Monday, 10 March 2014

Libraries With Different Walls

Inspired by a Jonathan Meades talk in Birmingham Town Hall about architecture I started to think about two of the city’s buildings that he mentioned, because I worked in them for a while last year, namely Birmingham Central Library (aka concrete ziggurat, or brutalist) and the Library of Birmingham (aka the wedding cake, or post-modern, or high tech, or LoB).

One of the themes of his talk was how buildings, or rather building styles, go in and out of fashion. What can be derided at the time is often appreciated many years later. Which is why Victorian gothic buildings were seemingly trashed in the post-Second World War period by a swathe of maniacal town planners intend on social engineering on a massive scale. The old stuff was to be replaced with ’brutalist’ buildings. As an archivist I also worked in Liverpool Record Office and saw the amazing photo and plan collection of Liverpool’s City Engineers & Surveyors department which included models and plans for the futuristic city where everything was zoned into business and leisure, aerial roadways went everywhere and pavements would not be needed as we would all be flying about using jetpacks. Thank goodness a lot of these plans never got implemented otherwise things would have been even worse. Exactly the same thing can be seen in the archives of the development and town planning of Birmingham and other parts of the West Midlands and the Black Country. 

I also saw how things could go the other way when working in Liverpool as I lived in Port Sunlight, the village built by Lord Leverhulme for the workers at the Lever Brothers factory, This was a village that had an arts and crafts feel and every housing block was different. It was twee and a vision of a ‘fake’ past but I did enjoy living there. I also saw Jonathan Meades filming just outside my house when in 2000 he was making one of his many films about locations and architecture (‘Victoria Died In 1901 And Is Still Alive Today’, broadcast in 2001). The scene he was filming involved walking along a line of morris dancers while talking to camera. I was on stand by to open the door and allow the film crew to use my electricity if their current power source because unavailable. Ah showbiz.

During Meades' town hall talk I started to think about the differences between the two library buildings and also the psychology of working in them. The ziggurat was a concrete block with a ‘courtyard’. There were no windows and the only view was into the courtyard, otherwise known as a grotty shopping centre interior. The wedding cake was glass and steel with views over the city, especially from the seventh floor roof garden so it was very outward looking, rather than the inward looking mindset of the previous building.

Would this change the attitude of staff and users? It’s too early to say. Morale in the old building could be low, partly because of the compromises made when the Central Library was built (such as planned cladding to soften the exterior of the building not being used and internal changes that played havoc with the heating and air-conditioning - the two temperature choices were usually boiling hot or freezing cold). But the gloom wasn’t solely down to the drab surroundings or a lack of maintenance. It was also due to the preparations for the move to LoB, job cuts and surviving a full scale staff re-organisation. Standing on the LoB roof garden did give you hope that things would improve in the new building but it’s going to take a few years for the new building to bed in. Staff moved into what was still a building site and had to get used to new equipment, new working practices and the public who had been deprived of a central library for several months pouring in and running everyone ragged. And you can add to that the settling down of temperature and humidity controls for the archives and the re-shelving of records after the move.

Will we be looking back in 40 years and reminiscing about the old central library building? There are some who want to see it saved instead of being demolished as part of the Paradise Circus redevelopment. But what is it being saved for? How could it be used? Would those wanting to save it be willing to work in it? As Meades reminded us during his talk - change is the only constant and the feeling of each successive generation that we will get it right this time is one reason why things always change. It is also the reason why we look back with rose-tinted spectacles. To paraphrase, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and having experienced working there I won’t miss the ziggurat and am one of those people who would cheerfully press the plunger to detonate explosives to get rid of it, or aim a rocket at it from LoB's roof garden.

Or will we in the future be wanting something new to replace LoB as we look at its poorly maintained leaking roof, dodging the steel rings that fall off at regular intervals or tripping over buckets catching water dripping from the ceilings. It would be interesting if the building that inevitably replaces LoB in the future looks like the Kansas City Public Library car park where giant books appear to be standing on a shelf (see http://www.idesignarch.com/kansas-city-public-library-missouri/). Of course in the future we may have libraries without walls (to paraphrase the title of Meade’s recent collection ‘Museum Without Walls’) but we would miss the act of going into a library and exploring on foot as well as in the mind.


Another thought that crossed my mind during and after Meades’ talk was - do architects ever live or work in the buildings they design? Might help if they did, or are building problems always due to compromises that have to be made, and the gap between the imagination and the actual budget available.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Archives Of Vanished Kingdoms


I'm currently reading Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Penguin 2012). It's a fascinating read because Davies puts names such as Burgundy and Aragon into context and also shows how former 'kingdoms' often straddled current national boundaries or overlapped over time, and traces the development of kingdoms from regions into larger entities (through alliances or military takeover). He also makes the point that this process continues - one of the chapters looks at the formation of the Soviet Union and its recent end. 

As an archivist I'm particularly taken by the chapter on 'Litva' (including the Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania and taking in the Baltic states and the Ukraine), because Davies discusses the problems of piecing together the records of a 'vanished' state. The following is taken directly from the text with a small amount of editing, or adding information for context. It's quite lengthy but it shows how the survival of records is not guaranteed, and how the work of individuals can help fill gaps in the national or corporate memory.

"Archives are, in a sense, the dust and ashes of a dead polity. They contain the records of monarchs who reigned, of institutions that functioned and of lives that were lived. Like boxes of family papers in the attic, they are an indispensable aid to accurate memory and to trustworthy history.

"The condition of archives, therefore, gives a good indication of the strength of memory and the reliability of the history books. If archives are well ordered, one may conclude that the legacy of past times is respected. If not, it is likely that memory and history have been neglected. One of the first decisions of ill-willed regimes is to order the destruction or sequestration of their predecessors' archives. In the case of the grand duchy, large parts of the archives have totally disappeared.

"The Metryka Litevska or 'Lithuanian Register' is the commonest collective name for the original indexes/archival inventories of the grand duchy's central chancery. Since it no longer exists in one place, it is difficult to estimate its size. But, at a minimum, it was made up of a thousand huge, leather-bound ledgers, and it contained six main divisions: Books of Inscriptions (i.e. summaries of laws and decrees), Books of 'Public Affairs' (records of the Chancellor's Office), Sigillata (copies of documents issued under the grand-ducal seal), Court Books, Land Survey Books, and Legation Books relating to foreign affairs. The time-span stretches from the very early thirteenth century to the very late eighteenth century. The principal languages employed are rusk (Old Belarusian), Latin and Polish.

"Locating and reconstructing the Metryka Litevska has demanded a fascinating saga of academic sleuthing that could only be undertaken with modern technology. It was long delayed, partly because the most interested parties had no access, and partly because Russian and Soviet archivists were following their own agenda. Nowadays, one can state with some confidence that the dispersal of the grand duchy's records took place in nine or ten stages:
  • In 1572, following Union with Poland, the main body of documents (though not the registers) was taken by the last chancellor of the pre-Union grand duchy, Mikolaj 'the Red' Radziwill, and was housed in the Radziwill's palace at Nieswiez. According to the Radziwills, the priceless papers had been consigned to them for safe-keeping; according to others they were stolen.
  • From 1572 to 1740 the archives of the post-Union period, together with the older registers, were kept in the Chancery in Vilnius. Most papers relating to foreign policy were filed in the Metryka Koronna [Crown Register]. The Metryka Litevska received numerous files relating to Muscovy and the Tartars.
  • During the Swedish invasion of 1655-6, large quantities of documents and inventories were plundered and taken to Stockholm. Part of the loot was returned by the Treaty of Oliwa (1660), but an important group of registers remained in Sweden.
  • In 1740 the grand-ducal Chancery and its records were moved to Warsaw; sometime later a joint Polish-Lithuanian archival administration was established. After 1777, since the majority of clerks could no longer read Cyrillic, Polish summaries were added to the contents of each ledger. A start was made on a huge project aiming to produce a full copy of the entire archive and to transcribe all the rusk texts into the Latin alphabet.
  • In 1795 the contents of Warsaw's archives and libraries, together with the surviving registers were seized by the Russian army, and transported to St Petersburg, where they were duly joined by the archives from Nieswiez.
  • In the course of the nineteenth century Russian imperial archivists broke up the Polish-Lithuanian records to suit their own administrative purposes. Anything relating to Ukraine, for example, was sent to Kiev.
  • In 1887 an incomplete and inaccurate catalogue of the Metryka Litevska was compiled and published in St Petersburg.
  • In 1921 the Treaty of Riga between Poland and the Soviet republics made provision for the restoration of all archives carried off from Warsaw in 1795. The provision was largely observed in the breach.
  • In 1939, the Polish Archive Service removed as many records as possible from central Warsaw, but large parts of the pre-war collections were destroyed during the war by fires, bombing and German looting.
"One obvious conclusion is that Vilnius and Minsk are probably not necessarily the best places to locate the basic sources for study of the grand duchy.

"The task of piecing together the archival jigsaw was first undertaken by Polish scholars in the 1920s and 1930s, but the work was far from complete when overtaken by redoubled wartime disasters. Post-war conditions, which gave absolute priority to the sensitivities of the Soviet Union, were not conducive to impartial research.

"So with much delay the star role eventually fell to a heroic American scholar from Harvard University, whose findings began to appear in the 1980s [Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, The Lithuanian Metryka in Moscow and Warsaw: Reconstructing the Archives of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1984)]. Her original concern was to summarize the holdings of the Soviet state archives in general, since their guardians treated catalogues as state secrets. But she came to realize that many records originating from the grand duchy, though broken up and widely scattered, had survived under misleading headings and identification numbers. She also realized that the registers in Stockholm, to which she had unrestricted access, were invaluable. They helped her to trace papers which were housed in various parts of Poland or the Soviet Union and whose existence would otherwise have been impossible to pinpoint. The net result was an unrivalled degree of understanding of the grand duchy's archival legacy.

"Since then, primary research has been greatly facilitated, and scholars of many nationalities toil to make up the backlog of two centuries. Enormous gaps and problems remain, yet it is a great consolation to know that all was not lost. Even for the amateur historian with no special expertise, it is extraordinary exciting to open one of the inventories, and to gaze on the raw material of the grand duchy's history with one's own eyes.

"In the fields of art, architecture and social history, another single-handed labour of love was undertaken by an archivist and librarian who passed the second half of his life in Silesia. In the 1930s the late Roman Aftanazy had been a keen cyclist and photographer, touring the eastern borders of Poland's Second Republic with camera and notebook, and starting a collection of annotated pictures of castles and country houses. After the war, when many of the the historic buildings had been destroyed, he realized that his collection, though incomplete, was unique. And he spent the next forty years compiling a detailed photographic and descriptive record of every single landed estate in Lithuania, Byelorussia and Ukraine. He contacted all the surviving former owners or their neighbours, persuading them to submit every available photograph, plan, inventory or family history. His daring operation in Communist times was completely illegal, but its results were sensational. In 1986 he published the first volumes (out of a total of twenty two) of a work which lists and describes in detail more than 1,500 residences. Part I, which consists of four volumes, deals with the former grand duchy, and is organized by the palatinates that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are 148 substantial entries, from Abele to Zyrmuny, for the Palatinate of Vilnia alone. This is no mere catalogue. It is a comprehensive compendium, giving full accounts of almost every landed family and their estates, together with their homes, their galleries, their gardens, their furniture, their genealogies, their legends and their fortunes. It is an intellectual rescue operation of a lost world on a grand scale.

"Even diligently reconstructed records and material remains, however, do not tell the whole story. Some people, by religious analogy, might believe that the grand duchy had a soul or spirit as well as a mortal body. For the grand duchy continues to generate all manner of intangibles - myths, legends, stories and literary echoes - that many observers notice, and some try to analyze."

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Into the Labyrinth

I know I should be writing about archives but here is a cautionary tale for those of you who find yourself unemployed.

I've just received a letter from the Department for Work & Pensions (DfWP) about an appeal I made three months (that's THREE months) ago against a decision that I could not receive Jobseeker's Allowance (JA). I became unemployed in October 2009 so I applied for National Insurance (NI) contributions-based JA (not income-based because I wasn't eligible as my partner earnt too much for the purposes of the claim - got that?) I thought that as I had been in full-time work since 1985 I had made enough NI contributions in that period to be eligible.

I was therefore surprised when I was told that I didn't qualify because I hadn't built up enough Class 1 NI contributions. When you apply for JA only the two previous complete tax years are used to assess your claim and during part of that period I had been self-employed, which meant that I only paid Class 2 NI contributions in that time (got that, come on, keep up at the back). Just to rub it in I was told that I still had to sign on every two weeks otherwise I would lose the 'credits' that the unemployed receive towards Class 1 contributions. In effect I would have been better off in that two year period by being unemployed. If I had I would have received the Class 1 credits but instead I tried to make a go of being self-employed and not living off the state. Bloody idiot.

I signed off in April 2010 because I did a couple of weeks work but then had to sign on again when this work ended. By this time it was a new tax year so I thought that my new claim would be allowed. Bloody idiot. The problem this time was that DfWP did not have up to date information from Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) on my tax status so the outcome was the same. Grrrr. Basically it was a case of one government department not receiving information from another because of a backlog, so through no fault of my own I was still considered as ineligible. I found out that it could take months to get this information so I appealed and asked DfWP to 'raise a file' to get the information from HMRC. If I hadn't been a bolshy reasonably educated middle class type and stuck up for myself nothing would have happened.

So, the lessons learnt are:
Don't become self-employed if you can help it - go on the dole and add to the burden of looking after the unemployed;
If you become self-employed try and pay Class 1 NI contributions if you can afford it, don't just opt for the Class 2 contributions.

It's no wonder that the people you see at the Job Centre look crushed by a creaking system that seems to run on endless duplicated paperwork to get anything done or to get information from other departments. And the people coming in to sign on look even worse.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Modern architecture = bucketful of rain

Modern architecture can be wonderful to look at, breath-taking, awe inspiring, beautiful and so on. But does it actually work? I ask because the fairly new shopping centre where I live seems to have the latest design add on which has been copied from similar buildings. Yes, I mean the buckets and accompanying hazard signs that add a dash of colour to brighten up our shopping experience when it rains.

At first I thought they were part of the street furniture provided for users, allowing shoppers to throw rubbish or loose change into conveniently placed buckets when they sat down for a few minutes. But then I noticed that they only appeared when it rained.

Do the designers or architects say to their clients when presenting their drawings and models: "this is where the buckets go"? Why do these buildings leak - is it because the design of the work is more important than the actual function? Or do the designers never consider real life outside the confines of their oh so funky creative office spaces where their dreams are turned into reality? I bet their own offices don't leak.

They might be a bit more careful if by law they have to live or work for a certain amount of time in any new building they design. Or we could just visit their offices and tip the buckets of water over their floors (or heads). The latter option might be more cathartic, so let's go for that.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

I'll give you bloody doof doof

Am I the only one who is annoyed by the BBC trailers (adverts) for EastEnders? The ones where real people (who are obviously actors) talk about their favourite moments that produce dramatic endings just before the credits and music - which starts with a drum (the doof doofs).

The voice over then says 'we want your doof doofs'. The only doof doof I want to see or hear is a fist hitting the creators of this garbage in the face. Also the people who thought it was a good idea to make and broadcast the ads.

Were the same people responsible for the BBC scary face trailer for digital television which had a large head made up of smaller faces zooming about over a landscape in a really creepy way? I think that got pulled after complaints (or the campaign finished early according to the BBC - yeah, right).

The another annoying ad on TV at the moment is for the Seat Ibiza car, where a tattoed hairy Cupid fires arrows at unfortunate passers-by. What 'creatives' thought that one up? Cupid and his arrows of love are meant to be light and humorous, not part of the latest shoot 'em up and apocalypse war games for dysfunctional men. The creators probably say that it's meant to be funny but my response would be to suggest that I tie them up against a tree and start firing bolts from a crossbow at them - just for a laugh.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Food miles

The other half and I stayed with friends near Faversham in Kent recently. The county definitely lived up to its reputation as the garden of England as during a walk in the surrounding countryside we picked blackberries and juniper berries, collected twigs and leaves for winter decorations, and had fine views of the Swale and the Isle of Sheppey.

We picked enough to fill several bags and our hosts had enough to make several jars of jam. We also ate crumble made with apples from a tree in the garden. During my walk to the railway station in the morning on the way to work I have seen blackberry bushes collapsing under the weight of fruit but haven't picked any because I can't store them.

It's ironic that we have this food on our doorstep going to waste yet we eat food which has been shipped across the world. And how much food do we throw away after we've got our beans grown in Kenya on our plate? The current economic climate might persuade more people to get or even pick produce closer to home so that the food miles are reduced to food inches.

We brought some of the juniper berries home and they are now sitting in a jar fermenting with sugar and liquids to create a warming drink which should be ready for Christmas. If I remember I'll let you know what it tastes like.

We are all publishers now

When even people like me can 'publish' stuff and have a platform to sound off from, what does that say about the modern world? Mad, democratic, a bad thing?

It was only 25 years ago that I was clattering out my dissertation (about Mervyn Peake, since you ask) on a battered portable typewriter which was given to me by my parents as a present before I went to university. If I made a mistake I had to get the Tipp-Ex out, or start again.

I first encountered typewriters and the now strange looking mechanisms that made them work when I started at my local newspaper the East Kent Gazette. Because I never bothered to learn to touch type, my typing style is still described as heavy handed - or should that be heavy fingered? I tend to only use one finger on my left hand and two or three on my right. This didn't help because my typing style often meant hitting two keys at once and jamming the typebars together; or the ribbon malfunctioned. I remember attending one of the journalist training courses and the first task one day was to change the ribbon on the typewriter. Most of us struggled because although we had been working on our respective newspapers for a few months, none of us had actually needed to change a ribbon before.

Another memory from my journalist days, apart from typing out endless Womens Institute or school sports day reports, was standing on a picket line very early one winter morning still wearing my pyjamas underneath my clothes a) because it was bloody cold, and b) I had only just got out of bed. Happy days.

So now I'm sat here in the warm in front of my computer using software to produce text and the East Kent Gazette no longer has an office in the region it covers, the people working on it sit in a room in the Medway towns (unless they work from home or elsewhere). If you actually want to talk in person to a journalist from the paper, you go along to a pub or a supermarket cafe, where they will be at pre-arranged times for you to chat to.

If you want something to read on the train you can pick up a free newspaper at the railway station and many local newspapers are given away free because the revenue comes from advertising, not the cover price. So what happens when 'traditional' advertising platforms such as newspapers and televisions get squeezed out by what is still called new media?

We are all publishers now.