For many people, part of the attraction of visiting an archive is the chance to see real, physical historic documents – especially ones that have family meaning or significance. I visited an archive recently on business and during an informal discussion with the archivist, I had the good fortune to discover my great-grandfather’s work records were held there.

This article is written by Rob Dakin. Rob is Sales Manager for Bruynzeel Storage Systems. He has over 30 years experience of designing storage systems for archive, museum and library clients.

My great-grandfather had been employed by a large local company in the 1920’s whose key records were deposited in this particular city archive.

However, to retrieve the original documentation would mean a member of staff travelling several floor levels and expending considerable time and energy to find the individual record in amongst the company notes. Needless to say I didn’t see or handle the original document on that occasion.

This task of retrieval is one of a number of everyday staff functions coming under increasing scrutiny in archive repositories. With organisations required to reduce costs while maintaining a first-rate service to visitors, staff often find themselves trying to square a circle: searching for efficiency savings while avoiding a negative impact on performance.

This started me thinking: is there any way that storage systems can help provide a more efficient archive service? Can smart storage ease the burden of daily activities for archive staff?

Let’s assume that the majority of archive strong rooms at some point will have been fitted with space-saving roller racking – or mobile shelving systems – to best utilise the cubic space available. The majority of these mobile shelving systems will be manually driven, with a handwheel on the end of each aisle. Historically, archives employed larger numbers of staff who able to bear the demands of turning the handwheels of heavily loaded shelves all day long, then hurry back to the reading room upstairs or down long corridors with the retrieved documents.

Today, a repository might have only one or two staff, and some of these may be part-time. To a certain extent, this simply reflects broader changes in occupation, with machines taking an increasing share of the workload. But with such structural changes to staffing, a question remains over whether existing manual systems are suitable for current working practices and staffing levels in our archive repositories.

Manually powered roller racking is a perfectly acceptable piece of technology but – rather like the manual window winder on older models of car – the advantages of its electronic successor have revealed the limitations of existing manual technologies.

So introducing electronic systems could be one solution. Admittedly, in previous years electronic systems have been comparatively expensive. More recently, modern technology has forced down the component costs to the point where there is little difference between the cost of a hand-driven and powered system.

And concerns about reliability and maintenance – like those levelled at the electronic car window – have been put to bed as the technology has matured. The first fully complete electronic system installed in a UK archive, at the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York, is now over a decade old and continues to be used every day – testament to the reliability of this type of technology.

Are electronic systems safe?
Improved safety is one of the main reasons why many university libraries are choosing to fit electronic systems for student use. Modern electronic systems will often have infrared sensors which activate an auto-stop when they spot an obstruction in the aisle, and a number will have an auto shut-off on the motor drive. Even public libraries, which would have balked at installing manual mobile shelving in public areas, have been convinced by the safety aspect of electronic systems and are beginning to install mobile shelving for general access. The power usage is small, and systems are low voltage in operation.

Power of technology
Newer electronic mobile shelving systems can be fitted with additional features such as “night park” where the shelving is programmed to auto-separate each run of racks at night to allow better air circulation. Electronic systems can be fitted with integrated auto-shutoff lighting, thereby reducing lighting costs and overall energy consumption. Electronic systems can even incorporate integration with document management software and RFID, speeding up location identification and retrieval, helping improve pick rates and reduce working times.

So the next time you reach for the button to lower the window in your car, it’s worth pausing to think: how could technology help improve working practices in my archive?

A version of this article first appeared in ARC magazine (No: 334 June 2017)