Re-evaluating the delivery of an on-site service

Summary

Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (WAS) moved to a new building (The Hive) in July 2012, along with the City and University libraries and the Worcestershire Hub. The move was an opportunity to completely re-evaluate how the archive service was delivered, including:

  • longer opening hours for The Hive; surrogate sources and the local studies library are now available from 8:30am to 10pm, seven days a week, including times when the archive service is not staffed
  • making archival research visible and attractive to the much more diverse customer base

The most important elements of this were creating an:

  • open, but still very secure, area for using original archives; one which would welcome new customers, not create barriers 
  • attractive shop and display area at the entrance to the archive area - opposite the main staircase - to encourage those to move between the floors into the archive area 
  • interactive Touch History Table to enable fun and imaginative access to collections

This re-evaluation was undertaken as part of the planning process for the relocation to The Hive, as a means of increasing the availability of resources and opening up the study of original archives. 

Planning of this work and preliminary preparations took place between 2009 and 2012. The new service was implemented when the Hive opened in July 2012.

The planning was led by the User Services Manager and the User Services Archivists and implementation was carried out by the Archive Team. In the very early stages of planning, staff from the University and City libraries were consulted.

The Touch History Table was developed with do.collaboration at the University of Birmingham, and working with diverse partners is embedded in the WAAS business model, enabling us to continue to enhance delivery with less money.

Funding

The work was carried out as part of the core work in preparing for the move. Funding came from the base budget, and the delivery of the service will continue to be core funded. However the archive service is accessing other sources of funding to support the core roles and to ensure flexibility and take advantage of opportunities. The archive service also has a strong tradition of working with volunteers, to develop resources further and increase access to collections.

Challenges

Previous access to surrogate sources amounted to 49.5 hours per week and customers relied heavily on staff for guidance. Consultation highlighted the demand for longer opening hours and those offered by The Hive provided the opportunity to radically alter access to surrogate sources outside staffed hours.

The challenges were varied:

  • due to County Council efficiencies, staffing was reduced prior to opening
  • there was limited time to plan and develop the procedures and resources
  • until February 2012, site visits had only been possible for the Hive Project Officer so it was difficult for other staff to visualise how the new service might look and there was some initial scepticism from staff, who were concerned about the security of the resources with no staff invigilation
  • finding ways to make the area and the resources as user-friendly as possible so that customers could find their way around easily without depending on staff assistance was challenging. Having previously operated from two public branches, many of the resources were duplicated and procedures had developed differently, and these needed to be brought together

Opportunities

The openness of the building plans afforded the opportunity to make original archives much more visible and 'friendly', to encourage customers of The Hive who may not have considered using archives previously to find out more about the archive service. 

The ethos from the start was to create an accessible and welcoming space and this resulted in the decision not to build in a physical barrier to the original archive area. The greatest challenge here was in balancing the welcome, open space with the security of the archives in a busy building.

Responding to challenges and opportunities

The opportunity to provide access to resources outside staffed hours was welcomed, and a project team was established to:

  • develop easy-to-use finding aids and guidance, on site and online
  • order and label the resources so that they were easy to find
  • address staff fears over security and reduced customer service

The management of the barrier-free entrance to the original archive area required a complete change to the way that staff had previously operated while on duty. Previously staff had been fairly static behind desks, users could feel that they were interrupting staff with questions, and staff would sometimes get distracted by other 'background' work. To change this, on the move to The Hive, and to ensure the monitoring of those entering and leaving the area, roles were allocated to each of the four staff on duty:

  • Desk - welcoming users, explaining the regulations, asking them to sign in, responding to enquiries and allocating CARN tickets
  • Production - responsible for retrieving and returning items and ensuring customers use the conservation equipment
  • Original Archive Invigilation - responsible for access and security, including controlling the entrance to the area, checking that archives are being handled correctly
  • Self-Service - responding to customer enquiries on surrogate sources

No other work is undertaken while on duty, so the entire focus is on the customer and the security of the collections. This approach has been very successful. The lack of barrier means that the archive service is far more approachable and everyone entering the area is approached by the Original Archive Invigilator, so they are met by a friendly member of staff rather than a physical barrier. The archive service  has been able to reach more potential customers this way, gaining new users as a result, and the security monitoring has greatly increased from the previous location.

Outcomes 

Statistics collected between July 2012 and March 2013 highlight the increased number of new users to original archives, with an average of 28% through the year. In July 2012, 57% of customers had not used the service before.    

Some of this can be attributed to the new location and increased publicity, but anecdotal evidence also indicates that talking to people who try to enter the original archive area about archives has encouraged some of them to sign in and use archives.

The extended availability of surrogate and secondary sources has been greeted with enthusiasm, and it is not uncommon to see regular customers using the resources at 8:30am, 8:30pm or on a Sunday afternoon. One response to the 2012 PSQG Survey said that the access was 'Outstanding'.

This has also helped to attract new audiences, particularly those aged 5-16. The majority use the microfilm sources to look up their birth entry or to see a newspaper from the week or month that they were born, while some use the local studies collection or are  just 'having a look'. When surveyed, comments about the service included:

  • 'It's really interesting'
  • 'It's cool'
  • 'I think that this is really good'
  • 'The touch table is wicked!'

What went well? What didn't go quite as well?

The work on the surrogate sources was all delivered on time, and to a high standard, but this work would have been easier if it could have been carried out earlier in the process. Staff were unable to start this work until the History Centre, where the surrogate sources were previously accessed, closed to the public at the end of April 2012 - which allowed only two months for getting everything in place before opening. Work had to be strictly prioritised, and work not essential for opening was delayed. 

Despite fears for the security of the surrogate sources during unstaffed hours, the archive service has found that customers treat them with great care and no films or fiche have been identified as missing or damaged.

While staff are confident in their role in controlling the entrance to the original archive area some of the users are less keen on this approach, preferring a barrier. Some believe that staff should not have to spend time explaining our service, although the archive service consider this pivotal part of their role to keep their profile high and to be accessible to all. With hindsight working with regular customers - particularly Friends of the service - to explain the new approach might have alleviated their concerns at an earlier stage.

Future developments

  • The archive service will continue to monitor and evaluate the success of the new ways of working and modify where necessary. Written and web-based guidance and support for the use of surrogate sources and how to undertake research needs to be developed further in the future
  • The archive service is working with the Learning and Outreach team to provide evening inductions and 'surgeries' to help new users who can only visit during unstaffed hours to become familiar with the service and to advise on research queries
  • To capitalise on the number of younger people using the resources, the archive service is developing a leaflet designed specifically for young people and activities to help them start their research
  • To maximise staff capacity, the archive service will be looking again at the duty roles at times when the service is quieter and making this less staff intensive without compromising customer service or security

For further information please contact Dr Lisa Snook at archive@worcestershire.gov.uk.