‘Bath Record Office is the only South West archive not to have had a refit in the
last 25 years. Its archive stores are full and it currently makes use of any additional
space that becomes available in the Guildhall on an ad hoc basis’.
The above is a quote from a report that will be considered at a meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development, Policy Development and Scrutiny Panel next Tuesday – September 6th – at Bath Guildhall.
It seems – with no financial provision in the future Capitol Programme for any improved arrangement – that there is little immediate hope of creating a new Local History Centre for B&NES in line with other authorities elsewhere.
The authority has been considering improving things since 2002 when the Culture & Leisure Time Best Value Review recommended that the Council create “a centre of excellence for local and family studies”.
Following on from this, Record Office and Libraries staff undertook a survey of Record Office and Library users which revealed overwhelming support for the creation of a dedicated Local Studies Centre in which the Record Office and the Library’s Local Studies and Special collections would be brought together.
Since then the Council established a working group to draw up a viable vision which would: ‘create a world-class History Centre that brings together the unique Record Office archives and the resources of the local studies library.
In an imaginative new-build or conversion, visible, accessible and situated in the heart of Bath, the History Centre will engage new audiences and improve the service offered to the existing very active user base’.
The working group had to seek advice regarding the likely availability and cost of suitable sites where a History Centre could be built or converted from an existing building.
The report says: ‘It became clear that opportunities for a stand-alone development of this kind, where there is limited space available and land values are high, are unlikely to be found in central Bath.
It was concluded that the best prospect of developing a History Centre would be as part of a larger development or regeneration project. This remains the current position’.
So far the only ‘improvement’ that has been approved is to: ‘amalgamate the Record Office archive collections with the Library’s Local Studies collection in the Guildhall using vacated space in the north wing basement.
Work on this project is under way but it is not seen as a long-term solution to the need for a Local History Centre fit for the 21st century’.
The report says the public appetite for information about building history and genealogy has never been strong – ‘driven in part by TV programmes about building restoration projects and family history.
Despite being home to a ‘Designated’ collection, the Record Office does not meet all the requirements of TNA’s Standard for Record Repositories. It scores very low in premises, facilities and governance, although it is approved to hold public records on TNA’s behalf.
However in CIPFA surveys the quality of public service at Bath Record Office has been voted by users the best of any archive in the South West region’.
B&NES is lagging behind many other authorities who through HLF grants or links with universities have managed to create ‘centres of excellence where their collections are stored in optimum conditions to ensure their preservation in perpetuity, and where people can study them in secure and user-friendly search rooms’.
The report concludes: ‘A single Local History Centre is the preferred choice of service users and stakeholders. It would achieve efficiencies and economies of scale and would provide 7 the storage conditions that the archive collections need and the search facilities that the service users deserve and have become accustomed to elsewhere’.
It remains to be seen whether there is the will or the financial means to take things any further on down the road towards such a Centre for B&NES in the very near future.
Also whether any existing central building such as the Guildhall, the old King Edward’s School site or even the Mineral Water Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases could be utilised to house such an undertaking.