Sex, flies and smoking terminals : a look back through our archives

Sex, flies and smoking terminals

We’ve been clearing out the office of our recently retired Bibliographical Services Librarian, and have uncovered a cache of documents in that transitional stage between ‘clutter’ (nasty stuff, to be thrown out) and archival material (invaluable stuff, to be, in due course, catalogued, conserved and made accessible).

Many of them are memoranda.  These are probably only familiar to younger readers from period dramas set in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies.  You may, for instance, have seen a Boss instructing a Secretary ‘Take a Memo, Miss Peabody” and wondered what was meant.  In the days before e-mail, they were a means of communication between different sections and levels of an organisation : inevitably a “top down” form of communication (‘memorandum’ is the Latin for ‘must be remembered’) they did not generally invite or expect a response.  They did, however, have the advantage that the Boss had to read their thoughts aloud to another human being before sending it, which may have helped to avoid some of the worst excesses of the e-mail genre.

Some of these memoranda provide valuable evidence of how earlier generations responded to Change in the Workplace.   For instance, we often think of ‘information overload’ as being a modern phenomena (typically managers complaining of having more e-mails than they can cope with) but this memorandum from 1968 indicates that the problem goes back as far as the invention of the telephone.

“It has come to my notice that two members of the staff have recently telephoned the Principal Lending Librarian with a view to making appointments to see him.  He is extremely annoyed by these incidents.  Apart from the irritation they cause – he may be in the middle of important discussions at the time – such calls are not the correct way to secure an interview.  They must be arranged through the proper channels. 

Any member of the staff with reasonable cause for requiring an interview with Mr [Redacted] will in future make application in the first place to me.  Permission will never be refused. although it must be realised that the Principal Lending Librarian is a busy man with many calls upon his time, and any interview granted will take place when convenient to him.”

(Perhaps because they never ‘ad the Latin, the staff clearly failed to remember this, because the memo had to be recirculated in 1971.)

But it was not only new technology in the obvious sense that caused problems.  Even the advent of the humble paper handkerchief proved challenging, as this memo from 1971 suggests:

DISPOSABLE PAPER HANDKERCHIEFS

It has come to my notice that some members of the staff have been using the metal waste-paper bins to dispose of used paper handkerchiefs.  This unpleasant and insanitary practice must cease.

Apart from the fact that the bins were never intended for this purpose, it should be obvious that to fill them with such germ-laden matter exposes the rest of the staff to an unnecessary additional health hazard.  In a centrally heated building, especially, they would become fertile breeding-grounds for bacteria, as well as flies and other vermin.  Moreover the porters, whose task it is to empty them, are being unfairly exposed to a much higher risk, since they are obliged to handle the contents of each bin, as they are sacked each morning. [The handkerchiefs, presumably, not the porters – Ed.]

I am arranging for each waste-paper bin to be thoroughly disinfected, and shall be glad if the staff concerned will, in future dispose of their used handkerchiefs either in the toilets, or, preferably, in the incinerator expressly provided for such purposes.

Of course, it was not only changing technology that offered a challenge to the managers of days gone by – changing social attitudes, too, could be hard to come to terms with.  The 1960s saw the arrival of the Permissive Society, as hippies preaching Free Love and Women’s Liberationists demanding equality thronged Carnaby Street  … (no, actually, hang on a minute, this memo dates from 1984):

“Further to my memo of 6 December,  I have now been able to discuss Sheila Kitzinger’s Woman’s Experience of Sex with the Director and he has consulted with a doctor who is personally known to him.  This has served to confirm our impression that it is an exceptionally well written work and one that we need not be ashamed to have on the shelves in our lending libraries.  It may, therefore, be added to stock forthwith.”

(What the Director’s doctor friend would have made of the 25 copies of ‘Different Shades of Grey’ that we currently have in stock is hard to say, though it seems unlikely that he would have thought it was ‘exceptionally well written’.)

And then there was New Technology proper.  What is often forgotten today in the age of hand-held devices and cloud computing is the degree of physical danger than the pioneers of library automation had to endure.  Rather like early aviators or the operators of mediaeval artillery, they were constantly at risk of injury from their own machinery.  This memo is from 1994:

 

“SMOKING TERMINALS

If a terminal starts to smoke please switch off immediately (if possible) and contact Gary or the ASM.  Do not use a fire extinguisher on the terminal as this will destroy the terminal and invalidate our repair warranty.

I have spoken to the Vanitec engineer who repairs our terminals and he has informed me that even if the terminal isn’t switched off the faulty part will burn itself out and will not burst into flames.”

Luckily, of course, the modern librarian can rest secure in the knowledge that all forms of electronic communication spontaneously self-destruct after five years.  Otherwise – who knows? – our e-mails, tweets and blog posts might someday be retrieved from some dark hard drive or cache to make us look as strange in the eyes of our successors as our predecessors sometimes seem to us …

Contributed by: Nick

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