Carmarthenshire Archives: the End of the Beginning?
Last Thursday, I attended a two-hour consultation meeting in Carmarthen on the proposed new record office for the county, following the closure of the previous one after the discovery of mould in the storerooms. Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I have just a little bit of history with this particular issue; I’m not going to provide links to all of the previous posts, but anyone so inclined can enter ‘Carmarthenshire Archives’ in the search facility and then trace the story in chronological order. (Note: entering ‘Hammer House of Horrors’ or ‘Dante’s Circles of Hell’ will also produce the same search results.) After the sorry saga of the record office throughout the last twenty years or so, to say that Carmarthenshire County Council has rather a lot of trust to rebuild on this issue is a bit like saying that Donald Trump isn’t quite in the Abraham Lincoln league yet. Therefore, some of you might have expected me to go to this meeting armed with the sword of scepticism and the shield of cynicism. Far from it: remember that I was a teacher for the best part of thirty years, so I always believed that even the most feckless little toerag was capable of redemption – unless, obviously, his/her name was ***** or *******. So I went with an open mind, and, indeed, a positively receptive one, because after all, my principal hope all along has been that Carmarthenshire’s nationally and internationally important archive collections should be preserved, and presented to the public, in a safe and appropriate facility that complies fully with national standards.
That being so, I have to say that I was largely impressed by what I saw and heard. The new building will be a three-storey, then two-storey, extension at the back of the current Carmarthen Library building, of which more anon. The two-storey structure will contain a repository capable of accommodating both the current collection and 25 years’ worth of accruals; the three-storey section will contain staff work rooms and facilities of various sorts, plus, on the third floor, the public search room. The building will have exemplary eco credentials, notably a ‘passive house’ system, and should look impressive, both externally and internally. Above all, being on the same site as the library, and on the same floor as the local history reference collection, should permit considerable flexibility for researchers. Inevitably, some of those present had reservations. Would it permit digital photography, always a bugbear at the old office? Would the outsourcing of conservation work be detrimental to the office’s work? How long might it take to tackle the huge cataloguing backlog (a commonplace, alas, at many repositories the length and breadth of Britain)? For my part, I thought the new search room looked on the small side, but the current and former record office staff who were present assured me that it could easily accommodate the sorts of numbers that the old facility used to see, and that increasing use of digital materials was progressively reducing the pressure on physical seating. The new building is due to open in 2019, until which time the county’s collections will still need to be consulted principally in far-distant Cardiff. But at least there finally appears to be light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel.
It has the potential to be quite an impressive light, too. Many county record offices these days are housed, to paraphrase an earlier post on this site, in anonymous out-of-town sheds that could easily be on industrial estates, and in some cases, actually are on industrial estates. Not so the new office in Carmarthen. Not only is the main facade and structure of Carmarthen library, through which one will have to pass in order to reach the archives, an eighteenth century listed building in its own right, but it stands directly opposite St Peter’s Church, one of the most historic in Wales – so if you feel like a stroll through history during a lunch break, you’ll be able to go and pay your respects at the spectacular Tudor tomb of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, staunch ally of Henry VII and quite probably the man who killed Richard III, or else the memorial to Sir Richard Steele, the ‘father of journalism’, or perhaps that of General Sir William Nott, or maybe even my particular favourite (for obvious reasons), that of John Williams of Edwinsford, who was serving aboard the frigate Kingfisher during its famous fight with seven Algerine corsairs in 1681. If you fancy a slightly longer stroll, a few hundred yards in one direction will bring you, via the remaining fragment of the ancient tree that was long held to be ‘Merlin’s oak‘, to a Roman amphitheatre, no less (and, to boot, the most westerly surviving example in the entire Roman Empire) – while a few hundred yards in the other direction will bring you to the ruins of the huge castle that was once the seat of royal power in south Wales. (Note: do not confuse with Caernarfon, especially if you’re meant to be getting married in one and not the other.)
Thus from having one of the worst archive facilities in Britain, a national scandal that was condemned time after time by the regulator and finally closed after a perfectly foreseeable near-catastrophe (none of it the fault of its hard-pressed staff), Carmarthenshire potentially stands on the threshold of having one of the best. So I hope there’ll be no spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar: no backsliding on this, no penny-pinching on that, no corner-cutting on the other, and above all, no mindset to the effect that the building has cost so much that economies need to be made in the staffing. The ship may not have looked quite so smart without the proverbial ha’porth of tar, but if it had set sail without sufficient sailors to man it, inadequate tarring would swiftly have been the least of its problems – and after all, Carmarthenshire, of all counties, should know a thing or two about shipwrecks.
So if all goes to plan, gentle readers, this will be my penultimate post on the subject of Carmarthenshire Archives. The last one of all, I fervently hope, will be posted some time in 2019, and will report on my first day in the new facility, praising it to the heights, and saying how inspired I now feel to finally complete my book on the Stepney family. But before then, there are some quite important things to do – starting next week, when all the shenanigans surrounding the 350th anniversary of the Dutch attack on the Medway kick off. More detail next Monday!