Cherishing our GW4 Treasures

October 7, 2020
Alan Vaughan Hughes

GW4 Treasures brings together the archives and special collections of our four universities. They contain a wealth of rare published and unpublished materials, and cover a huge range of subject areas. Alan Hughes, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University, explains how cross-institutional collaborative working ensured these unique materials were kept safe but still accessible for pioneering research during lockdown.

This year has seen quite a step-change for the GW4 Special Collections and Archives Group to keep our collections safe and our content open to research. With a combined collection of over 500,000 volumes of published print, over 10KM non-print archives and large collections of museum objects, fighting the perception that ‘the library is closed’ has been a challenge. Little did we know at the start of this year how 2020 would pan out, but with the commitment and openness of my GW4 connections I have had access to an invaluable and transparent network of sector talent, supportive peers and unparalleled creativity. Physical access to our research spaces may have been hampered, but our collections and content have never been more open.

Communication has been key since the start of the pandemic, and very early on we set up a monthly GW4 call as an open space to share our concerns, vent our frustrations and support each other to collectively innovate. How are we going to ensure the safety of our unique collections when buildings are in lockdown? What can we do to keep our collections visible and open to research? How do we support our teams and keep everybody motivated?

The safety of collections has been a big priority across GW4. Since March, library and archive teams have been carrying out weekly security checks on our collection storage areas to check that the fabric of our buildings is robust enough to maintain environmental conditions within acceptable ranges. Water ingress, pest infestations and slight variations in temperature and humidity would have a catastrophic impact on biological and chemical deterioration and cause irreversible damage.

Digital access to our collections has been key to keeping our content open to research. At Cardiff we have digitised over 5,000 new digital objects with many already available on the Internet Archive, many digitised in direct response to specific research needs across the region, the UK, Europe and beyond. This is common across the GW4 network, with all teams granted early onsite access to collections to respond to a plethora of academic and other research requests from across the world. Colleagues in Bath and Bristol have also made excellent headway with the installation of a new digital preservation system – Preservica – to ensure our digital research content remains globally accessible well into the future.

Meeting existing research project commitments, particularly those funded externally, has also been a challenge. Exeter Heritage Collections were soon able to resume work on three high-profile description projects, with short extensions granted for the cataloguing of the NHLF-funded Northcott Theatre collection, the Common Ground environmental charity archive, and a major collection of Middle Eastern papers. The visibility of research and heritage collections has never been more important, and all partners across GW4 have been proactive in sharing thousands of new content descriptions with archive union catalogues and GLAM aggregators such as The National Archives’ Discovery and JISC’s Archives Hub.

Perhaps the most surprising thing has been the extraordinary increase in the number of potential new accessions all partners have been offered (perhaps an indicator of people clearing out their attics in lockdown?). The Bristol Theatre Collection has been particularly inundated and have recently acquired a very significant company archive of 500 boxes which had to be moved out of its home in London (during lockdown) with only two weeks’ notice.

As we look ahead to the current academic year, our close-knit network has been exceptionally valuable in acting as an honest sounding board to discuss strategies for both blended learning support and a phased reopening of our physical research spaces. Exeter Heritage Collections has successfully paved the way as a pilot for the reopening of wider library services at the University of Exeter, and by now all partners have clear plans and procedures for the reopening of our reading rooms, with the safety of staff, users and collections key considerations.

We’ve all learned many lessons over the past year – not least the value of the GW4 Alliance as a space to bring archive, library and heritage professionals together.