What’s in the box?

The new Hull History Centre building exterior

The new Hull History Centre: an example of a transformational new archive building

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?



  1. David Matthew says:

    A recent trip to the Portsmouth Record Office shocked me, it had previously been in a small office that was cosy and the staff friendly where you felt welcome, but now it is in the Central Library in the centre of Portsmouth. The record office has, in my view, lost its soul, it is non-descript and I understand that they got rid of the archivists and whilst the staff try their best but librarians and archivists are different types of people. The toilet facilities were very dated and need replacement, unlike the ones at TNA!. I did like Portsmouth Record Office before it moved, but no more, but I do like the Surrey History Centre in Woking (it has a TNA award!), but the best is Scotland’s People in Edinburgh where they have a historic building with all of the registers in the building although it is on microfilm, there was something about touching something signed by your ancestors and real paper records and not microfilm or digitised records and closing time was heralded by a loud schoolbell being run and senior staff come around and personally apologise when the computers failed.

    I don’t agree with everything you suggested and in some cases talk rooms and exhibition space may be a luxury that is costly and unneccesary. What we could do with is having one reader ticket, whilst most archives accept CARN (the County Archive Research Network) tickets some offices have opted out and some like TNA have not opted in. For example you need a CARN ticket, one for TNA, one for the Records of Scotland, one for the British Library, etc. The building also needs to be accessible to everyone, so that someone in a wheelchair can negotiate it easily and also that you don’t spend a day getting to the archive because it is outside of the town and is not fun in the middle of winter. In the modern world the ability to use laptops and cameras are useful and needed. There is one issue that TNA could improve on are the seats, trying to have your notepad, a cushion for your large document and most ‘normal’ size documents on a small desk which is no longer suitable (some other researchers end up with boxes, on the floor or on someone else’s desk because there,re is no space) and also a booking system which some archive offices run, it is annoying when there are empty seats but the system says they are filled!. It is an issue when people travel a distance or from another country. It would be helpful if information was available in different languages at the national archives, it should ‘t be assumed that everyone can speak or read English fluently.

    I agree about not having archive offices having possible flooding, it is rather ironic that TNA is next to the River Thames which I believe is against archive recommendations. Whilst the Thames is unlikely to flood like 1952/3, we hope, it is not impossible given the strange weather we have .

  2. Melinda Haunton says:

    Thanks for these interesting views, David. I wouldn’t normally comment on individual archives’ situations in a blog context but because it happens to be my regional liaison responsibility I know from direct experience that we’ve been extensively in touch with Portsmouth City Council, and their professional museum and archive staff, as they seek solutions for ensuring safe and effective storage and access to collections now and in the future. I’m glad you like Surrey History Centre, also in my regional responsibility area and awarded full approval against The National Archives Standard for Record Repositories; it’s a hugely effective building for staff, collections and visitors.

    It’s often seen as a tempting option – and sometimes very successfully delivered – to have a heritage service like archives located within a building which is itself of heritage interest. It can work well so long as the building supports disabled access and other current expectations. Equally, though, the option of co-locating compatible services within a well-sited modern building can have real benefits in terms of physical access and visibility for the service, as well as the IT access angle which you rightly highlight. It’s very much a case by case decision based on many factors, not least preservation, risk management and available resources. As, of course, is the decision to include service areas like a talks room.

    As you will remember from your time on staff at The National Archives, Collections Care are very hot on risk management – flood risk among many others. The recommendations on archive buildings (currently a Public Document issued by BSi: PD5454:2012) identify a whole range of factors to consider, in site selection and risk management. Where we can’t design out risks, we can at least ensure they are identified and managed.

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