Monday, 30 November 2015

The Ship of Who?

As regular readers will know, my partner is an academic, and recently took up a new post in Bristol University.  As we are still mainly based in Southampton, this has meant the purchase of a flat, and a life divided between two cities.

This is not unwelcome: Bristol is where we (mis)spent the last years of our carefree extended youth, before somehow managing a late transition into parents and citizens.  During those years, 1977-83, I worked in the university library in a fairly humble capacity, mainly cataloguing Russian and German books.  But I liked it enough to take a professional qualification, and ended up spending the rest of my working life in academic libraries.  I know, but these things happen.  Besides, the 1980s and 90s were a good time, professionally: we were pioneering the use of computers in "information science", and a little aptitude could take you a long way.  I became one of that first generation of librarians who were also self-taught programmers and system designers and implementers.  I experienced that lucky thing: a working life of important fun with a decent salary and an index-linked pension attached.

So it seemed a natural and obvious thing to ask for an external reader's ticket at the Bristol University Library, if only as an excuse to drop by and say "hello".  I checked the staff list, to see who might still be working there that would remember me.  Well, actually, no-one, it seemed; there was not a single name that I recognised.  Obviously, I knew that many of my main professional contacts there had retired or died, even, but that there would be no-one at all still working there after -- what? -- 30 years came as a surprise.  You can't throw a book in Southampton University Library without hitting someone who has been working there longer than me.  I know, I've done it often enough.

But there was a bigger surprise to come.  Having no reason now to drop by, I applied for a ticket online, ticking the box for "ex-member of staff".  A day or so later, I received an email thanking me for my application for an external reader's ticket, but saying there seemed to be no record of my ever having worked at Bristol.  Did I have any documentary proof?

I resisted the "don't you know who I am?" response, as the answer was clearly "no"; I was, after all, never that prominent in the profession, and 1983 is a long time ago.  But I was very puzzled and -- really as a joke -- replied, well, in that case I wonder if there's any record of Jane S., who was a junior dogsbody at Bristol at the same time as me and who, after a much more eminent career, ended up as our chief at Southampton?  Nope, nobody by that that name on our database.

I was really quite taken aback by this, and it kicked off two trains of thought.

First, I think most of us assume that we have left some kind of documentary trace behind us as we pass through various institutions, whether it be schools, jobs, the NHS, unemployment, prison, whatever.  We're so paranoid about being watched by "them" that we imagine fat files of data filling up, as "they"  track and collate our every move.  I know several people who are sufficiently bothered by this that they have used multiple identities and deliberate techniques of evasion to break the imagined paper trail.  However, it seems this may have been a waste of imagination, after all, and in fact my guess is that, ironically, digitisation has probably been their friend here.  Simply, the task of scanning and indexing millions of old records is so daunting and so expensive that it just doesn't get done.  As a consequence, these paper records disappear, either effectively -- "You mean I've got to leave my desk to look it up? Forget about it!" --  or actually, dumped under cover of darkness into recycling skips (um, don't ask how I know about this).  Those born into a "digital native" world, of course, may have a different experience awaiting them.  That selfie at that crazy party you posted on FaceBook forty years ago?  Yep, still there...

Second, it revealed the more eternal truth that all institutions rapidly outlive and forget the people who made them what they are.  Senior management make pious claims such as "our main asset is our staff", but staff are always replaceable and disposable; they're not called a "human resource" for nothing.  Sure, there may be a "roll of honour" of ex-bosses somewhere, and their careers may have been celebrated by a festschrift, a portrait, or even a marble bust, but -- as anyone who has ever worked anywhere for any length of time knows -- those people come and go like the weather; the true character of a workplace is built by the mailroom guys, the secretaries, and all the junior staff who do the actual work, the ones who have jobs and not careers, and who start to be forgotten as soon as they walk out the door for the last time with their personal coffee mug and an oversized farewell card.

I suppose it's a corporate version of "the ship of Theseus": the abstract institution sails grandly on, but every human timber, rope, and nail has been replaced several times over.  Or, increasingly, dispensed with, as some new broom or bean-counter decides the ship was over-engineered in the first place.  Let's hope they are right in that asessment, as it seems the original paper plans and manifests have gone overboard, too.


Martin Hodges said...

Do I know you?

Mike C. said...

Apparently not... One whose staff records were writ in water...

Andrew Sharp said...

You could always try looking up the final scenes of David Attenborough's Life on Earth (or The Ascent of the Librarian as some of us came to call it). You might be in there somewhere.

I distinctly remember seeing you about the place and it is where you said you went off to work every morning but I've only got your word for that. So, even if you were captured on film, and it would have been film, it still wouldn't be proof that you were actually employed.

Mike C. said...


I have been rescued from all this existential teasing by someone in the HR department at Bristol who actually got off their arse and looked at the paper records... I exist!!

Though I am increasingly intrigued by the possibility of making one's life up... Just been reading a review in the TLS of a book called "I Love Dick" (no, really) which is apparently a founding text in a genre called "autofiction" i.e. making one's life up. It's a thought -- maybe I've had more fun and excitement than I realise!