Clearing out the cobwebs and the clutter

We have three onsite strongrooms: creatively called strongrooms one, two, and three. These spaces are not perfect for keeping records (they have windows, and no environmental controls) but they are dry, have stable temperatures and can be accessed with a trolley. However, under strongroom three there is the basement…

Stairs going down to basement
Stairs going down to the basement – the square hole at the bottom is a sumphole and currently contains standing water

As I’ve mentioned before, the basement is below the water table and so occasionally floods. We are far from the only archive in this situation; Chester unfortunately suffered a flood only last week, but it is something that definitely needs addressing.

We lower the humidity by using an industrial dehumidifier, emptying it with a bucket twice a day – but we can’t leave it running unattended all weekend. During the week we get the humidity down to around 66% (just outside the recommended guidelines for converted archive storage of 55%-65% RH) but by Monday morning it can be as high as 74%.

Aisle of archive storage
Whilst there are lots of boxed records, others have been left loose on shelves and so are much more vulnerable to the environment

Because of these problems, the basement has been used over the years as temporary storage space, but we don’t actually know precisely what is down there. So, the Civic Archivist, Victoria, is conducting an audit to find out. She is identifying what needs to be kept and moved to better conditions upstairs, what can be returned to council departments and what is random rubbish that shouldn’t be there in the first place!

Moving a large roll of blank paper
Moving a large roll of blank brown paper in the style of the Chuckle Brothers.

Last week Victoria and two volunteers, Alex and Caroline, started work to sort out this space. They numbered the shelves and are working through the aisles boxing loose papers, throwing out rubbish and writing lists of what is there. Sounds simple? Not where the rolling racks were built in front of existing shelving and boxed items in. The worse case is “Aisle 1”, a concrete ledge, packed full of massive ledgers that are completely inaccessible. In the pictures, the shelving on left is fixed – it doesn’t move out of the way!

Space filled with ledgers
Before – boxed in ledgers going back several metres into the darkness
Empty space, cleared of ledgers
After – the ledgers have been moved and the space is now empty

In order to access these, Alex had to crawl down the space and retreive the heavy ledgers one by one. This is now empty, and will not be used again. Hurrah!

Any available space had been stuffed odds and ends, most of which are not archival. It’s been very satisfying for the team to make an impact, but it’s not glamorous work – lots of heavy lifting and sweeping up decades of dirt. However it’s vital preparation for when the archive moves out of the art gallery building next year. Everything will be audited because, just like moving house, there is no point moving things that shouldn’t be kept in the first place, and you need to plan how to set things out at the other end.

Caroline sweeping a high ledge with a broom
Once the space has been cleared, Caroline sweeps up with a broom

The audit should be finished this week – a lot of progress in a fortnight. These are the kind of tasks that can be left for years because its difficult for staff to fit in around operational and public duties, and is one reason most archives close for an audit week or two once a year. It’s amazing sometimes what you can achieve when you have a dedicated chunk of time, and it’s great to see the difference. Good luck to the team for the rest of the week, and I’ll keep the kettle ready for when they emerge into the daylight for breaks!

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