Action necessary to preserve archives

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I AM writing to correct errors and ill-founded assertions in recent letters, including one from a posse of professors, about the closure of the Scottish Catholic Archives, Columba House, due to the discovery of mould.

These all featured attacks on Archbishop Emeritus Mario Conti. In the eyes of those 
bitterly opposed to the transfer of historic archives from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, he will forever remain the villain behind this proposal.

The discovery of mould contamination among the archives was made when an assessment of their condition was begun as the first step in preparing for the transfer. The scale of the problem, which included material in the sub-basement and basement stores, came as a great shock. Archive conservationists, historic buildings experts and other specialists were immediately commissioned to establish its source, the steps needed to be taken to halt it, and action required to conserve the affected archives.

The seat of the outbreak was identified as damp and moisture ingress at sub-
basement level. This is not a problem that occurred overnight. Relative humidity and temperature readings from previous years, and on-site evidence, indicated that moisture penetration was not a new event, with efforts having been made in the past to “tank” basement areas to prevent it. However, in my years on the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission and as a Heritage Collections trustee, I do not recall seeing any reports on this issue.

As was appropriate, Archbishop Conti convened a meeting of the trustees at ­Columba House so that we could see the problem for ourselves, and consider the expert advice. No time was spent on seeking to allocate blame for the situation with which we were confronted.

Taking our lead from the authoritative guidance we had received, it was decided the affected material would be cleaned and conserved on site. This could only be achieved by closing the building as, once treated, items could not be returned to the basement stores. However, at that time, we were unclear as to when the specialist archive conservation firm engaged to treat the affected items could start the work. Therefore, we decided to maintain a limited service for researchers at Columba House until the closure date was known.

The date for the commencement of the work has only been agreed recently. The trustees regret the inconvenience to researchers, but first and foremost it is our duty to ensure the preservation of the collection. Upon the completion of the conservation process, the historic archives will be transferred to Aberdeen University Library. An announcement will be made in due course as to when they will, once again, be made available to scholars.

All the remaining material will have to be removed from Columba House prior to any works on its fabric being initiated. The building is owned by the Scottish Catholic bishops. It will be for them to make ­decisions as to its future.

Herbert Coutts

Member, Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission

Trustee, Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust