Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Build to last, not to suit

First thing I have to admit: I own both Archival and Special Collections Facilities and Planning New and Remodeled Archival Facilities* (what would the profession do without Thomas Wilsted?) but haven't read either of them all the way through. Both, I've read the majority of, just not all.

*not sure those links are going to work. SAA demands you log into the website before perusing the bookstore. I'm sure there's a good reason for that, but it continues to escape me. And annoy me--like I need to remember yet another log in and password...

I've been discussing various facilities issues with a lot of people lately. We have some problems, some of which are basically insurmountable, some of which might be treatable.

But one of the fun parts, and it leads to the conclusion that I'm about to tell you, is the near-constant refrain of "but why didn't this get caught in the planning process?" There's always a little implied blame in that statement which isn't fair. Because, of course, lots did get caught in the planning process. I shocked one of my colleagues into an almost explosive and deafening belly laugh earlier this week when I told him about one of the victories my predecessor won in the planning process. See, the outside wall of the library is curvy. Pretty, but curvy.  And what I'm told the original intent was that our archival stacks wall nearest all this beautiful glass was originally intended to mimic the shape of that glass wall. That is, curvy. Yeah, because we all know that's an excellent shape for storage of rectangular boxes and long lines of shelving. So that we ended up with non-curvilinear stacks walls? Pretty much a win for efficiency on my predecessor's part. So basically, lighten up on the blame a little. 

But here's what I think. The curvy wall thing doesn't really forward my thesis, since that's more or less immediately obvious, but I think that some facilities issues you can only know because you've been a place that did them wrong. And as much as some of those things annoy us, there's tons more that we'll probably get wrong in future in other building projects, because this place didn't do them wrong, so we don't know enough to learn from past mistakes. And a lot of them, you can only learn after you've been in a space a while and have stretched it to capacity, thereby learning about that capacity.

So for your facilities edification, here's a beginning list of guidelines for facilities based on that most expensive of teaching aids: experience. From a variety of institutions in which I've worked or stories I've heard about others. Please feel free to add! You can either email your suggestions to me, or just put them down in the comments section. 

  • Outlets for any equipment that might output heat should not be placed directly under thermostats. In fact, just skip outlets under thermostats at all.
  • Excepting the above, put in far more outlets than you think you need, even in rooms that are intended to hold only storage items.
  • If certain doors are intended to be kept open: the heating/cooling systems on either side should work together.
  • Don't place security cameras directly above shelving units: they tend not to pick anything up but the tops of the stacks. 
  • When the magic words "temperature and humidity control" are used, be sure that the people using those terms understand that they should make no assumptions about "it's a dry climate" or "it's only a problem in the shoulder season" or so forth. Temp & humidity control should mean ability to add AND subtract both. At all times.
  • Your 10-year growth plan is probably insufficient. Consider building for 25 years and just lying and saying it's 10. Because you never know what enormous collection is going to walk in the door next and your original 10 year plan is probably realistically only 5. Plus all of us know the likelihood of getting a new building every 10 years anyhow.
  • If you have PA systems, small, enclosed rooms with lowered ceilings do not need the same population density of speakers as the large open spaces.
  • It's hard to have an open door policy when an office door is built to close automatically.
  • If you're in a public facility, have at least one enclosed, non-monitored, and windowless space. Good for quick wardrobe repairs and more importantly, for the ease of lactating mothers. 
  • Install the compact shelving in the first place. Aside from the delayed expense that is almost never planned into later budgets, replacing your shelving with compact shelving when you're already at 90%+ capacity is a giant pain for all concerned.
  • Secondary doors that need a latch to open them? That latch shouldn't be placed at the top (i.e. so only the 6'+ guys can reach them easily.)
  • Put windows in all public doors so people opening them don't run them into people standing on the opposite side. 
  • Put auto-open buttons on your reading room doors for handicap access.
  • The view to passers-by through any open public restroom door should not include any bathroom furniture or equipment.
  • Double up on the security cams in your reading room--you never know what the final furniture conformation will be (if there is, indeed, ever a final.)
  • Build in alternate exit routes.
  • Avoid strobe lights on alarms. They're migraine and seizure triggers for a lot of people.
  • Sit in a chair for at least 6 hours before purchasing that model for use at your researcher tables.
Okay, so that's a start. I'm sure I've forgotten a few that I know. Do you have any? Let's hear them.


  1. I always thought there should be something better than a strobe light for an alarm. I realize they have to do something visual, in case the only person in a given room is hearing-impaired, but there must be *something* less violent.

  2. I always have a nasty headache by the time I get out of the building. 3 floors in stairwells with bright fluorescent lighting and those awful strobes that are impossible to block from your vision. I'm with you: there MUST be a better way!