Sunday, 16 December 2012

My first week. Or: How I learned to stop worrying and found the bathroom.

The first week of a new job is strange. You spend your time performing actions and doing things that will eventually be quotidian and dull; that will eventually fade into the background tedium of life and pass unnoticed as you go about your daily routines. But because it’s the first time, they have the sheen of the new and the exciting glamour of the unexperienced. Getting a London Underground train to work, entering the library’s staff entrance, getting some lunch from the staff restaurant, checking my emails at my desk, finding the bathroom (1), getting the Tube home. Soon all of these things will pick up the patina of the overly familiar but for now, for at least one week, everything feels different. Everything is different to Durham, to what I’m used to, to my life. Amidst all this difference and without the stabilising effect of routine, who am I? 

At 1030 on Monday 10th December 2012, I stood in the staff lobby of the British Library’s St. Pancras site idly chatting to a couple of other new starters and clutching an ominous-looking envelope emblazoned with the words ‘WARNING – DO NOT OPEN’ like the envelope that a spy would receive containing details of his/her mission or that an assassin would carry containing the name of his/her target. The lobby was unfamiliar: though I’d been in it before during the interview process, it still struck me as very different to my previous libraries. More than anything else, it reminds me of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: from the excess of marble to the bank of four elevators from which people emerge and into which they disappear; from the electronic and futuristic clock-in, clock-out terminals that smack of mechanized bureaucracy to the bizarrely incongruous and Gilliamian statue of Mr. Punch which stands in front of the elevators like a creepy, diminutive sentinel. Amidst all this ‘newness’ – this ‘difference’ – my nervous energy was keeping me on my feet. 

(Not) the British Library's lobby.

Eventually two of us were chosen from the assembled throng to ascend to the 6th Floor. The 6th is the top floor of the building: inaccessible from the public elevators; inaccessible by stairs (2); highly secure due to the delicacy and rarity of the manuscripts and archives being digitised. The Qatar Digitisation Project currently occupies a custom-built office space designed for 42 people. There are 12 staff currently on the project (2 of whom spend most of their time in the conservation lab and digitisation studio respectively). We are spread throughout the room creating an eerie emptiness that somehow makes one feel closer to one’s scattered colleagues. In the quiet of the practically-empty office, someone singing softly to music can be heard on the other side of the room. 

Everything about my first day enforces the notion that this is something different for me. The scale of the British Library is different to any library organisation I’ve worked in. Among a flurry of facts and figures that my manager presents, I hear that the British Library employs approximately 2000 people. On the ‘new starter’ area of the website, Roly Keating, the Chief Executive, describes the British Library as “one of the greatest libraries in the world… operating at the cutting edge of the information revolution… [A] world leading provider of global knowledge in the digital age… look[ing] for the best and the brightest people…” I’ve heard it referred to as ‘the heart of British librarianship’, ‘the Mothership’, ‘the Death Star’ (3). Frankly it’s all a little overwhelming. 

And as my induction continued and I got a broader overview of the project, I was struck by the realisation that this is a different kind of work. As a manager talked through the project and what we’re trying to achieve over the next two years, the ramifications of the word ‘project’ hit me: we are trying to achieve something; there is a definite goal in place. In every other library job, I’ve been continuing an ongoing service: keeping an Army library open; providing continued access to e-resources for Durham University students. In this new job, there is a defined goal and one endpoint with specific deliverables which must be ready by that time. 

It reminds me of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (4). As a spotty teen, in lieu of partying and kissing girls and whatnot, I watched every documentary on each The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVD box-set. I watched that team of amazing film-makers come together and work for years towards a set goal. They found the best people and brought them together to use their skills in an atmosphere crackling with intelligence and creativity. I imagined how close the people on that team would be after struggling for years to create those films. Working together; socialising together; sharing ideas together; having fun together. I wanted to be part of a team like that. I wanted to create something as important as those films (5). 

As I met the project team last week, I was struck by how different we are. It’s like a stereotypical ‘crack team’ of people from different backgrounds. There are archival experts, cataloguing experts, tech experts, Arabic experts, medieval Arabic experts, project managers. And me. Why, I wondered, have I been brought onto this team? What niche do I fill? 

Another team of experts from varying backgrounds. I feel like the character at bottom-left.

On Tuesday 11th December, after my second day at work, I attended a lecture at the British Academy entitled ‘‘All the World’s Knowledge’: Universal Authors’ Rights’ delivered by Professor Jane Ginsburg of the Columbia University School of Law. The first section (6) was on ‘the dream of universal knowledge’ and digital libraries. Professor Ginsburg spoke about the history of the dream from the librarians of Alexandria to Paul Otlet to Vannevar Bush to Google. And I realised I knew all that: I’ve researched those figures and read around the subject; I wrote about digital libraries for my postgraduate dissertation; I’ve written articles about digital libraries. 

Our self-identity – how we define ourselves in our own eyes – can change so slowly, so glacially, that it seems not to change at all. To ourselves, we appear to be the same person from one day to the next. And sometimes it takes a complete change – doing completely different things in a different environment – for us to realise that we’ve gradually and imperceptibly become someone else. Amidst all the confusion and stress and socialising and networking of the past few months, I forgot that I know about digital libraries. Creating a digital library from scratch will be a challenge – even in a team as good as this one – and I’m scared… but maybe we can create something great. 

Everything is different now. But everything suddenly being different can remind you of who you are. 

(1) This was a job for the third day. My staff pass initially wouldn’t allow me access to the highly secure 6th Floor where my desk is so I was afraid to leave the work area to go find the bathroom in case I couldn’t get back in and I’d have to knock forlornly on the door while someone on the other side of the glass tried to remember who I was having only met me once and I’d self-combust in embarrassment and involuntary blushing and the incident would somehow end up in the library’s newsletter. 

(2) Ominously so. We can get down in case of an emergency (2a) but if we feel like exercising of a morning we have to ascend to the 5th Floor and then take the elevator the rest of the way. 

(2a) Likely scenarios were thoroughly and terrifyingly covered in the online induction training. 

(3) The canteen – a sprawling, high school-like canteen based on cashless payment cards and offering amazingly cheap subsidised meals – particularly reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Death Star canteen bit’. For some reason. 

(4) Why I’m thinking of The Lord of the Rings at this specific point in time is a mystery…

(5) While not that important in the Grand Scheme of Things, those films were important to me then. 

(6) Of three. Without going into too much detail, Professor Ginsburg’s thesis was that the dream of universal knowledge (or at least our current attempt to actualise that dream vis-à-vis large-scale digital libraries such as Google Books (6a) or the Digital Public Library of America) fundamentally conflicts with the dream of universal authors’ rights (ie. the right of every author to be recognised and compensated accordingly for his/her work). Although we desperately need updated copyright and intellectual property law to reflect the abundance of digital commodities, such laws should not be rushed through or ill-judged. For librarians, she also offered a cautionary note about libraries cosying up with commercial partners including Google and Amazon: when libraries do so, isn’t something lost? 

(6a) Also I cannot tell you how excited I was to meet, on my second day at work, someone at the British Library who works directly on the Google Books Digitisation Project: the Project I have studied extensively; the Project I enthused about in my postgraduate dissertation; the Project that aspires to the Total Library.