Centralisation of County Archive Service and William Salt Library Collections
Consultation response by Lichfield Civic Society

Q3. What are your views on the proposal to extend Staffordshire Record Office to accommodate collections from the William Salt Library and from Lichfield Record Office, to improve facilities and the environment to which current collections are stored?

Background.

Established in 1959 Lichfield Joint Record Committee was a partnership between Staffordshire County Council, Lichfield City Council and the Lichfield Diocese. The service was located within the Bird Street library and museum built in 1859 by the City Council. It was the second free public library in the country provided under the 1850 public libraries legislation. In 1974 on reorganisation of local government the buildings transferred to Staffordshire County Council. Lichfield District Council continued to provide funds for the Joint Record Office until 2005.

When the Friary School in The Friary was relocated to the main school site on Eastern Avenue the future use of the building was reviewed. Following representations by Lichfield District Council to the County Council and discussions with the County Librarian and the Leader, Councillor Bill Austin, it was decided to relocate the Library and Record Office which was done in 1990. This involved costly and substantial building works to adapt the school building. The Record Office part of the project required purpose built archive storage facilities. Converting the building was however a very cost effective alternative to new build and created attractive high quality user facilities. Whilst the Friary School building could have been sold at that time the County Council progressively decided to invest in upgraded facilities for both services. The Record Office could have been moved to Stafford but the importance of retaining the service in the City which is also the administrative centre of the Diocese was recognised and supported by the County Council.

The lack of evidence publicly available to support closure of the Lichfield Record Office.

The consultation described as "Centralisation of the County Archive Service and William Salt Library Collections" has as part of the proposal the closure of the Lichfield Record Office and transfer of all its records to an enlarged Stafford Record Office. The information available to support and justify the closure is quite limited and superficial. Reports to the County Council have been considered in private as exempt matters and no summary report of the issues considered has been made available generally or as part of the consultation. Key matters in the business case that are not public include loss of expertise available in Lichfield and what constitutes the direct savings arise from the closure of the Lichfield Record Office. There is no indication whether an assessment has been made of the impact upon users or if the negative economic impact on Lichfield has been evaluated. Those users of the Record Office who are visitors and those who stay in accommodation locally contribute positively to the tourism benefits and economic activity of the City. The beneficial contribution to local businesses will be lost and the tourism facilities of the City significantly diminished. The attractive and central location of the Record Office with many nearby eating establishments and easily accessible parking, including a brand new high quality car park, should continue to be exploited. Public statements have been made that options have been considered although no information about them is available or the factors that have influenced a preference to close Lichfield.

It is claimed that the air conditioning is a reason why the Lichfield office cannot remain open. It is normal for such plant to need replacing or upgrading at the end of its life cycle. The assertion that the cost of replacement, whether as revenue or capital expenditure, justifies a multi-million pound project lacks credibility and is not evidenced in the consultation material.

There is uncertainty about whether this is a genuine consultation where views of the public and users will be influence the outcome. This concern arises from the inclusion in the County Council's Strategic Plan 2014-2018 and Medium Term Financial Strategy 2014-2019 of an express reference to closure of the Lichfield Record Office and the cost savings of 70,000 per annum from 2016/17. The County's "Vision for Staffordshire" includes as a core principle "a commitment to open and honest dialogue with the residents of Staffordshire, listen to what you tell us and make decisions in full consultation and engagement with you and other stakeholders." Is the decision to close the Lichfield Record Office and its inclusion in the Strategic Plan and Financial Strategy prior to public consultation consistent with this commitment?

In the context of openness we understand the Council is in confidential discussions about development on The Friary site including utilisation of part of the existing building as well as construction of new buildings at the rear. We have been assured that the closure of the Record Office is not the first step in a process to vacate the whole building and that the Library in Lichfield is one of the best used libraries in the County. If the proposals for the site and the underlying strategy were made public a clear understanding of what is planned would enable a better informed response to this consultation and the shortly commencing library consultation.

Impact of the proposed closure on service.

The Lichfield Record Office is an important and long established front line service in the City. Statutory authorities have deposited records there including the District & City Councils and other parish councils, local charities, schools, families, businesses, and other organisations in the locality. The Civic Society, like many other stakeholders in the Record Office, has records deposited and we benefit from the convenience and efficiency of a local office when needing to access deposited records or 'borrow' them for current business purposes. The inconvenience arising from moving records to Stafford is an issue for local users and depositors. We have been working proactively with the Record Office to try to facilitate the deposit of important material based upon the archive continuing to be located in the City. That aspect would no longer relevant for this or any future locally sourced records if the Record Office is to move to Stafford. It could also lead some depositors reviewing whether to withdraw deposits. Loss of the facility will also diminish the status and standing of the City which is an unwelcome prospect.

The substitute for the loss of the Record Office is a Local and Family History Centre. This is a dramatic lowering of service for Lichfield users. The current high quality of service from the existing office arises from three factors i.e. the scale and wide range of records available on site; the skill and helpfulness of qualified and knowledgeable staff who are able to assist researchers; and the purpose built archive storage and search room facilities. Making some digital records available in a Local and Family History Centre is a reduction in service. There is a loss in the scale and range of records available and crucially a concern about the continued availability of skilled and knowledgeable Record Office staff locally based to assist researchers.

Digitisation is an excellent initiative which is being used extensively to significantly improve access to a wide range of records and protect original documents from theft or from wear and tear by reducing usage. It does not however avoid the need to refer to original documents when images are unreadable, pages have not been scanned, incorrectly indexed or other uncorrected errors exist. The current contract is with Find My Past and is for 7/10 years. It only targets some of the important family history sources with incomplete coverage of other records needed for genealogical research. In particular Bishop's Transcripts and Tithe maps are not currently planned to be scanned and therefore if moved to Stafford would only be accessible there.

Conclusion

We understand the financial context for local government and the unavoidable need for on-going savings and improved efficiency. Maintaining front line services is also important. Lichfield Record Office was inspected by The National Archives in 2013 and approved to continue as an approved place of deposit. Whilst the air conditioning and security were identified for action attention to those issues would avoid the risk of ceasing to be approved.

The proposed closure of the Lichfield Record Office with the relocation of records to Stafford is extremely negative for Lichfield and the service users. The annual saving of 70,000 from the move is in relation to the County budget small and does not justify the impact that the closure and substitute service will have. Whilst the desire to potentially provide a more sustainable long term provision is understood centralisation is not the only route to achieve that. Some Councils still maintain multiple offices as part of respecting historic provision and ensuring ease of public access in significant locations. We hope the County Council will do that in respect of Lichfield. The County wishes to "Give a stronger voice and more clout to the people of Staffordshire" and we feel that in that respect it should focus on its proposals for the William Salt Library and Stafford Record Office, if that has local support, and continue to maintain the much valued and appreciated Record Office service in Lichfield.

Q4. As part of the proposal it is envisaged that a Lichfield Local and Family History Centre will be provided within the Library. This will offer access to digitised collections and microfiche sources alongside the local studies collection within the Library. What else, if anything, would you like to see?

Without prejudice to our views on the closure the following issues are raised.

The scope of digitisation needs to be extended. Bishop's Transcripts, non-conformist records and tithe maps currently available in Lichfield that are not in the current contract should be scanned together with all the Lichfield held records currently planned under the contract with Find My Past. All the currently planned records in Lichfield and these additional records should be to be completed and on-line before any move takes place.

Staffing of the Local and Family History Centre should be by employees who have record office experience and detailed knowledge of the holdings to be able to guide and support researchers to access sources relevant to their specific interests.

Ongoing arrangements should be in place for records based at Stafford to be brought to Lichfield via local on site requests or on-line facilities. London Metropolitan Archives operate for registered users a system of online advance requests which works well and a similar system could be available here for offsite transfers.

Q6. What, if anything, do you like about the proposal?

The digitisation of records is a very positive initiative. The centralisation proposals however fail to provide for extension of the scope of the contract to include key records for family history research which will no longer be in Lichfield.

Concerning the proposed closure of Lichfield Record Office nothing about the proposal is liked.

So far as the changes at Stafford are concerned if they do not involve loss of the Lichfield Record Office then we have no views other than any proposals should be progressed providing they receive support from the William Salt Trust, local community, users and depositors at the office.

Q7. Do you have any suggestions that you think would improve the proposal and would benefit the local community?

Abandon the closure of the Lichfield Record Office and the associated transfer of records currently in Lichfield to Stafford.

John Thompson,
Chairman,
January 2014