Closure of Catholic Archives shows contempt

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The announcement of the immediate, permanent closure of Columba House, the home of the Scottish Catholic Archives, and the removal of its contents to Aberdeen, furtively released on Saturday afternoon, demonstrates Archbishop Mario Conti’s contempt for scholars.

It undermines assurances given Christine Banks, the very helpful head librarian at Aberdeen University, after the signing of the agreement to transfer parts of the pre-1878 collections, that advance notice would be given to users of Columba House, some of whom are in the middle of PhD theses and now find access denied, for a period of possibly months or even years.

The mould used as the pretext for the closure does not explain its suddenness, since rumours have circulated for several weeks that mould had been found. That came as little surprise, given the state into which Columba House had fallen since the loss of its outstanding keeper last October. Some of the readers have told me that on some days it was unheated.

What is not clear is the scale of the outbreak. The odd case of mould is a routine problem at libraries and archives, and can easily be contained without closure. If the outbreak at Columba House is so calamitous, let us see the evidence.

The press release says the Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections trustees made the decision to close Columba House, but does not say when. They met over a month ago, after the mould rumours were already circulating. If the decision was taken then, why didn’t they give scholars a few weeks’ notice, a chance to make last-minute research?

Archbishop Conti says damp has been a recurrent problem at Columba House, documented in reports spanning more than 30 years. If so, why did he not mention them when I challenged him on its alleged unsuitability at the last meeting of the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission in May 2012? The best he could do then was assert that it was a listed building and not purpose-built. On that basis he should be warning the Queen that the Royal Archives in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle and the Pope that the Vatican Archives are at risk.

• Ian Campbell is professor of architectural history and theory at the University of Edinburgh.