Joint report of the Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Families and Communities (Staffordshire County Council) and Director of Housing and Community Services (Stoke-on-Trent City Council)
The Committee considered a joint report of the Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Families and Communities (Staffordshire County Council) and Director of Housing and Community Services (Stoke-on-Trent City Council) informing them of the impact of the 2020, 2021 Covid-19 pandemic on the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive and Heritage Service (Schedule 2 to the signed minutes).
Plans for recovering onsite services began during May 2020 using:- (i) national Government guidance; (ii) sector guidance published by The National Archives; (iii) sharing ideas with other archive services through Archives West Midlands and; (iv) advice from the two Authorities’ health and safety teams.
Discussions with staff had informed the development of an Issues Log where matter of concern were identified together with potential solutions. This information informed a Service Recovery Plan and risk assessment using existing corporate templates. The first phase of the Recovery Plan was to enable staff to return to Covid-19 secure offices where guidance and Personal Protective Equipment was made available. Accordingly, Staffordshire Record Office, William Salt Library and the County Museum offices were reopened to staff from 15 June 2020 and Stoke on Trent City Archives was reopened to staff from 22 June 2020.
However, whilst not all of the above sites had reopened to visitors owing to staffing issues and difficulties in implementing social distancing measures, the Staffordshire Record Office opened (on an appointment only basis) on 14 July 2020. In addition, plans were in place for City Archives and the Lichfield History Access Point, St Mary’s to re-admit visitors once current lockdown restrictions had been eased. In each case, special measures were in place to ensure compliance with social distancing and hygiene advice. Also, publicity campaigns advised visitors of the new arrangements and what to expect during their appointments.
The response to the reopening of onsite services had been overwhelmingly positive although actual in-person visitor numbers had varied. During the period up to 29 December 2020 there were 168 visits out of a possible 260 which corresponded to a 65% occupancy rate. The highest take-up of appointments was during July and August 2020 (87%) but this rate declined with the introduction of compulsory face coverings.
Remote access to services such as copying, photocopying and research had been restored from June 2020 with demand increasing following the restoration of on-site services. On-line enquiries experienced an 84% increase during July 2020 when compared to the corresponding period in 2019, with the rate stabilising at 14% by December 2020. Remote orders also increased by 4% when compared to corresponding period in 2019.
During the temporary closure of on-site services, the Archives and Heritage service had focused on increasing output via social media. New initiatives included the setting up a volunteers’ blog (‘The Learning Room’) and increasing the production of newsletters to two per month. The online Palaeography class hosted by lecturer from Keele University Latin Summer school, had continued together with blogs on the use of Staffordshire Past Track, online maps, recent accessions and other features from local libraries. In addition, volunteers had submitted blog pieces on topics including the history of gardening, the social history of medicine, English placenames. The Minton Archive Twitter account started a "tweeted history" of the Minton company together with a round-up" of blog posts for those without a Twitter account. The long-standing monthly "Folio Friday" series had continued, with the site's anniversary update, which usually comprised a large catalogue update or feature launch, being spread over 3 months instead.
In 2021 a new "Folio Frivolity" series of daily tweets and fortnightly round-up blogs had been launched highlighting artwork from the Archive's folios. The service had maintained work on two externally funded projects ie The Staffordshire's Asylums and The Bawdy Courts of Lichfield, the completion dates for which had been extended. The blog for Staffordshire Asylums had remained active with help from volunteers whilst The Bawdy Courts of Lichfield blog research group had met on-line with weekly posts being generated. Both blogs had proved to be very popular with 10,560 and 4,443 views respectively since June 2020.
Maintaining engagement with volunteers during the pandemic been challenging. Whilst a total of 135 volunteers had supported the service in 2019/20, 45 had continued to work with the team from April 2020. However, staff had provided copies of materials and tried several methods to keep in touch including by email, the Facebook group, telephone, and on-line meetings. It was clear how important face-face meetings were to volunteers and plans were in place to re-engage with them once restrictions permitted.
All staff had been supported to work from home since the start of the pandemic which had enabled significant progress to be made on cataloguing collections and making more information available on-line. Over 16,000 new entries had been added from in excess of 700 separate accessions.
The Archives and Heritage Service in partnership with Staffordshire Library
Service had engaged with residents from across the County to create a lasting record of the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘Lockdown Memories’ explored the impact of the pandemic and social distancing measures on the lives of Staffordshire people and communities. An online questionnaire was launched in August to gather stories and testimonies about people experiences following which contributions were received from schools, local history groups and individuals of all ages. Many had also offered to donate photographs, drawings, and documents. Finished artwork, donated items, memories and poems will all form part of a ‘Lockdown Memories’ exhibition in due course.
A similar online appeal ‘Collecting during Coronavirus’ was launched in June 2020 by Stoke-on-Trent City Archives and Stoke-on-Trent’s Museum Service.
A successful bid to the West Midlands Museum Development Recovery Grants
scheme enabled work on Lockdown Memories with a poet and visual artist in order to run a series of workshops in late 2020. Those involved had created poems and ‘memory maps’ based on their experiences of lockdown which would be made available on-line in February and March 2021. Unfortunately, a planned follow-on digital creative writing project had been postponed owing to the return of lockdown restrictions in January 2021.
Overall, the impact of the 2020/21 Covid-19 pandemic on the service had been both negative and positive. The reduction in onsite visitors had reduced income by an estimated 25% and the loss of onsite volunteering and engagement activities had also been difficult for both the service and its volunteers. Whilst some contact had been maintained great efforts would need to be made to recruit and re-engage volunteers once restrictions had ease. However, online activity and engagement had increased although this has been difficult to maintain whilst also recovering physical and remote services. Also, externally funded projects had been delivered following the extension of deadlines.
Staff had adapted well to homeworking and the planned restructure of the service which had been delayed was being implemented.
During the discussion which ensued Members paid tribute to the work of the Archive and Heritage service and dedication of its staff during the pandemic. They welcomed progress made in the use of digital technology and the contribution of the service in helping residents cope with lockdown restrictions. In response to a question regarding ‘Lock-Down Memories’, the Deputy Chief Executive and Director said that she hoped an exhibition would be included as part of the opening of the new Staffordshire History Centre. However, alternative arrangements would be made if this could not be arranged.
RESOLVED – That the report be received and noted.