UPDATE 5 June: John Chambers contacted WDYTYA? Magazine to say that a small number of archive services aim to reopen in July but most will reopen in the autumn.
Archives will not reopen before September and will offer a “much different service” when they do, the chief executive of the Archives and Records Association (ARA) told WDYTYA? Magazine.
As the coronavirus lockdown begins to ease, John Chambers warned that archives would not be able to reopen before autumn, or September at the very earliest.
He said the sector faced a number of specific challenges.
First, there was “no definitive guidance” on how long the virus lived on archival documents, although The National Archives and other organisations were currently working on developing guidelines on how the material could be safely handled by members of the public.
Second, Mr Chambers warned that it would be difficult to stick to social distancing requirements in a small archive space.
He said that archives were looking at different ways of providing a service, for instance by introducing an appointment system or digitising documents on demand for researchers at home.
“They are going to be going back to a much different service, I think,” he said.
He added that a survey conducted by the ARA shows that 85% of archive staff are currently working from home, so the first stage would be allowing staff to return to work, which would not happen before July.
“We’re thinking about practicality, thinking about options, beginning to research them,” he said.
“Everybody wants to get back but we have got to be sensible.”
He also said that any changes to archive services would have to be evaluated on the grounds of equality requirements.
For example, an increased shift to digitised services might exclude older people, who are less likely to be computer literate.
“They are very much thinking about that and trying to offer a service for the whole community,” he said.
WDYTYA? Magazine also contacted The National Archives, the National Library of Wales, the National Records of Scotland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland to ask if they knew yet when they could reopen.
All four national archive services replied that they had no reopening date at the moment.
Separately, The National Archives (TNA) published guidelines for archives on how to reopen.
They note that reopening was “a positive and necessary step” but warned that archives should “take a risk-managed approach”.
In particular, the guidelines state that social distancing measures would mean “reduced opening hours and increased restrictions on access (e.g. introducing the pre-booking of documents and seating) for many archive services which are able to re-open”.
TNA also stated that when they reopen, they aim to “start slow and grow the service over time”, with “the lowest possible numbers” of customers at first.