J D Davies

The End of the Beginning?

OK, I admit it, I never saw that coming: Carmarthenshire County Council’s equivalent of Darth Vader’s ‘I am your father’ moment in The Empire Strikes Back. 

(Actually, I did see ‘I am your father’ coming – I was studying basic Dutch when ESB came out, so knew that ‘vader’ meant ‘father’.)

I’m referring to yesterday’s decision by the council’s executive board to spend some £2 million on developing a new archives facility within the county, rather than going with the Welsh Government’s preferred option of a shared facility in Swansea. The webcast of the meeting in question can be found here, with the relevant section starting at 28 minutes and 23 seconds in. There’s a lot to cheer – an admission of previous shortcomings, high praise for the level of popular campaigning, especially kind words for the Friends of the Archives – and it’s gratifying to hear such unanimous and unambiguous opinions from executive board members. So this is no time to carp and nitpick, although there are certainly plenty of important questions that remain to be answered (for example, location, staffing, and above all the timescale, especially the fundamental question of where the documents themselves will be kept until the new facility opens, and the access arrangements to them for researchers). There are also all sorts of political uncertainties lying ahead, e.g. might a different regime at County Hall after next year’s elections take a different view, or what might happen if Carmarthenshire soon disappears altogether into a new, revived Dyfed, before this new scheme properly gets off the ground? I have to admit, too, that I couldn’t resist chuckling at the optimistic vision of a fully digitised archive that seemed to enthuse the board. Even if every single document in Carmarthenshire was to be digitised, the originals would still have to be kept somewhere, and there would still be awkward recidivists like yours truly who’d sometimes want to access those originals in order to check points of detail that wouldn’t be apparent even on the best digital image. Digitisation is also a rather more prolonged, complicated and expensive process than those who spoke in favour of it might assume; having served on the councils of two major nautical history organisations that have undertaken extensive digitisation projects during the last ten years or so, I think I probably have a pretty decent idea of what I’m talking about, in this respect at least.

Ironically, the executive board’s decision came a couple of days after this piece of news, which really rubs in the contrast with the situation in Carmarthenshire:

The Pembrokeshire County Council-run service based at Prendergast, Haverfordwest, has achieved official accredited status. The Archive Service Accreditation provides an archive service with a mark of external recognition and official endorsement. It follows the official seal of approval awarded to Pembrokeshire Archives earlier this year as a place of deposit under the Public Records Act.

In the light of this, I’m reminded of the words of Carmarthenshire’s chief executive, Mark James, in an email sent to the Welsh government in July 2014, released to me under FoI and previously published on this blog:

…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.

The executive board announcement surely means that this now has to be the county’s objective; and if so, all of us who care about Carmarthenshire’s archives – councillors, officers, archivists, Friends, writers of letters and emails, ‘likers’ of and commenters on Facebook posts, even obstreperous bloggers – ought to work together to make it happen. Perhaps, too, one might dare to hope for a similar unity of purpose, and a similar degree of commitment and investment on the part of the council, with regard to other neglected aspects of Carmarthenshire’s heritage, notably its museums?