Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Keep

As I was predisposed to like the Keep, the new archive in East Sussex, this  might not be the most unbiased review.

I have two roles within the Keep; one as a researcher whilst the other is as the librarian for the Sussex Family History Society (SFHG) who are a tenant partner of the Keep.  The SFHG have a room at the Keep which houses our library and because of this I have spent a lot of time at the Keep, particularly before they opened.  

I also do a lot of research at the Kent History and Library Centre, the new Kent archive which opened two years ago so it is interesting to make a comparison between these two very different archives.

To begin with, as you might have guessed, I do like the Keep, a lot.  There is without doubt lots that can be done to improve it but many of the problems are inevitable with a new archive which is made up of three different repositories all now working as one (East Sussex record office, Brighton History Centre and the Special Collections of the Sussex University).

The Keep bears no relation to the previous home of the East Sussex record office (ESRO) at the Maltings.  Previously researchers worked in cramped conditions in the attic at the Maltings whilst documents were stored in various locations around Sussex - none of them ideal for old and vulnerable documents.  Now all the records, and those of the Brighton History Centre (BHC) and Mass Observation collection are housed in National Archive standard conditions in the repository block.  There is a reference room (into which you could fit the old ESRO research room in three or four times over) plus a similarly sized reading room.  The reference room contains the library, the computers and the microfilm readers, whilst original documents can be viewed in the reading room.  Staff have better facilities too, there is a digitization suite and a conservation suite (which slightly resembles a torture chamber with its presses and giant guillotine).  There are three multifunction rooms which can be used as one single space, giving room for exhibitions, school visits, lectures and meeting rooms.

Many of the problems with the Keep are in the process of being resolved.  An initial problem was that the new document order system asked you to reserve your original documents for either a morning or afternoon session.  If you ordered it for the morning but got side tracked with other research you would find the document had been returned to the depository by the time you went to view it.  A temporary fix allowed you to order documents for both sessions but now the system has been amended so researchers just select the day they want to view a document.  

Staff are another issue.  Staff from both ESRO and BHC are working together, both have different specialities and training. There is also a lot of new equipment and it does appear that there has been little training on how to use it.  There is also a lack of staff, I'm not sure if it is because staff have left or because more staff are needed but there is a high percentage of temporary staff who seem to have little or no expertise in family history or local studies research but they have been put in charge of helping in the reference room.  Again, this appears to be addressed as the temporary staff do appear to have been relocated to the reception desk and other areas where less expertise is needed and a longer term solution is underway as jobs are now being advertised to increase the number of staff.

As much as I like the Keep, I dislike the Kent History and Library Centre (KLHC).   The Keep is a quiet environment with plenty of space, the KHLC is a library, unless you need to view original documents you share the space with children attending rhyme time, youths checking on their Facebook page and pensioners collecting their large print books - nothing wrong with any of that, but not an ideal environment for historical research.

I spend a lot of time looking at parish registers most of which are stored on microfilm, at both archives.  At KHLC they have a few of the old style microfilm readers and some new modern ones which are connected to a computer so that the image is displayed on the screen giving a far better image than the older microfilm readers.  The problem with these new machines is they are clunky, clumsy and virtually unusable.  Staff don't know how to use the machines so you are to a large extent on your own with them.  Another issue is that although you can enlarge the microfilm on the screen you can only print out the original page as an A4 document - no enlargement.  Having had experience and not been impressed by the machines at KHLC I approached the new ones at the Keep with trepidation, they are also connected to the computer and its fair to say the staff aren't expert with them but unlike the ones in Kent these are a joy to use!  They do require some computer savvy to use as you'd expect but once you get the hang of it and the touchscreen controls you have a good quality image which can be printed or saved to a usb drive.  If you don't like using the microfilm readers then the Keep has another benefit - digital images of all the microfilmed parish registers.  One day these will be available on all the computers but at present they are limited to two standalone pc's.

The role of the Sussex Family History Group is varied.  We are there to provide a service for our members with our library (accessed from the reference room) and computer resources - it is important to remember that the SFHG covers all of Sussex, both West and East Sussex, so although we are based in the Keep we have a lot by way of West Sussex resources.  We also provide a service for non members although non members who visit more than once are gently encouraged to join us.  (Given that membership is just £11 a year which gives access to a fantastic baptism & burial index and much more it is a bargain!)  At the Keep we are also there to help the researchers in the Keep with their research, after all not everyone knows what they are doing, how to find what they need - at present we have volunteers there most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as well as some Saturdays - if Brighton aren't playing at home (the Keep is just down the road from the new Brighton stadium).  The SFHG have been made to feel very welcome by the staff and we hope we add some value to those visiting the Keep.

Sadly the Keep does not have any late night opening but it does now open every Saturday and there is no longer any need to book in advance - there are seats in abundance.  Several people have commented that the Keep looks like a prison building, but whilst I am not a fan of modern architecture I find the building quite striking.  Internally there is a lot of space, a lot of white walls mixed in with some images.  I'll finish with a final contrast with the Kent archive - without doubt my most disliked feature of the KHLC are the communal toilets (really Kent, what were you thinking - in a library!!), but the Keep has nice, modern toilets with a separate ladies and gents & snazzy hand dryers, what more could you want!!

No comments:

Post a Comment