Last week I visited the new Kent Library and History Centre for the first time. Whilst most of my research is based in Sussex our ancestors were never that obliging and often strayed over the border. Research in Kent has never been straight forward as some of Kent is covered by London archives, the Medway district is covered by the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre in Strood whilst the remainder is split between what was the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone and the Canterbury Cathedral Archives. For much of this year research has been a non starter as the Centre for Kentish Studies closed last year and the Canterbury Cathedral Archives is currently closed for structural repairs.
The Centre for Kentish Studies has been replaced by the Kent Library and History Centre which opened its doors for the first time at the end of April. The idea behind the combined library and archive is to make the archives more accessible to the people of Kent. This is a great idea but it is one which hasn't been received too well by professionals and experienced researchers and I do wonder that if someone found the Centre for Kentish Studies too off-putting to visit, how will they cope with their first original document!
The new archive is wonderfully clean, light and airy but unless you are working with original documents you are effectively working in a library along with a myriad of other library users resulting in the complete opposite of a quiet working environment. I was lucky enough to be given a computer in the archive room which apart from the lift with its constant announcements of 'doors opening', 'doors closing' and keeping everyone informed as to which floor it was on was much quieter.
During the closure period the staff have been working to digitise the parish registers and I am told that whilst they have started with those in the Rochester diocese they now have permission to include those in the Canterbury diocese. This means that digitized parish registers can be viewed on a computer in the library and are far easier to read than on a microfilm or fiche reader although there seemed to be no controls for changing light balance or tone. The disadvantage is that you find yourself on a computer working between someone doing their homework and someone else looking for a job or checking on their Facebook page. Nothing wrong with that but when you are working on behalf of a client you want to be able to offer your best; the noise, distractions and having to ask to have your computer access extended every hour doesn't help.
To summarise the new Library and History Centre seems to be an attempt to make records more accessible to everyone but to the more cynical it seems to be an attempt to reduce costs. The move to digital records is good especially if coverage extends to all of Kent but it is balanced out by a much poorer working environment. Finally staff were helpful and friendly but lacking in answers as they are also adapting to a new system and learning how it works themselves.