What’s in the box?
It’s been a good few weeks for news of new developments for archive services across the UK. With the invaluable help of the Heritage Lottery Fund there has been a series of announcements of substantial support for some key projects which will ensure safe storage and high quality access for important collections. Among the recent good news stories are Manchester Archives+ , the project to transform the historic Central Library; West Yorkshire Archives Service’s Wakefield development and the funding for the Battersea Arts Centre. Experience from across the sector shows how new archive buildings can also reinvigorate services: acting as beacons to highlight the potential of the collections they hold, freeing up staff time from managing an inconvenient former home and offering scope for new activities where once the premises were too cramped to contemplate such work.
Designing a new or converted archive building is exciting, but also challenging. What goes into an archive building? The simple answer is: space for researchers, space for staff and space for collections. But exactly what that comprises depends on the space available, the collections to be housed and the activities it will host. The building needs to be well specified, to cover all the functions it will deliver, but not over specified, full of specialist spaces that are underused.
- Collections need high-quality storage with a minimum of inbuilt risk. This approach often leads to the creation of a ‘box’ of highly protected space, designed to keep out risk of fire, water, light, pests and unauthorised visitors. This ‘box’ needs to be designed with shelves that fit all types of collections, including outsized material like maps
- Visitors need somewhere secure to view original documents. Again, with as much risk as possible designed out. But often, a new archive building will contain other public spaces designed to welcome visitors with a range of needs – perhaps an exhibition space, a talks room, or an ‘open’ reading room which doesn’t need so much security and where visitors can use secondary sources, look at digitised records and consult a reference collection. Ensuring there’s somewhere for visitors to eat lunches and providing toilets can be essential to a good visitor experience, especially for archives not in the centre of a town
- Staff areas are often the place where costs are cut in designing a building. But staff need space to work, or it’s very hard to run an effective service. Among the tasks that may need to be done behind the scenes in an archive service are conservation, cleaning and repackaging newly-acquired documents, sorting and cataloguing collections, digitisation, reprographics, answering enquiries, holding staff meetings and often space for volunteers to work. If there is not enough space for these activities in secure areas, it may mean they can only be done when the archive service is closed to the public: I’ve visited many archives which can only catalogue large collections on days when the searchroom is empty of visitors. Otherwise there is no space large enough to sort them!
So even specifying exactly what needs to happen in the building is complicated enough. Making sure that the building really works is even more complex. It means ensuring that all these different spaces relate coherently to each other: so that the toilets aren’t next to the strongrooms (risk of flooding); so that there’s a short route from the strongrooms to the secure reading room and no stairs in the way (difficult to get documents out if you can’t use a trolley, and especially if they are big bulky maps). And, needless to say, much more of this goes into planning even quite small developments.
Most archivists will only be involved in one or two major development projects in the course of their careers. To ensure that they are supported and that the knowledge gained during such a build is shared, we support the Major Archive Projects Learning Exchange (MAPLE), bringing together archivists who are involved in or have recently been involved in, major capital projects. We’ve also been running training sessions for archive students in recent years featuring the popular ‘Design Your Own Record Office’ activity. Students are given the full range of possible components for an archive service (in, erm, coloured cardboard shapes), and an outline footprint for a new building, and are asked to work out what they will include in their design. Consistently, the thing they under-provide is space for staff: in the archives sector we’re all used to thinking about the needs of our users, and preserving our collections. Apparently, we’re not so good at thinking about our own work!
I’d be interested to hear from readers too. As service users (or as archivists, come to that), do you have any favourite archive buildings? What makes them work for you?