Archives Accommodation Questions and Answers

The Archives Accommodation Programme has been set up to consider if we should relocate the Parliamentary Archives from its current home in Victoria Tower in the Palace of Westminster, to an alternative site.  These Questions and Answers have been developed to provide information about the archives and about the programme.

The Parliamentary Archives is a shared House of Commons and House of Lords service located in the Victoria Tower and adjacent offices within the Palace of Westminster.  It provides an archive and records management service for both Houses of Parliament.  It cares for and makes available to the public a vast historic collection of documents dating back to 1497.  It is the oldest parliamentary archive in the world.

The Archives Accommodation Programme is exploring options for the relocation of the Parliamentary Archives and its services. During the planned Restoration & Renewal of the Palace, whichever option is chosen, the Archives would need to be relocated to specialist temporary accommodation. In view of the potential disruption and the many already long-standing problems associated with the current location, the purpose of the programme is to consider whether it would be better to find a new long-term home for the Archives.

The archive collections contain millions of precious and fragile documents of great historical importance. It would be irresponsible to keep them on site given the dirt, dust, and huge disruption caused by the replacement of mechanical and electrical services as part of the Restoration & Renewal Programme. Also, it would not be possible to offer a service to the public or conduct normal operations from inside the Palace during this time. 

The Victoria Tower, designed by Charles Barry as Parliament’s archive repository (record store), was completed in 1860, and refurbished in the 1950s. Continuing to run a modern archive service from inside this Grade-I listed Victorian building is causing a range of serious collection management problems and imposes severe limitations on the Archives’ ability to engage with the public. The key issues are:

• The location, shape and extreme height (102m) of the Tower.
• Access in and out of the 12 floors of the Tower is via one very small lift or a staircase with 553 steps, half of which is an open-tread spiral. When it breaks down, public services have to stop. In the event of fire or flooding, the lift would not be big enough to evacuate the records quickly enough (mould starts to grow on water-damaged records within 48-72 hours). 
• The layout and capacity of the Victoria Tower makes records storage both highly inefficient and cramped.  For example, most of the maps and plans in the collection have to be rolled as there is not space or sufficiently strong floors to store them flat, and some aisles in the repository are too narrow to fit a trolley.
• In the main Palace, moving records around winding corridors and carrying them up and down narrow stairs increases the risk of damage to them, and poses safety risks to staff.  The Archives also lack certain essential behind-the-scenes accommodation normally found in other archive services, such as workrooms for cataloguing, a document delivery room, a loading bay directly into the repository, and well-designed modern studios for collection care and imaging.
• The public area is confined to a small searchroom. There is no exhibition space and no reception area for visitors. The only events room is small and is inaccessible to many, including the mobility-impaired.
• Opening hours are limited, visits are by appointment only, and visitors must be escorted at all times.

The Victoria Tower is a major feature of the Palace of Westminster, a Grade-1 listed building.  Building additional lifts of the capacity required would be very intrusive and, given the significant structural changes necessary to accommodate them, highly unlikely to be approved by statutory planners. 

• Reduce the risk of damage to or irretrievable loss of the archive collection.
• Increase and improve access to the public to the records and history of Parliament, as well as family and local history use.
• Encourage a greater understanding of the work of both Houses.
• Offer much-improved workflow and behind-the-scenes facilities, bringing them up to the standard of a modern archive service.
• Release up to 7% of the net internal area of the Palace for other more suitable uses.
• Provide the opportunity to store and make available to the public other Parliamentary heritage collections besides the archives.
• Offer a more efficiently-run service, providing better value for money to the taxpayer.

This will depend on the facilities and location chosen, and will emerge as a result of the research currently taking place.  Archive buildings have very specialist requirements and need to be individually tailored to the collections and the organisation’s needs so it is difficult to determine before detailed analysis has been carried out. 

A study researched our requirements in detail and visited a wide range of modern archive buildings to see best practice in other archive services. Then it undertook a rigorous process of option identification using the HM Treasury Green Book methodology, reducing a long-list of 36 options to seven, which include remaining in Victoria Tower, relocating somewhere else in London or moving altogether to an area outside of London.

There is no preferred option at present and we are undertaking audience research to help inform the decision on whether to remain in London or transfer to a regional location.  Wherever the Archives is located, it will need to have good transport links so that we can open up the collections to as many members of the public as possible.

Modern archive buildings have very complex specifications but needs include:

• a highly-secure, fire-protected, environmentally-controlled record store (known as a repository) with easy access in and out in case of disaster. This includes large goods lifts;
• collection care and imaging studios (conservation and digitisation laboratories), and workrooms to process and catalogue the records;
• public areas, easily accessible off the street and suitable for all visitors, including research and reference rooms, an exhibition space, flexible spaces for workshops and events, and a reception and refreshment area.

Current access is by appointment only. Approximately 1000 people visit to research onsite each year, and around another 1000 visitors come on tours behind the scenes.  There are an additional 200,000 engagements through the Archives’ online services, social media and outreach activities across the country. When surveyed, 72% of people who visit one of the offsite exhibitions, and 84% of people who come to one of our events outside London, say that it makes them want to know more about Parliament today as a result. 

The Archives has far more researchers accessing the collection than most other legislatures because our records date from much earlier than other countries’.

Onsite visitors to the Archives are largely academics or students and business people such as lawyers; only around 11% visiting for personal or leisure use such as family or local history (compared with 57% nationally).  According to a 2012 survey, 64% of visitors are male and 96% are white. We get fewer disabled visitors than other archives (6% compared with 14% nationally) due to access issues.

We want to increase the diversity of users across age ranges, gender, and ethnicity; attract more family and local history users of the Archives; and encourage people to stay longer to explore the records in more depth in ways beyond traditional research, for example through exhibitions, workshops and other events.

We have undertaken a wide range of research activities over the years and have found that the most effective work we do in reaching new audiences takes place outside the Houses of Parliament, where we are not constrained by the accommodation.  We are undertaking audience research to explore what further interest a new, accessible onsite service would generate.  A 2012 report by the Archives and Records Association of the UK and Ireland into archive capital investment projects, revealed that archive services that have moved to a new location with better facilities for the public routinely double or triple their visitor numbers.

There are currently 4 million records of the House of Commons and House of Lords, dating from 1497 to the present.  These include:

• all acts of Parliament from 1497, and their drafts (known as bills);
• minutes and proceedings in the chambers and committees; 
• debates about every conceivable subject and evidence taken or presented to each House on government policy;
• petitions from voters and non-voters;
• information documents such as extensive runs of plans of railways, docks, harbours and town improvements;
• judicial records of the House of Lords when it was the supreme court of the land;
• records of the art and architecture of the Palace of Westminster, the most famous building in the country.
Together, these collections contain some of the most important constitutional documents in the UK and world, as well as the stories of individuals and communities from the fifteenth century onwards.

The collections contain some of the most important constitutional documents in the world, including the Death Warrant of Charles I (1649), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abdication Instrument of Edward VIII (1936).  In addition, the Archives contains many foundation constitutional documents of other countries which were former British colonies (for example, the USA, Canada and Australia).  Early acts of Parliament include the signatures of Tudor monarchs including Henry VIII.

Users of the Archives request a huge range of items such as records of proceedings in the Commons and the Lords from the seventeenth century onwards including records about the English Civil War and the abolition of slavery; acts of Parliament; records relating to specific politicians, especially for the early twentieth century; and plans of railways, docks, and harbours which are used by local historians.

The collection spans 8.26km in length as currently stored.  An estimated 11km of shelving is required in total but, because we are intending to use an offsite storage contract for our lower-use records that will enable us to be more flexible about where we store items.  In addition, over the next few years we expect the quantity of paper records to drastically decline in favour of digital records.

The National Archives manages the records of government departments, and the information policy around them. The records of Parliament are created by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, not by Government.  To move them to the National Archives at Kew would require a constitutional change, for which an Act of Parliament would be required, and would break an important and much valued link between Parliament today and its heritage.

There is already an established digitisation programme in place but it would take decades to digitise all of our collections. Although we currently prioritise collections which we feel would benefit from digitisation either for access or conservation reasons, it would be a waste of public money to digitise records that are perhaps only consulted once in a generation.  Once digitised, the originals still need to be stored.  In addition, the public – who effectively ‘own’ the collection – have a right to enjoy the experience of accessing original documents, such as a parchment act signed by Henry VIII, in person.

The shortlisted options will be reviewed in early summer 2015 and by spring 2016, a business case with one recommended option, costed and designed, will be put  forward.  Further updates will be available in due course.