Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight would have been better!
This blog post is aimed at others planning to embark on a similar project of extensive building work with collections temporarily stored offsite, and also for those interested in what we have been doing lately.
The collapse of part of the ceiling in the Archives office earlier in the year prompted discussions with those responsible for the building about necessary repair work, but I was also encouraged to consider what other work might be required to ensure that the space was up to standard and provided the best protection for the collections. It seemed prudent to produce one work scheme and to submit one funding request rather than repeatedly returning to the Trustees with smaller projects. With space in our repository running low, we had already been thinking of developing two existing library areas into archive storage with rolling stacks, so it made sense that a more extensive scheme be produced.
Lesson 1: Clear communication
Due to the ongoing Covid pandemic and remote working, I was not involved in the initial meetings and discussions with the builders and so it was fairly late in the developments that I was made aware of exactly how extensive the building work was going to be and that we couldn't simply move collections around within our own space. A large part of the collection was going to have to be sent offsite temporarily. Another consequence of not being part of initial discussions was that some suggestions had been made that were not suitable for an archival storage space and I had several additional requests as I knew better how we would be using the area and what would assist us. Make sure to check and double check your building work proposal to make sure that what is asked for is clearly understood and incorporated in the costings as we had to make several revisions.
Lesson 2: Factor in offsite storage
When we submitted our yearly budget, I was still unaware of the need for collections to be stored offsite during the building work. As a result it was not included in this or in the separate building work proposal that was made to the Trustees. The cost of packing, moving, and storing archival collections is likely to make up a significant portion of the project's total cost, so it is important to bear in mind when making your initial proposal.
Lesson 3: Factor in onsite storage
Even once we knew that part of the collections would be going offsite it still was not clear that all areas, including our office, would need to be as empty as possible. Luckily we managed to secure a storage space onsite that we could use to store our office equipment, and it also meant we had a secure area to house some of our accessions and fragile items, such as our relic collection, that were not suitable for sending away.
Lesson 4: Allow time when selecting a removals firm
Discussion about building work start dates had been deferred until it was known whether the Trustees would approve the rather extensive request (and we were delighted they did!), so again it was late in the process before we began looking for a firm to pack and take the selected collections offsite. There were further delays to obtaining quotes as meetings with reputable heritage removal companies had to be rescheduled for various reasons. We were advised that it would take 5-7 days to get the collections offsite, so it had to start in mid-November if we were going to handover to the builders at the end of the month. (In the end we ran over by one day which given all the extra obstacles we faced is a great achievement!) This left us with only two weeks to prepare the collections being moved offsite, wrap hundreds of fragile rare books and library books, and create a labelling system that the packers could use that would correspond with the barcodes, once a decision was reached.
Lesson 5: Compare quotes carefully.
Looking back, it might have been prudent to take time to compare not just the final figures quoted but to look more closely at differences in the service being offered, for example whether wrapping of individual items such as our rare books would be included or would we be required to do that ourselves.
Lesson 6: Preparation is key
What I wish we had started doing whilst waiting for removal quotes was to begin the process of wrapping the rare books and large archive volumes. As it was we had barely finished before it was time for the packers to pack them up in their boxes.
A positive outcome of this preparation stage was that it provided an opportunity for much needed 'spring cleaning': a lot of tasks that had been waiting for another day, such as accessioning, were tackled (though the stationary cupboard will still be waiting to be sorted when we get back!). I was particularly keen to repackage our glass plate negatives and before the packers left, I had managed to package the most fragile.
Lesson 7: Communication - again
If the final decision about packing up had not been at such short notice we would have announced our imminent closure much further in advance so that visitors and researchers had time to submit enquiries. To avoid being inundated with requests, which would have made a significant dent in our already short preparation time, we did not make the announcement until we were closed, so we were unable to forewarn enquirers that the Archives would not be accessible for several months.
Lesson 8: Expect the unexpected
The arrival of more material on the second to last day of the packers being on site was not positively welcomed by us. And it got worse when I discovered mouldy items among the collection, fairly late on a Friday afternoon! Luckily the new collection had been left in the corridor so had not contaminated our existing collections, but it was a stressful few hours until we could get a response from our conservation team. (For anyone interested entire collection was wrapped up in plastic bags and sent offsite with the removal company to be delivered to our conservation team who will tackle the mould.) We had made an internal announcement that the Archives was not able to accept more material until spring 2022, but this delivery was the remnants of a collection that had arrived a few weeks previously (no mould had been discovered in that) despite requesting that anything else would need to be received before the packers arrived.
There is no way we could have prepared for Covid striking, meaning one team member having to isolate at home, and that I would have to take some time off to care for poorly children. We were very lucky that one of the team stepped up to cover our days in the office, and we were able to create a good system whereby those onsite could label boxes with barcodes, photograph and send these to the person working remotely who inputted this information into a spreadsheet. This will be vital should we need to retrieve material early and will give us the option to prioritise collections when we come to recall them.
Lesson 9: Thank your team!
We could not have achieved getting the collection offsite by the deadline without team work. Despite being one of the most stressful and exhausting (both emotionally and physically) few weeks of my working life to date, it will all be worth it when we see the redeveloped space in spring 2022. I’m very grateful for all the help and support given by others especially my team, Lucy and Mary! We all went for well deserved drinks when the last truckload left.
Lesson 10: Take a deep breath and remember what it's all for!
It was with great relief that I walked through the empty spaces with the builders when it was finally time to handover. And also strange to see the archives so empty! I’m very excited to see the new space and in the meantime we will be carefully planning how best to manage the return of the collections.
I'm sure there are more lessons I could have included, but on reflecting about the last month these struck me as the most prominent. I do hope that this has proved helpful for anyone embarking on a similar project, and if anyone would like to speak to me about the experience, please do get in touch.