After being closed since 24th March 2020 due to the pandemic, staff were finally permitted to return to their beloved archive on 6th July. But not all of us could be in - there were only 5 of us in the whole building. It was a strange and quiet experience, but it was great to actually see colleagues in the flesh for once - albeit at a distance!
The priority at the time was to try and deal with the volume of enquiries that kept coming in, but it wasn't a simple task as absolutely everything we did took so much more time to process due to the need to protect ourselves and each other from the virus. Then, just as we were getting to grips with the 'new normal' of staff being onsite, we were given permission to reopen to visitors. This was fantastic news, but needed a great deal of planning to make sure we could adhere to national guidance. We managed to do so and reopened to visitors on 18 August 2020.
So what's it like? Well, all self-service material is off limits - so that's microfilm, microfiche, the library with its transcripts and books, the reader printer to make self-service copies. So much of it is no longer accessible to visitors, so they can only access original documents. To ensure that no one veers off course, it's all been taped off too.
There is so much preparation involved with having visitors onsite and everything takes a lot longer to process. Visitors need to book an appointment in advance and to pre-order all their documents (up to 6) because restrictions mean that we can't have normal production during the day. Also, just like staff numbers, our capacity for visitors has been greatly reduced to just 4 people per session with two sessions per day - 10:00 to 12:30 and 13:30 to 16:00 Tuesday to Friday.
When people arrive they have to go through our COVID-19 questions and guidance and wear a mask at all times. It is time consuming as each person has to be dealt with separately and can only access our facilities and lockers one at a time. Also, before the end of their 2.5 hour session, visitors have to stop their research because it takes a while for each person to individually use the facilities, pay for anything and get their things from the lockers again before leaving.
We know that some visitors have found this all to be a bit slow and perhaps a little frustrating, and we can only apologise for the new COVID-19 ways of working. But it is essential as we need to close promptly at the end of each session in order to have enough time to put all the documents away into quarantine and then clean everything down before the next session of visitors starts.
We appreciate that it's a bit more restrictive than before and everything is frustratingly slow - it's the same for us as well as our visitors. However, we have had many visitors say that they feel reassured that we are taking their safety seriously. Some have even commented that they really like the ease of being able to have all their documents out at once and having lots of space to spread themselves out!
We have had to learn lessons as we go particularly in terms of processing enquiries as now that we are open to visitors, we have fewer people available to undertake research and process copy orders due to being on public duty. Adapting to change has been a real team effort with everyone putting forward suggestions on how to make it all run smoothly and whilst we may not be able to respond as quickly as before, we hope that our customers can understand and bear with us as we work through these restrictive COVID-19 times.
The familiar isn't quite so familiar anymore and staff have had to learn a lot of new ways of working in a short space of time. It's nice to see customers with whom we corresponded with in early lockdown finally be able to put our advice on how to undertake their research into practice and visit the archive for themselves. Staff and visitors are just getting into the rhythm of things now.
Overall, it has been a steep learning curve and it's tiring work too. We can't thank our staff enough for all that they have done and continue to do. Despite the new restrictions, we love being able to access the collections once more and look forward to helping our customers onsite as well as remotely. It's great to finally see the archive awake and alive again.
[Fancy a visit? Take a look at our Visit Us pages for full details on how to make a booking and what to expect when you arrive]