, the discovery of the mould effectively coincided with a letter from the director of CyMal, the Welsh government’s museums, archives and libraries arm, sent to the county archivist on 26 November and setting out the findings of a recent (i.e. pre-mould discovery) CyMal visit to the record office. This was concerned principally with the new Archive Service Accreditation, being introduced within the next 3-5 years, and expressed serious concern that the failure to deal with such long-standing issues as inadequate staffing, poor site security, vandalism, and inadequate environmental controls and building maintenance, would mean that the service would probably fail to achieve this new standard. CyMal’s own most recent report on the archives, from June 2010, had identified a catalogue of shortcomings:
- Security was ‘a key concern’. There had been an unsuccessful attempted break-in in May 2010, and other attempts to set fires adjacent to external doors. Local youths had also accessed a flat roof area and caused damage to the main roof, resulting in water damage to the storage areas. CCTV, and rendering the flat roof inaccessible, were recommended.
- There was no smoke detection system covering the searchroom, despite this having been highlighted in previous reports, and no fire suppression system.
- Water services continued to pass through a strongroom, contrary to PD5454, although a flood detection system had been fitted.
- Environmental conditions continued to fluctuate well outside PD5454; at the time of CyMal’s visit, the highest recorded temperature was 20.9 degrees. Conditions were being ‘controlled’ by ‘basic domestic-grade dehumidifcation equipment, which is not suitable for establishing long-term environmental stability’.
- It was recommended that urgent consideration be given to lowering the ceiling levels to buffer the strongroom environment against external conditions, and consideration given to ventilation arrangements.
CyMal’s concerns were clearly overtaken by events, but they provide further proof of the fact that the council had received ample warning about the inadequacy of the conditions in the record office (inspection reports and letters sent from the National Archives in 2005, 2008 and 2011 make very similar points). Very little seems to have been done in response to any of these concerns. One wonders how much the cumulative cost of addressing them at the time would have been: one suspects it would have been substantially less than the amount that will have to be spent on developing a new facility, and the amount that is now being spent on cleaning the damaged documents.
Apropos of the latter, I apologise for quoting an inaccurate figure for that cost in a previous post. There, it was stated to be about £550,000, but this was based on a secondhand source; I had reservations about quoting it, with part of me believing that such a high figure surely had to be an exaggeration, or an error of some sort. In fact, the total cost of cleaning the collection, as given in an email of 19 August 2014, referred to again below in its proper context, is £625,000 – and that was a provisional estimate, made well over a year ago.
Meanwhile, returning to the winter of 2013-14, the most urgent issue was clearly the response to the mould problem. A detailed survey of the severity of the outbreak was undertaken by CyMal, but despite receipt of this, the council’s response could be described as tardy, at best. Council officers initially suggested that the archives staff themselves could undertake the cleaning of at least some of the documents, despite the fact they were not trained to do so, and despite the potential health risks involved. By the end of January, too, Health and Safety was suggesting that public access to the archives should be ended ‘until a suitable cleaning regime is in place’, and this message was reiterated by CyMal on 10 February, which recommended closure as soon as possible, the taking of air and surface samples to assess the extent of contamination, the immediate hiring of proper dehumidifiers, and the removal of the documents from the strongrooms. By mid-February the specialist contractors, Harwell Document Restoration Services, had been called in to give their advice, which came in the form of a detailed report:
- A large number of bound volumes in Strongroom 3, especially at lower levels, ‘were found to be contaminated with mould growth, with growth being of an active nature. It is in white, fruiting colonies, on spines, front boards and also growing between boards on vertically shelved items’.
- ‘At present, the damage is causing irreversible damage to the volumes Urgent action is required to halt the mould growth and remediate (sic) the damage already caused. If left untreated, given the environment in the room and the likely high spore count, the problem could proliferate with a worst case scenario that it affects all holdings in the room’.
Harwell again stated that the mouldy material needed to be removed, and proper industrial dehumidifiers needed to be installed, as matters of urgency; ‘if these items remain onsite for much longer, further damage which may be irreversible will occur’. CyMal, in turn, recommended that the council should give Harwell’s proposals and costings ‘serious and urgent consideration’. (Meanwhile, incidentally, a second, separate outbreak of mould had been discovered among the modern records kept at County Hall.)
Despite this clear advice – or warnings, if you prefer – the council kept the office open for another six months, and took a similar time to finally agree to install industrial-strength dehumidifiers; while as far as is known, the bulk of the collection has still not been removed from Parc Myrddin, well over eighteen months after both CyMal and Harwell recommended that it should be moved as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, CyMal responded to the council’s notion that the archives staff themselves could undertake at least some of the cleaning in very strong terms:
We are very concerned by the apparent proposal to involve the archive staff in the cleaning of documents stored in the archive. We must re-iterate that you are dealing with a serious and extensive outbreak of mould and in our professional view it is neither appropriate or (sic) realistic for the staff of the archive to undertake or to be involved in the cleaning of the affected volumes, or to check 14,000 boxes for mould growth…the archive service does not have the resources, specialist knowledge or equipment needed to deal with the mould outbreak appropriately. We must reiterate that mould is a respiratory sensitiser and is subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. The cleaning work should be conducted by specialist professional staff, trained and equipped to deal with mould contaminated collections. The situation also requires immediate attention as it is highly likely that the problem will become progressively worse as we move towards summer and experience external changes in the temperature and relative humidity.
On 6 March, an anonymous official in the Welsh government wrote to the county council: ‘in the grand scheme of things, you have plenty of issues that have much higher political profile, but the issues on the archive service are really causing us serious concern, and could become difficult publicly (my emphasis)‘. By April, senior staff at the council were working on an action plan to resolve those issues, considering such matters as location, environmental conditions, health and safety, and the eradication of mould. Meetings were held to discuss alternative properties, but the council’s own stock of appropriate buildings was said to be limited; this is a theme to which I’ll return at the very end of this post.
In May 2014, the highest echelons of the Welsh government also became involved, with the then Minister for Culture and Sport, John Griffiths AM, writing to then Council leader Kevin Madge. The minister’s attitude was unambiguous. Referring to the criticisms in the National Archives inspection reports of 2005 and 2011, he stated:
Despite the authority being given such clear advice, no remedial action has been taken over a period of nine years (my emphasis)…the archive collections held by the authority are of great significance and value to the people of Carmarthenshire, Wales, and beyond. The lack of care for the collections to the required standard is therefore a matter of great concern to me as Minister…Members of the public are currently unable to access any original material in the custody of the service due to a severe outbreak of mould…this is a risk to public health and may cause permanent damage to some items…
The service is currently approved by TNA as a place of deposit for designated locally-generated public records under the Public Records Act 1958. To retain this status, a service must be able to manage and care for collections effectively and provide public access. If TNA are not satisfied that a place of deposit is meeting these requirements they have the power to remove Place of Deposit status and require the removal of designated public records to an alternative location.
This happens only rarely and in the most serious cases of failure. I am concerned now that unless the authority takes swift action to address both the immediate problem of the mould, and makes a real commitment to ensuring adequate provision for the service in the future, this must be considered as a very real possibility. This would deprive the community of local access to these resources. The removal of Place of Deposit status could also damage confidence in the service by major private depositors and donors which could result in the withdrawal of collections from the archive service. The loss of collections in this manner would again deny members of the public and researchers access to valuable information. This would be detrimental to the service and would potentially be a substantial source of reputational harm to the authority. (My emphasis.)
I would like your assurance that the authority has firm plans and timetable in place to deal with the affected collections and to provide suitable short-term accommodation for the collections, while the longer term future of the service and its location is considered. I would be grateful if you could provide the details of your plan and timetable to me as soon as possible.
The Minister also requested a new S60 scheme, as specified by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994: ‘in drawing up the scheme, I am particularly concerned that you consider the level of staffing and resources required to address both the legacy issues facing the service and to ensure that the service is able to deliver a high quality service to its users, and one which meets recognised professional standards for the management and care of archive collections’.
In June, Andrew Rowley, the National Archives’ Places of Deposit manager, visited the Parc Myrddin site, effectively (as he stated) bringing forward the inspection scheduled for 2016. His conclusion was, again, clear: the long-standing security and environmental concerns had to be addressed, although place of deposit status would continue on the basis that a service review be carried out and a strategic plan for the future of the service developed. At much the same time, CyMal was again writing to the council, urging them to take immediate action to improve the fire and security alarms, to take surface and air samples, and to improve the environmental conditions and monitoring. On 25 June, the council’s cultural services manager emailed CyMal to the following effect:
- A ‘green light’ had been received from the technical services department to look at consultants outside the regular procurement procedures ‘to develop a scheme for the Parc Myrddin property’.
- Harwell were likely to be ‘the only specialist document recovery contractor’ that could clean the archives, so they needed an exemption from regular procurement rules and wanted CyMal to support this in order to add weight to the request for an exemption.
- ‘I would be grateful if you could forward to me the current section 60 scheme that you have on file from Carmarthenshire County Council’.
(One wonders why, if Harwell was clearly the only contractor able to complete the work, and the council had obtained exemptions from its usual procurement procedures, it subsequently issued a standard invitation to tender for the cleaning of much of the collection – and issued it some fifteen months later? One also wonders why the council was unable to find a copy of its own Section 60 scheme – perhaps as damning an indictment as anything else of its attitude towards its archives service!)
A further message from the Welsh government at much the same time considered the bigger picture, again with regard to the risk of the National Archives withdrawing the county’s place of deposit status: ‘without swift action the county will be in danger of having some of its most valuable historical collections removed from its care (whether by TNA or by the owners of the collections themselves, e.g. the [information redacted]‘.
(As a side issue, it’s interesting that the Welsh government redacted names of individuals, including the senders and recipients of emails, in response to my FoI request, whereas Carmarthenshire Council didn’t. As there was considerable overlap in the material I received from both sides of the correspondence, I’ve had some harmless entertainment when seeing ‘information redacted’ messages and knowing perfectly well which names fit the spaces. In this specific case, which was only in the Welsh government release, I won’t attempt to supply my own educated guess about the identity of the depositor in question; but those seeking a clue as to what that guess might be may wish to go and watch the very well reviewed new film of Macbeth…)
Although a ‘visioning workshop’ (sic) about the future of the archives was held on 2 July, the immediate problems remained. On 22 July, the Head of Collections at CyMal emailed the relevant parties at the council to the following effect:
We had anticipated that by this stage the authority would have made arrangements for the removal and treatment of the mould affected items by Harwells or an alternative specialist organisation. Our understanding is that this has not yet happened and, in any case, the delay of several months in removing the affected items from the storage areas is almost certain to have worsened the condition of these items and could well have resulted in a spread of mould to other parts of the collections.
We are taking this matter very seriously. If there is evidence of further deterioration in the condition of the collections then the position of the service as an appointed place of deposit for public records will be in jeopardy. We will discuss our findings with our colleagues at TNA but we are concerned that the position is now exceptionally serious and that there is a real possibility of the service losing its place of deposit status.
CyMal requested immediate confirmation that the fire and security alarms were now working and were being appropriately monitored; that a draft emergency plan had been drawn up; and that surface and air samples to identify the mould and establish current spore levels had been completed by 23 July, as previously requested.
However, the council had decided not to undertake air sampling on grounds of cost, the relevant email reading:
The short answer is that we have identified the presence of dust and fungal deposits (active or inactive) which we are now dealing with. We know there has been a lack of environmental control in the past (!! – my exclamantion) which contributed to the fungal activity…Of the parameters available to us that we could select for measurement, the measurement of airborne fungi (mould) is likely to prove the least useful even if we were to show that airborne fungi levels were higher in the archives department than elsewhere…It would be more sensible and safer to presume that the likelihood of short term exposures to elevated fungi/dust levels on handling certain documents could/will occur from time to time and therefore it would be best to proceed to considering control measures (for the short, medium and long term) without further ado…
Sampling would not necessarily identify the exact type of fungus/dust and where it does what would be the usefulness of the find?…Sampling would be expensive especially for copious sampling. Sampling would not eradicate the problem but just confirm the issue’…The money used in sampling is best allocated to resolving the issue by eradicating the problem…the authority has to currently make £20 million savings and to justify the spend from a H&S perspective it would be best to address the problem rather than confirm that which is already evident.
All this despite the fact that Harwell had warned in February that ‘mould presents a significant health and safety risk to archive staff and to members of the public accessing the records’: particularly at risk were the elderly, pregnant women, and those with respiratory conditions or suppressed immune systems, while conditions such as asthma and eczema could be exacerbated. The director of CyMal had advised on 1 July that ‘mould has been linked to range of respiratory conditions, and collections which are contaminated by mould cannot therefore be made available to the public or worked on by staff. Active mould contamination is progressive, especially in the warm and humid weather of the summer months; while the collection remains in its current storage facility, without treatment, deterioration will be accelerating, increasing the scope and cost of the remedial treatment required’.
In the light of this, it would be interesting to know whether any of the archives staff, or regular users of the record office in the ‘at risk’ groups, have suffered from respiratory complaints within the last few years – especially as the record office was kept open to the public for over nine months following the initial discovery of mould. Potentially, of course, an answer to that question might elevate this entire affair to a very different level.
By the end of July, CyMal’s patience seems to have been wearing thin. On 22 July, an anonymous Welsh government official emailed a colleague to state that ‘the condition of the collections has deteriorated since we prepared our original report [presumably November 2013 – my addition] and that the mould infection is now much more widespread…we are also aware that the mould is now affecting major deposited collections, including the parish registers, but the authority has not taken steps to inform or reassure individual owners (or give them the option of re-locating their items to a place of greater safety)’. Following a visit to the record office from CyMal officials on 23 July, two emails were sent to the council on the twenty-fifth, one from CyMal and the other from the Welsh government’s Director of Culture and Sport. Taken together, these present a damning catalogue.
The Director’s email began by stating that ‘the outcome of [the] visit was extremely disappointing and served to reinforce our serious concern for the well-being of the collections’. The intruder and fire alarms were still not being appropriately monitored: ‘at the moment, a serious incident on the Parc Myrddin site outside office hours has the potential to result in the total loss of the county’s documentary heritage’. However, ‘of more immediate concern is the fact that no efforts have been made to introduce any form of environmental control into the storage areas’. As a result, ‘the physical condition of the collections has deteriorated markedly’, with a spread of mould through the main strongroom and the evidence of decomposing parchment documents, and the discovery of mould affecting the parish registers in one of the other strong rooms’. Consequently, the National Archives would have ‘clear grounds to remove the place of deposit status from the service with immediate effect’. The Director reminded the Council of the previous warnings about the implications of this, especially in terms of reputational damage and the likely response of depositors: ‘we anticipate that CyMal will be contacted by owners and be asked to advise them on the safety of their collections…as things stand, we would be unable to advise them to permit their collections to remain in the custody of Carmarthenshire County Council‘. (My emphasis.) The agreement of a contract with Harwell for cleaning the material originally infected by mould was
a positive, if badly overdue, development. However, it will not prevent the spread of mould and deterioration in the condition of the remainder of the collection while it is stored in such high risk and unsatisfactory conditions. On the basis of their visit, CyMal staff are not confident that effective plans are in place to safeguard this material, or that there is an appreciation of the need for this to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. Despite previous reassurances in this matter, the evidence denies grounds for confidence about the ability of the authority to deal with this situation. (My emphasis.) More immediate and purposeful leadership and action, at all levels, is clearly required very urgently if the authority is to stand a chance of regaining its accreditation.
The email from CyMal provided supporting evidence, criticising the lack of monitoring of the alarms and the limited progress towards the development of an emergency plan. As far as environmental issues were concerned, mould was now apparent in Strongroom 2 as well as Strongroom 3, ‘that some parchment documents are beginning to putrefy’, that environmental conditions were still ‘unstable and highly unsuitable and are not being managed’ (with a highest temperature on 22 July of 23 degrees and RH of 79%, as against recommended ranges of 13-20 degrees and 35 to 60% respectively). Therefore, ‘the inability of the authority to make efforts to control the environment is deeply concerning’.
The issue was evidently felt to be so serious that the council’s Chief Executive himself replied to the Director of Culture and Sport, indicating the actions that the council had taken and intended to take.
- The Regeneration and Leisure department took over the archive service in September 2012 ‘and has undertaken significant work in addressing a number of historical issues within the service’.
- Among points not already outlined earlier in this post were:
- Property maintenance work had been undertaken in April to prevent water getting into the building
- In May, an additional room was secured in Parc Myrddin to free up a specific area for cleaning of documentation coming into the archives in future
- 10 June – confirmation that £280,000 had been secured from reserves ‘to address mechanical air management issues at Parc Myrddin’
- 2 July – visioning day with an external consultant present to develop a long term strategy; a draft report was drawn up, ‘but is not for wider circulation at this point in time. The long term strategy and action plan is there to support the local authority’s aim to gain archive accreditation by 2017’.
- 25 July – order with Harwell for cleaning first tranche, having suspended the usual procurement procedure to do so
- 28 July – industrial dehumidifiers installed (nine months after the discovery of the mould, and fifteen years after they were specifically budgeted for in the business plan submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund! They immediately lowered the humidity levels to acceptable levels.)
The Chief Executive also described the measures that were ongoing or in hand:
- An ‘action plan and Gantt chart’ for all the work had been developed.
- A newsletter would be sent out in August ‘to keep stakeholders and key agencies informed of developments’.
- Visits from the Fire Brigade and local crime prevention officer had finally been arranged, with alarms and fire protection measures due to be installed in mid to late August.
- An emergency plan would be completed by 11 August.
- A pest monitoring scheme had been put in place, and a company was at work to prevent water ingress.
- Air conditioning requirements would be finalised and commissioned after a specialist visit, with contractors appointed as quickly as possible to undertake works.
The Chief Executive concluded by hoping that the Welsh government would recognise ‘that a number of positive steps are being taken to address some historical issues with the Archives, and that the authority’s commitment to retaining an Archive Service as a place of deposit is absolute. In fact, our commitment goes beyond just achieving that aim, it is to achieve accreditation for the service and recognition as a leading small Archive Service within Wales’. (My emphasis.)
Few would argue with the sentiment that the county archive service should retain its status as a place of deposit, and that it should be ‘a leading small archive service within Wales’, even if that sentiment does have a hint of the Damascene about it!
A Welsh government email of 31 July observed that the proposed newsletter would be a good idea, as it would keep those users ‘updated on progress and developments. You should also consider a separate strategy for communicating with your major private depositors. Through their collections, their stake in the service is considerable and a general newsletter is not perhaps the most appropriate method of communicating with them on this issue’. Despite this clear advice, the newsletter to stakeholders (such as the Friends of the Archives) was never sent. Hence all the letters written to the council during 2014-15 by concerned parties, myself included, trying to find out some inkling of what was going on, and receiving either non-existent or, at best, bland and/or belated replies; if such a newsletter had been sent in August 2014 as it was meant to be, and some information had been placed on the council’s website at that point, none of those letters, none of this campaign, no Freedom of Information requests by myself, and none of these blog posts, would probably ever have been necessary. The letters to depositors did go out, or at any rate they were sent to at least some of them, but it seems that at least one owner of a significant collection thought the letter in question was feeble and insulting (and that depositor is seriously considering moving the collection in question away from Carmarthenshire archives, as is at least one depositor of ecclesiastical records, exactly as CyMal predicted).
Perhaps in response to the Welsh government’s categorical reprimands, a flurry of activity took place on and around 19 August 2014. Harwell began work on cleaning the first batch of mould-damaged documents, and the council provided costings for a possible upgrade of Parc Myrddin (£321,000, plus another £170,000 on proper environmental controls), and for cleaning the documents (the £625,000 mentioned earlier). Meanwhile, the decision was taken finally to close the searchroom, and the National Archives was notified of this (and was assured at the same time that the council was developing a ‘strategic framework for the future delivery of the archive service’, as per the Chief Executive’s message). A family history outreach service was to be set up in local libraries, and arrangements for short to medium term storage of, and access to, documents as and when they came back from cleaning were being made with Glamorgan Archives and Swansea University archives.
In the light of all this, a year later, in August 2015, TNA wrote to the Council to express satisfaction about the progress being made towards the cleaning of the collection and to providing short-term access arrangements to cleaned materials. Therefore, it agreed to renew Carmarthenshire’s official ‘place of deposit’ status, on three conditions: that acceptable storage conditions were maintained at Parc Myrddin; that the mould affected documents were removed for cleaning within six months (i.e. prior to February 2016); and that public access was provided to the cleaned documents as soon as they were available again. If these requirements were not met, though, ‘a review of the place of deposit appointment will be triggered, and the likelihood is that place of deposit status will be withdrawn and public records removed from the custody of Carmarthenshire Archives Service’.
Therefore, Carmarthenshire County Council has come within a hair’s breadth of losing its status as a place of deposit, and thus its entire archive service, not once but twice in little more than sixteen years, having been threatened with that same fate in the mid-1990s – the threat that originally precipitated the move to Parc Myrddin. That threat still hangs over it, and will continue to do so until at least February 2016. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, only one other Welsh repository (Anglesey) has ever been threatened with the loss of this status, and then only once, during at least the last thirty years. I would humbly suggest that in this particular respect, being unique in Wales is not something for the county of Carmarthenshire to be proud of.
With the senior echelons of Carmarthenshire Council having a rather busier time in mid-August 2014 than they might have anticipated, and with the threat of loss of place of deposit status still hanging over them, it’s time to move on to the next stage of the story, which began to develop at pretty much exactly that time: namely, the proposal to move the archives out of the county altogether, and to house them in a new joint facility with West Glamorgan Archives and Swansea University’s Richard Burton Archive. Interestingly, all of the evidence presented above indicates that until at least the end of July 2014, Carmarthenshire Council was still envisaging the return of the archive service to a revamped Parc Myrddin, on which it was now prepared to spend perhaps half a million pounds or so. It certainly did not initiate the proposal to take the county’s archives beyond its borders altogether, a scheme that would seem to be somewhat at odds with the Chief Executive’s objective, set out so clearly in his email of 29 July quoted above, that he wanted the county both to retain its place of deposit status and to become regarded as a leading small archive in Wales. But events were moving very rapidly in the summer of 2014…
The partnership idea seems to have originated in a meeting on 8 August between a CyMal official and representatives of West Glamorgan Archives and Swansea University, who expressed a willingness to work together with Carmarthenshire. A meeting between all three bodies was held on 27 August, followed by another on 7 November 2014. All potential partners provided updates to the latter meeting, and Carmarthenshire’s contribution was to mention its short term problems first, then its long-term position. Substantial investment would be needed in Parc Myrddin, ‘with no guarantee that the building would then be suitable for the long-term preservation of the collection’. Other options included adaptation of other sites within the council’s existing estate; ‘the corporate management team is however supportive of further exploration of the concept of regional collaboration for the future delivery of the service’.
A third meeting was held on 4 March 2015, and ahead of it, a rousing ‘key recommendation’ was drawn up: ‘Together, bigger, better – working collaboratively towards increased sustainability within the sector’. This time, Carmarthenshire’s contribution included a statement that it was ‘looking at other options for locating the service within Carmarthenshire, but there are no obvious candidates for conversion, and constraints on capital investment if looking at a new build (my emphasis). Significant investment has already been made in cleaning the collection and interim storage at Glamorgan Archives / Richard Burton archives. A regional solution is therefore very attractive, in providing a hub for collection management and access. Need to develop a strategy for local access (through libraries or via digital options) (my emphasis again). Need to be in a position to present Members with options for the future of the service within the next 6 months. Financial considerations / budgetary position for the service were also key issues for these discussions’. Significantly, the meeting posed the question ‘what difficulties do you foresee in a shared service?’, to which the answers were as follows:
- ‘Finance: investment; resilience in the face of future cuts
- Politically: need champions; need to communicate benefits (no comment)
- Localism: where will it be?*; accessibility; need to ‘sell’ it (ditto)
- Stakeholder / staff concerns; change management
- Maintaining current strengths / success
- Project management for development’
(* Another reference elsewhere in the FoI material suggests that the Singleton campus is being mooted, given the amount of space that has been freed up there following the recent opening of the Fabian Way campus. This is arguably slightly more accessible from a Carmarthenshire viewpoint, at least in terms of public transport – but only slightly.)
The fact-finding visit to ‘the Keep’ in Brighton that resulted from the March meeting has already been described in this blog, as has the Keep’s distinct weakness as a comparative role model for the completely different situation in west Wales. Additionally, potential partners, including Carmarthenshire, were asked to contribute their ideas on what success in the partnership might look like, and what their service was looking for out of it in terms of: ‘visitor numbers, services provided, online vs analogue presence, serving geographically disparate communities (the one and only nod, as far as I can see, to Carmarthenshire’s marked difference to the other partners), key partners, other participants (Pembrokeshire, have you reached Cuba yet?), financial position, accommodation/architecture, tone/style/culture’.
A further meeting, scheduled for 12 May in Carmarthen, had to be cancelled, so the most recent meeting took place on 20 July. The minutes of this, together with the report of the external consultant, are available on Swansea Council’s website. I’ve noted before in this blog that there seems to be an unstoppable momentum in favour of this move, with the Welsh government clearly backing it to the hilt; so it may be that Carmarthenshire’s councillors will be persuaded to vote for it in preference to the likely alternatives of an ‘in house’ solution or a partnership with Trinity St David University, the latter being surely far and away the best option for all concerned.
Perhaps it’s significant, though, that the latest set of partnership minutes, provided in the link a couple of sentences back, includes the ‘d’ word – ‘disadvantages’ – for the very first time, so perhaps even the participants are finally realising that the Swansea scheme might not be the answer to all their prayers. In this regard, it’s perplexing – some might even say chilling – that amid all the splendid talk of ‘visions’, ‘missions’, ‘sustainability’, ‘strategic environments’, ‘maximising service efficiency’, and so forth, there appears to be not one mention – not one – of the actual real-life experience of a researcher from, say, the west or north of Carmarthenshire, physically attempting to get to this shiny but oh-so-distant new facility: unless, that is, one counts the points made at the meeting on 4 March, which define ‘localism’ as a ‘difficulty’ and suggest that Carmarthenshire Council has only a hazy idea of how to provide access to people who will find it difficult to get to the new facility.
But let’s conclude on a positive note. Next week, and at long last, senior figures from the Council will meet with the Friends of the Archives, and with the group nominated by the recent Ivy Bush meeting. If such consultation had happened at an earlier stage, say a year or even six months ago, then none of this – but you get the idea. Despite the sorry saga of complacency and incompetence over the last twenty years or so, let’s hope that the assurances the Council has made to the Welsh Government and the National Archives are absolutely sincere, and that it is also now prepared genuinely to listen to, and respond to, the concerns and positive suggestions of those who use the archives, and those who love the county’s wider heritage too.
This will be my final post on the subject of Carmarthenshire Archives, unless any new or particularly important evidence comes to light. The amount of time spent on this post alone has been very considerable, and with three – perhaps four – books to complete in the course of the next fifteen months, it’s very difficult for me to be able to afford that quantity of ‘time out’, even in what I regard as such an important cause. I’ll still be keeping a very close eye on developments over the archives, though, and will continue to involved in the broader campaign over Carmarthenshire’s heritage as a whole: indeed, the recent announcement that the county council intends to offload its parks, including Parc Howard in Llanelli (where I spent many happy times in my younger days), is a red rag to this particular bull. Moreover, I was humbled to have been chosen by the recent meeting at the Ivy Bush Hotel as one of its representatives in subsequent dealings with the Council. So I’m not heading off to a hermit’s existence in a mountain cave any time soon.
Finally, though, my thanks to all those who have contributed to this series of blogs, notably John Davies, former county archivist of Carmarthenshire, and Susan Beckley, former county archivist of both West Glamorgan and Highland; to all the civil servants who responded to my Freedom of Information requests; to all those who have provided me with information, or commented on posts both here and on the Facebook page: and above all to my partner, Wendy Berliner of The Guardian, who has provided me with both tremendous support and invaluable advice on journalistic ‘best practice’.
Diolch i bawb!
[The covering letter sent to me by the Welsh government in response to my FoI request to it, explaining the various redactions that have taken place, is available online here. To eliminate confusion, throughout this post I’ve referred to the Welsh government’s museums, archives and libraries division by its old name of ‘CyMal’, rather than switching to its new name of MALD part way through the text.]