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While the archive sleeps

Posted in This months highlight on 16 Apr 2020

Closing BRO to the public and staff does not mean that the collections are ignored. In this post our County Archivist, Mark Stevens, writes about the closure and how the building is being looked after during lockdown...

It was pretty clear from early March that people were staying at home. Our visitor numbers dropped off a cliff. As the rest of Europe began shutting its doors we planned to do likewise, feeling it inevitable.

Every public organisation will have a plan for what to do in an emergency. Ours has the catchy title of business continuity plan. It’s a guide for what to do if we lose utilities, IT, staff or building access. Long-term visitors may recall previous days of archives by torchlight or closures due to heavy snow, while staff have learnt to expect the hour when the network drops and card indexes become lifesavers.

The slight difference this time round was planning for a loss of staff or access that might not have an end date. Without access to the physical collections, archive services are soon limited in what they do. Even the best-resourced places will know that time or money have restricted digital copying to only a fraction of their holdings; it will be probably ever thus. Besides, digital copies can only get you so far. Proper archives live outside the screen.

We worked out that access to the collections was the key point. We could carry on with relative normality as long as that continued. So, when we closed to visitors, on 17 March, we established what could be done at home and which staff would do it. Those remaining on site spaced themselves out (archivists are well-used to solitary labour), read the distancing guidelines on every door, and treated the tea room as a place to enter solely by rotation.

That worked for four days. By lunchtime on Monday 23 March it was clear that the lockdown was imminent. Everyone gathered up what they could and by mid-afternoon the place was deserted. The few of us left began to work out how we would keep an eye on things for the coming weeks.

We sorted out the cleaners, the building contractors, onsite security. We drew up a checklist of what we would need to do each time one of us came in. These are things that all buildings will be doing, the things that make it safe for people to re-enter: testing the fire alarms, flushing the taps and so on.

Plus we needed to check on the collections. Because quite apart from the fact that we are extremely fond of them – really, ridiculously fond of them – there are statutory and contractual requirements to do so. That meant we’d be checking that the repository conditions are ok, that the plant is functioning as it should, and that every door was locked and secure.

Everything to check went down on a tick box list, printed out for ease of completion (real life remains so much quicker than IT, doesn’t it?) We wrote a risk assessment for lone working in the current circumstances. We agreed everything with those above, below and to the side of us. Then we went home.

So the building is not isolated even if we are. We still visit it, walk round it and tick our boxes. We open the post box, take photographs of the mail and sent it on to whoever needs it. We forward messages from the archives electronic mailbox, which is apparently cursed in some way that makes it unable to migrate to the cloud. We water the plants: well, we thought it might be nice if they didn’t die.

Visits feel very odd. We text to say we have entered the building. We get the checks done as quickly as possible. Every room is opened, inspected then closed again; lights are powered up and powered down. The only noise is the hum of air conditioning and the occasional siren sweeping past on Castle Hill. We text to say we are leaving. It is a suitably unnatural experience.

I feel slightly embarrassed to say that this is classed as essential work. I can’t say that it feels essential to life, in the way that the NHS, shopworkers or carers are so obviously essential. But all the same I am so pleased to be able to keep the collections safe. As much as I want all of you – all our staff, all our friends and supporters - to come through this crisis, I also want all those pieces of Berkshire history to come through it too.

I look forward to seeing them do so, just as much as I look forward to having people on site again. I look forward to queuing in the tea room, to leaving doors unlocked and the lights on. I look forward to battling the snow and the power cuts and all the other frustrations of my place of work. Because business continuity is a poor substitute for all of that.