Report of a visit on Opening Day, 23 April.
by Stephen Archer, Webmaster
I visited the new Kent History & Library Centre in Maidstone on the Opening Day, 23rd April 2012. The centre is described on the County Council website as "purpose built to protect and give people access to more of our archive material, and to provide a 21st century library in the heart of Kent". It replaces the Centre for Kentish Studies, East Kent Archives Centre, and the County Central and St Faiths Street libraries.
The centre is a large concrete building, standing beside the Royal Engineers Road dual carriageway (map at bottom of page). The single-storey library/archives section of the building is glass-sided and overlooks the Staceys St roundabout. The tall parts of the complex that you can see in the photos appear to be flats built on behalf of Housing 21 and West Kent Housing. The building contractors were Bouygues UK and Warings.
There's no free visitor parking (apart from disabled), but I gather there are 27 pay & display spaces nearby in James Whatman Way, and there are several public car parks locally. It's only a 5 min walk from Maidstone East station and it's served by bus routes 101, 150 & 155.
|Kent Library & History Centre, exterior||The front entrance|
Access is from the south frontage where there's a colonnade of concrete pillars. Behind this is a glass double-door which leads straight on to the library floor. I was surprised to find no foyer or entrance hall, and I couldn't immediately see a floor plan though perhaps this will be rectified in time. I was handed a flier with opening hours and services offered as well as a list of upcoming events.
All of the public areas are on the one floor. The layout is simple, the theme being very much open-plan. Wheelchair access looks to be good.
Most of the public area comprises the lending library shelves, which extend back to the right hand side of the building. To the front left are shelves of reference books, including many works on Kent history etc. These are presumably the books that used to occupy the record office search room at County Hall. The centre is said to contain 40,000 books, presumably this includes the reference stock too. Having said that, some rarer books such as part of the former Springfield library stock have apparently been put into their Kings Hill reserve store and will have to be ordered, this has already attracted some negative comment.
As is usual with libraries today there's plenty of computer screens, but you appear to need a username and password to get access. As I had neither, I was unable to check the on-line catalogue. But I gather that the centre offers free internet access and wi-fi.
|Main area of lending library, looking back towards main entrance||Looking towards the Archive reading room|
The centre opened its doors to the public at 9am. Volunteer 'meeters and greeters' were there to show people around. There were exhibitions, events and activities throughout the day, including 'pop-up' readings from Shakespeare by staff in Elizabethan costume. Free refreshments were provided.
|Mike Hill (KCC Cabinet member for Customer and Communities), cutting the ribbon to declare the centre open, 23 April 2012||Volunteers in period costume, 23 April 2012; behind is the Kent History Timeline|
Beyond the reference section and behind a glass wall is the Archive search room (below right). Outside the door room is a reception desk (below left) where you need to produce a CARN card and Kent Libraries card to get access. There also appear to be lockers in this section, but no cloakroom or coat pegs that I could see. Inside, there seem to be 18 reader desks, each equipped with a power supply and ethernet socket - presumably for laptop computers.
|Reception desk, with the Archive reading room behind
(beyond the glass windows)
|The Archive reading room|
The wooden card-index cabinets from the old County Hall search room have been retired, and I understand the plan is to make all their content available from computer screens. For indexes to Kent wills, the centre has teamed up with Origins.net to provide free access to information on over 40,000 Kent wills. Currently the indexes to west Kent wills 1660-1857 are available for searching, shortly this will be extended back to 1440 and will eventually include the eastern half of the county too.
|PR transcripts & parish catalogues||Micfofilm reader-printers|
Though most documents must be ordered, there are some items on open shelves outside the search room - such as parish register transcripts and catalogues of Church of England registers. Also available on open access are reels of microfilm in drawers, and three m/film readers with printing facilities (both above). The films mainly seem to cover parish registers and newspapers.
There's a small alcove at the back of the floor (is this the "Community History area" ?) with display cases containing important archives (examples below). This includes the 699AD charter, the earliest document held; also a Sandwich Borough year book from the 1550s, and various also items such as letters written by Jane Austen and Lord Nelson.
Charter of Wihtred, King of Kent, 699. By this charter the king grants the churches and monasteries in his kingdom immunity from public taxation. This is the earliest record of Kent as a political unit and is also probably the oldest document in any local record office, even though it is generally believed to be a late 8th century forgery.
|The Stanhope pedigree, 1844-78: a volume illustrated on vellum by Catherine Stanhope 1819-1901, apparently imitating medieval illuminators. She was a daughter of Philip the 4th Earl Stanhope of Chevening.|
According to the Kent County council website there's also a "digital studio and a large space for displays and events", and "well equipped meeting rooms" though I didnt see any of these.
It's a shame that the book sales area formerly in County Hall hasn't been expanded into a proper bookshop. I looked for a while and eventually found a couple of shelves of books and other items for sale, in the front right-hand corner of the building (photo below). But the selection is inevitably quite limited.
|Books for sale||Local map|
Unfortunately there's no coffee shop either, or an area where you can eat your own sandwiches. If you want refreshments you have to leave by the front entrance and go round to the back of the building - to James Whatman Way, where there's a cafe/restaurant called 'The Pantry'. This is open every day 8am-7.30pm and serves "freshly prepared light bites and daily specials." Alternatively, there's an inn across the dual carriageway called 'The White Rabbit'.
I couldn't immediately see a sign pointing to the lavatories, but then discovered them behind an inconspicuous door accessed from the right wing of the lending library. Again a floor plan would have made this clear.
The address of the Kent History & Library Centre is James Whatman Way, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1LQ.
Opening hours are Mon-Wed & Friday, 9am-6pm; Thursday 9am-8pm; Sat 9am-5pm.
Here are some links:
The published Main Website link currently directs to an announcement of the opening. Presumably it will eventally access a dedicated website. Here are some more links, from the Kent County Council website and elsewhere:
KCC news archive announcement (13 March)