OK – not a grammatical start to a blog post, but it alliterates nicely. We go back a long way . . .

I do a great deal of professional archive research and have made use of an awful lot of university and other academic libraries, archives, record offices and local studies libraries the length and breadth of the land from the National Archives at Kew to tiny offices in Berwick-on-Tweed, from the British Library Newspaper Division at Colindale to the Royal Cornwall Institution, and everywhere in between. At nearly all of these places I sit down and squint at microfilm . . .

As I say, I have a long and unhappy history with microfilm readers. Once, attempting to pull off a recalcitrant reel of film that was jammed fast on the spool spike, I managed to pull off the entire reader undercarriage onto my lap instead, my colleague helpless with laughter while extremely serious researchers tutted and frowned over their specs as we disrupted their note-taking.

At the same revered institution, which shall remain nameless since I still visit it occasionally with much improved deaf-friendly policies, many years ago the toilets used to be downstairs, just before the exit doors, which were bristling with security. On my first visit I popped to the loo and came out again to find a big, burly security officer tapping his feet outside. He growled at me: “I was calling you but you ignored me, are you deaf or something?”


His jaw dropped and I could almost see his toes curling in his big black boots as realisation dawned and my toes still curl to this day as I remember his grovelling apology. I don’t really *do* grovelling apologies, as I tend to consider that engaging brain before opening mouth is far preferable. He explained that there was a rule that you had to show your bag to the security guard before you went down to the loo even though you weren’t leaving the building and there was no possibility of leaving the building via the basement or before passing other security guards once you were back up. I don’t know what they thought you might do – flush some valuable document down the loo, maybe? I mean, have your bag checked when you leave, fair enough – that’s a pretty standard request, and very reasonable. On this occasion, however, I asked the guard in question to show me where the poster displaying the rule was, which was, of course, non-existent, and enquired whether they expected me to have acquired knowledge of said rules by osmosis . . . If it’s THAT important, display a notice.

Oh, and the little old dears made sour by years of requests for the same thing over and over again, who couldn’t quite grasp the fact that if I put in an order for something there wasn’t a lot of point bellowing out my name to come and collect it. I’d look up from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, wondering about the delay in the arrival of the next volume, to see that I’d somehow created a domestic and everyone would be looking around wondering why this mysterious Miss X wasn’t collecting her next volume and I’d slink to the desk with all these elderly male researchers shaking their heads at the younger generation, and conduct a tetchy exchange in whispers at the desk in order to claim my tome. All this illustrates the added benefits of digitising material – it makes it accessible, you know, in more than one sense! It doesn’t just save the train fare, it saves a whole lot of angst!

And I have to tell you this. This is priceless. At another institution, which has since relocated, you were supposed to clear security at the entrance with your reader’s pass before going upstairs to the main reading room. Now one day I’d pre-ordered material to be delivered at the desk and had no reason to talk to the upstairs reception, but I was not to know that after lunch they’d decided to do a spot check of passes. I returned to the deepest, darkest recesses of the microfilm reader rooms and started to be aware that a man was following me. Not really wishing to work in an isolated room with a creepy man who seemed to be invading my body space, I turned round and asked what he wanted. He demanded to see my pass, I demanded to know why he was following me so closely. He said he’d called out to ask for my pass at the desk and didn’t like my lack of response. Sprinkling sarcasm lightly over his head, I asked him to review the evidence and see that it pointed to a different conclusion: that I was deaf. Suffice it to say that I objected most strongly in writing to my disability being treated as suspicious.

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanThen there were the bomb alerts and fire alarms from which I had to be rescued by staff because I was inevitably in the loo when they occurred, and you can see why I always informed staff before I arrived that I was deaf to make special arrangements for document delivery, or to ensure I received a visual alert of some kind before being incinerated together with irreplaceable archives. Long before mobile phones, I used to work with ancient manuscripts, occasionally being locked in a room together with whatever 9th century illuminated manuscript I was poring over, cut off from the outside world, with the staff saying they would pop in at 4pm or whatever to let me out. It really used to worry me that I would get forgotten, especially in the event of an alarm, especially after one incident in which I was locked in until closing time when someone remembered me before leaving the building. Otherwise I might have been discovered, a stiff, frozen corpse, the next morning – because, of course, it was temperature-controlled and what was excellent for ancient vellum wasn’t quite so excellent for living, breathing, human beings. One reason why I didn’t pursue a career perusing such manuscripts, tempting though the prospect otherwise was.

So my visit to a military archive yesterday, in a different world post-CI, was pretty special. No need to warn the staff beforehand about me being deaf. No worries about communicating with them. No panic that if something went off I’d be forgotten about. No angst at communicating with a receptionist hidden behind a high desk. No fear that in a high-security environment that chaos not of my making would envelop me unawares. No tension about discussing material with someone I’d never met before, wondering if they’d have a walrus moustache, thin lips and an impenetrable accent. No stress, no fuss, no bother.

One thing hadn’t changed though. I did battle with the microfilm reader as usual and managed to pull off the spool spike as I went along without noticing what I’d done, until I tried stuffing the reel back into the box, thereby reducing the Man from the Ministry to giggles. (I managed to put it back.) But best of all was sitting at the microfilm reader with my back to him as he reeled off yet another name and date for me to look up, and for me to act on it correctly. That’s worth a whole lot of battles with microfilm readers. (And the staff there were utterly fabulous.)