Friday 25 November 2011

It's a Library, Jim, but Not As We Know It.

Royal Ordnance Factory Number 9 was built at Thorp Arch, near Wetherby, in Yorkshire, opening in 1940. Its purpose was as a place where all manner of bombs, shells, cartridge casings, mines, (anything the war effort needed to go bang) were filled with various kinds of explosives. As you can see from the picture above, it was situated on flat farmland, with its own railway links.. From 1940 to the late fifties, it was a closed and secret site. It did not appear on maps. When it closed, a local businessman bought most of the site, which became home to a myriad of businesses. It's still a pretty strange place. Railway lines disappear into blast revetements, many of the buildings are still earth-bunded, or buried. Back in wartime, of course, this would have been a very high-risk zone. Earth-bunded stores were there to contain and limit the damage that an explosion would cause. An explosion in a store not surrounded by thick earth banks would spread horizontally, killing all around, and setting off neighbouring stores in a chain-reaction. The idea of the earth was that the horizontal shockwave would be strongly attennuated, sending the main force of the blast mostly skywards. 

One part of the site, however, the part that held the site's main offices and administration was retained by the government, and became a national scientific library.
It was the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, the largest such establishment in europe.
It was said that the Russian section was the largest russian language library outside Russia, and the Chinese section....ditto.
Way back, in the early seventies, I worked there, in a year between school and college, and in my student years, I returned there during college vacations, in order to earn money to sustain my student beer book habit.
I wrote this in an earlier post, promising I'd one day write more. Not that anybody requested me to, or even wanted me to, but....
"Years ago, after I left school, before university, I took a year out.
The main reason was that I had been severely ill in the period leading to my final exams, missing a lot of school, revising time, in hospital for six weeks, hooked up to oxygen, and coming close to death a few times.
So when I was released to take those vital exams, I was definitely not at my best, and confidently expected to fail them, and go back to school to retake my final year.
So I didn't apply to further education, I was too busy just staying alive. In fact I passed them all, comfortably, including an extra one thrown in by my headmaster, for which I had not studied at all. That's a story in itself.
So then I had a year to fill, before further education. And not for me, the resources so often taken for granted now, to go travelling around the world, no gap year for me, a work year was predicated.
I did a short stint in the social security office, posting envelopes deliberately late to miss the post.
My boss required this.
There was a legal ruling that social security claimants be notified of an inspector's visit, so cards had to be sent out...
However, my boss required those cards miss the last post collection, and thus arrive after the inspector.
If say, you were a single woman, and the inspector saw a man's shirt in your home, your claim for rent payment would be disallowed, as it would be deemed evidence you were cohabiting with a man, and therefore he could pay your rent.
The whole aethos of the Department of Health and Social Security (or Stealth and Total Obscurity as we called it) was confrontational, its mission was to withhold , pay nobody, and generally obstruct claimants. I obstructed the department by altering the case notes of my school mates, ticking boxes and passing claims.... and warning them of intended visits. I hated being a part of that machine, so i asked around for other jobs. A friend said he'd heard that the library was hiring.
The Library-
The National Lending Library For Science and Technology. A vast unlibrary-like place, situated in a wartime munitions factory, full of clanking conveyors, shelves of secrets, not open to the public, although there was a reading room.
I applied...
Signed the Official Secrets Act, became an Assistant Scientific Officer (un
established), and gained entry to a treasure chest."

I was (haha!) designated "Assistant Scientific Officer (unestablished)". My grade was pretty lowly, but the department I worked in was of a flexible and nebulous nature, Officially we handled donations to the library. (Crates of, truckloads of books, university theses, magazines, scientific journals), but we also were used as a pool of persons to fill gaps in other departments, and to do jobs for which there was no prior protocol.
Much of the place was in the old single storey wartime buildings, some was in a modern (in the early seventies) multi-storey concrete building. Throughout all this site, an overhead conveyor ran, carrying trays everywhere. If a request was made for an item, a worker would retrieve the item from the relevant address, then place it on a conveyor tray, pulling a series of pegs on the suspension arm, to code the destination. Off the tray would go, when the coded pegs met the corresponding key station, the tray would be tipped onto a roller conveyor to  the person who would handle the request.

In the years since, it became the northern site of the British Library. It supplies documents to libraries and universities, and researchers around the world. Visitors may go to a reading room on site, and request books and documents, which are brought to them. Unlike in a conventional library, you can't, as a reader, browse through the stacks. You don't see any of it. Just the reading room.

Fairly recently, I had a chance meeting with somebody who works there now, and he emailed me details of an Open Day  planned for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding.
And I applied for and recieved an invitation to it.
Little of it is as at was back then. New buildings have arrived, and new tasks. Digitisation rather than photocopying. Emailing files where we crated books. Imagine.
We sent, as I recall, fifteen tons of crated books and scientific periodicals to the University of Ulan bator in Outer Mongolia.

Good to see new tasks emerging. One is an internet archive, attempting to record web pages, blogs, all manner of ephemera which otherwise would be lost without trace.

The most interesting part of the trip, to me was seeing the new document store, opened this summer. The rest of the place is a library, but not as we know it, but this new bit?
Well. imagine a controlled environment, where the aisles are too high and narrow for humans, the atmosphere is controlled at oxygen levels which will not sustain fire, or microbes....  This obviously isn't too good for humans, and thus the librarians are robots. They work in darkness. No human knows where to find a book. The computer remembers each book's position, the robot cranes zip along, up and down, back and forth, in darkness, when a book is called for, the robot retrieves the plastic crate holding the relevant volume, and delivers it to a conveyor, which, shades of a bygone era, takes it to the waiting human, out in the light, with oxygen.
When the book returns, it will not go to the place from which it was plucked. Robots don't need our familiar ordered dewey decimal, or alphabetic library shelf tags. Gradually, the robots will re-sort their charges, and the oft called-for tomes will be stacked nearer the front, rarely used ones will go to the  back. The library will constantly learn and reshuffle itself in its quest for efficiency.

 Not my pic: During the building phase.

As you see, not very library-looking!

 So, here's a little bit of conventional library. Wide aisles, lights, human-height shelving.

A scanning station. This frighteningly expensive machine, which will be dated and then obsolete in the blink of an eye, turns pages automatically and scans pretty much as fast as it can turn a page. humans are still needed to check it's doing it right.

Just some of the stuff the document centre handles.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Courier, May 7th 1892

A letter, from Samuel Cooper, of Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, dated 17th septembere1773, the day after the Bosto Tea Party, which it describes.

Second world war era buildings repurposed.


Overall, an interesting afternoon for me. We weren't allowed tp wander indiscriminately, alas, but chaperoned around the site in groups of ten or so. I didn't meet anyone I knew.

 On leaving the site, I turned into the Thorp Arch Trading Estate, and had a look at the old bunkers. Some are still in use as explosives stores, others are underground retail stores. The photos aren't good. It was rapidly getting dark, and brrr! it was cold.

The end.