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New £19million Brighton archives centre opens its doors
The history of Brighton, Hove and East Sussex will be laid out along ten miles of shelving at a new home.
Standing a stone’s throw away from American Express Community Stadium, The Keep in Woollards Field, Moulsecoomb, will be a portal for the public to trace the history of their local community through documents dating back 900 years.
The building will bring together archives from Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex County Council, the Special Collections of the University of Sussex, including the internationally renowned Mass Observation Archive and the Sussex Family History Group.
Following almost two years of construction, the building will be handed over to archivists on Monday and is set to open to the public in November.
The cost of the new £19 million building is split between the local authorities, linked to how much floor space they are using with approximately two-thirds of the building for East Sussex County Council and one third for Brighton and Hove City Council.
The University of Sussex has also contributed £1 million while Sussex Family History Group is renting space.
The scale of the project has been reduced slightly following a failed bid for £4.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund which meant plans for a separate café at the site had to be scrapped.
It is hoped that The Keep will attract 16,000 people in its first year rising to 20,000 annual visitors within five years.
This would represent a 25% increase in the number of visitors attending the archives that The Keep is replacing.
Programme manager Wendy Walker said: “We spoke to other archive new builds and they had all seen an increase in footfall and increase in archives coming in.
“Archive offices are not the easiest to get publicity for but this building will raise our profile.”
High-tech equipment surrounds the ancient documents at The Keep ensuring they are kept in pristine condition.
There are 17 separate air units to control the air temperature of rooms and the layout of The Keep’s plant room was so complex it needed 3-D modelling before units could be installed.
It is the most sustainable archives building in the country.
Visitors can see for themselves how green the building is because its carbon output will be displayed on a TV screen in the reception along with live bus times and, it is hoped, live rail times.
Any new archive material brought to The Keep can be cleared of damp and insect infestation by being vacuum packed and put in a high-powered freezer operating at -40C.
Previously, archivists had to use domestic freezers in a process that would take up to three months but with the new technology this can now be completed in just a week.
The archives are stored in repository rooms with closely controlled air temperature and humidity and accessible only to trained staff.
The rooms have thick brick walls that in the case of a power cut will remain at a constant temperature for at least 24 hours while the repository walls can withstand a fire elsewhere in the building for a minimum of four hours.
The resin floor has five layers to ensure that it is able to withstand the daily pressure of trolleys full of archives being pushed across it.
The repository rooms are spread over three floors and are colour coordinated to help any staff disorientated from spending time among the shelves upon shelves of archives.
Mrs Walker said: “We have material that is 900 years old and we want to make sure it lasts for the next 900 years so we’ve got to keep them in the right conditions.”
Other high-tech equipment includes a large digital display which visitors can use like a giant tactile computer screen while rooms have been fitted with UV protected lights and windows to stop rays damaging documents.
A sandstone block in The Keep’s car park has been specially adapted to be used to project images on the large white wall on the front of The Keep.
It is hoped artwork and archive movies will be screened which Mrs Walker said she envisioned could be used as an “archival movie drive-in”.
In total there are ten miles of shelving in The Keep’s repository with six miles to be filled up with the existing archives.
The barcoding of archives that will be brought over to The Keep, including 85,000 containers from the Maltings in Lewes alone, has been ongoing for 18 months.
The first items to arrive will come from the East Sussex archives in Hailsham later this month in a process that is expected to take three months.
In the meantime, while archives are being moved, visitors can use digital archives available in Lewes Library and the Jubilee Library in Brighton.
The final four miles of shelving will take another 20 years to fill while there is a designated space at the back of the building which is set aside for further expansion when needed.
Mrs Walker said: “This building is future proofed. “You can’t spend £19 million on a building and then ten years down the line say sorry but can we have another one?”
Opening times for the new building are still to be confirmed while work is underway to get a website live for later in the summer.
To access the archives, residents will have to apply for a readers’ card which will be valid for three years so staff will know who is looking at which archives.
Mrs Walker, talking about the opening of the building, said: “We might find in six months’ time that something we thought might work one way, works better another way.
“There will be teething problems. We want to make things work as early as possi- ble from the start but we want to be flexible too.”
Peter Crowhurst, chair of the North Laine Community Association, was one of the invited guests given a tour yesterday.
He said: “It is a wonderful facility. It is long needed to replace the facility in Lewes which was not fit for purpose.
“The concern before was residents’ access but it’s not as bad as feared with the agreement with the bus company and with the train station, access shouldn’t really be a problem.”
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