Glimpse of a Huge Library Offsite Facility

Ever wondered where the really big libraries store their collections? The answer is, increasingly, somewhere else.

Offsite storage sounds cumbersome—after all, you’d have to build, buy, or rent the building, possibly convert the structure, and bring in shelving or other storage containers before you can even think about moving the physical items themselves—but it might actually be the most practical solution, especially in case of old institutions built in high-density urban areas. Also, apart from library science, collections care, digitizing, and preservation, setting up a remote storage facility requires knowledge of logistics and warehousing.

Here’s a chance to peek into the Bodleian Book Storage Facility near Swindon, UK. The BSF holds over 12 million items (books, maps, manuscripts, microfilms, periodicals and newspapers) in a warehouse constructed specifically for the library, and at this writing has been in operation for ten years.

Bodleian describes the facility capacity on their website for completed projects thus:

“The Book Storage Facility consists of an eleven-metre tall solid shelving system comprising 31 Very Narrow Aisles (VNA), with seven different bay type configurations to accommodate the different sizes of books and other materials. It also has a capacity equivalent to 153 miles (230 kilometres) of shelf space and a five level multi-tier structure for map storage. To guarantee the books’ preservation for the long-term, volumes are stored in 745,000 bar-coded and specially designed storage trays and boxes that are of archival standard. Floor area of the warehouse equates to 1.6 football pitches, although the high-density shelving provides shelf surface area equivalent to 16.5 football pitches.”

 

Bodleian BSF Shelving

Below is an excerpt from the post written by Daniel Haynes (haynesd) for the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog:

“The BSF is huge. Its shelves are 11 metres high and over 70 metres long. Before the automatic lights kick in, the narrow aisles seem to converge into darkness. We wore high-visibility jackets to alert staff driving the book-retrieval vehicles to our presence. A cross between a cherry-picker and a forklift, these vehicles are configured to fit exactly between the shelves, allowing staff to retrieve an impressive average of one book per minute.”

Haynes also lists some of the challenges involved:

“Low-use books kept in storage might suddenly become grow in demand and require relocation ‘on-site’, or vice-versa;

Renovation or building work might require temporary storage (in fact, the BSF currently holds several thousand volumes from Cambridge), so could your facility accommodate for that?

Existing space can always be reconfigured to meet new challenges and needs;

Since an off-site facility means books always moving around, could it also offer research facilities? Some libraries are considering specialised reading rooms to avoid transit for fragile or valuable material.”

As I’ve has to wait for a book to arrive from offsite storage to a library for me, I appreciated this glimpse into the backend operations of large library warehouses.

Image via Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

The Strange Poetry of an Index

One of the tricks of the trade in academia is: when you pick up a new book, look at the index first. Seeing what terms appear there and which ones have large numbers of references tells you a lot about what the book is about.

I’ve been working on the index to my latest book, a collection of primary sources on the Greco-Persian Wars. Most of the entries are proper names for people, places, and institutions, and their specificity tells you pretty clearly the topic of the book. If you take those out, though, the terms that are left have a strange kind of poetry about them. You could let your imagination wander and dream up some very different books that had these terms in their indices. For your enjoyment:

animals, archers

beer, bees, bread, brick, bridges, bulls

canals, cannibalism, carnelian, cattle, cavalry, chariots, childbirth, clothing, colonies, crown, cuneiform

democracy, diplomacy, disease, dreams

earth and water, earthquakes, esparto, exiles

forgery, fowl, frankincense, frontiers

gifts, goats, gold, grain, guest-friendship

hair, helots, heralds, heroes, hoplites, horses, hostages

incense, ivory

labor, language, lapis lazuli, laws, linen, lions

medicine, mercenaries, merchants, moon, mules, multiculturalism, mummification

oil, ointment, oligarchy, oracles

palaces, papyrus, phalanx, pomegranates, poultry, propaganda

racing, rain, religion, roads

sacrifice, satraps, satrapies, sheep, shields, ships, shipwrecks, sieges, silver, storms, stone

temples, tolerance, tombs, trade, translation, tribute, triremes, turquoise, tyrants

walls, water, wind, wine, wood

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Moving a Whole Town: Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna is a small Swedish town of about 17,000 people in the Norrbotten county and the northernmost town in Sweden. And it’s on the move to escape a literal undermining.

Kiruna Environs Small

The Kirunavaara iron ore mine (run by the state-owned LKAB) is expanding too close to the town center. Already in 2004, it was decided that a new center would be built; a site some 3 km away was since selected.

BBC Kiruna Mine and Town Map

Also, according to the 2010 decision by the municipal council, some of the westernmost areas of town—in fact, if I’ve understood it correctly, most of them—would also be razed and new areas built eastwards, so that the town gradually moves away from the mine. At least if things go according to an ambitious plan that runs up to the year 2100.

The new areas were planned to be more walkable, with better public transit, close to shops and other amenities that are hoped to attract residents. The move also involves moving the railroad and the local highway.

The map diagrams below show projections for high-density (red) and low-density (green) population areas from 2018 to 2100, and serve as an easier way to wrap one’s head around a massive moving project like this:

Ghilardi Hellsten Kiruna 4Ever Pop Density

At this writing, a new town hall (called Kristallen or The Crystal), the first building in the relocated city center, has been in use for about a year and a half. Some of the valuable heritage buildings have been disassembled and/or moved intact to a new location.

It sounds like a staggering project, doesn’t it? But it’s not like we humans haven’t dreamed up and then built on a massive scale before.

Read more at Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter AS. Also the Kiruna municipality has a page for the project (in Swedish only).

Images: Scenic view of Kiruna environs via Kiruna kommun (Kiruna municipality). Location of the mine and the town via BBC. Projection of population areas from 2018 to 2100 by White Arkitekter AB with Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter AS via Ghilardi + Hellsten.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 6: We Have Done the Best We Reasonably Could Have Expected

(Previous entries: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

And that’s the semester. The deadlines have passed, the grades are turned in, all that’s left to look forward to is celebrating our graduating seniors at a safe distance. This is not the way any of us wanted this semester to end, but I think all of us—my fellow faculty, my students, and the university administration—have done the best we reasonably could have expected.

I was prepared to be lenient in my grading this semester, but I found that (after making some basic structural adjustments to my syllabi, such as dropping some assignments and adjusting the weight of others), I did not need to. My students have continued to turn in work of exceptional quality, despite the challenges of the times. Their papers are just as strong as I could have hoped for in a normal semester, their self-reflections just as thoughtful, their questions just as insightful. I credit this result to the quality of my students and not my skills at teaching online, which are dubious at best.

Not all my students made the transition to online learning gracefully. Across all my classes, only about two thirds of students ever engaged with the discussion questions I posted online. Still, I am treating those discussions as the equivalent of our classroom conversations, and getting two thirds of a class to speak up is not bad even in person. Some of those who didn’t engage in the online discussions still showed through their written work that they had done the reading thoroughly and thoughtfully. There were a few students who just disappeared, but on the whole they were the same students who had mostly disappeared from in-person classes before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The spread of final grades came out about the same as usual: a lot of Bs, a good handful of As, a scattering of Cs and Ds, and a few Fs for those who just never turned in the required work. I know from email exchanges with a few students that some of them have been under enough stress this spring that it was all they could do to manage a passing grade, and I’ve done my best to guide them to what they need to do to get it. For the most part, though, my students have done as well as I would normally have expected of them.

This will be my last update for this spring. We’ll see what the fall holds. I hope there has been something interesting in this view into the mild chaos of teaching in a pandemic. Stay safe and well, everyone.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

What a Long Walk Does to Your Body

A lot of speculative stories involve characters going for very long walks, whether it’s carrying the One Ring to Mordor or keeping away from other tributes in the Hunger Games. If you’re feeling cooped up inside right now, you may well be imagining a new story in which your characters travel a long way through the wilderness on foot.

I’ve written before about some of the practical details of walking long distances (here), but you may also want to think about the effect a long walk has on the human body. Here is a very interesting article by Robert Moor from a few years back about how walking the Appalachian trail affected him.

The whole article is fascinating reading, but here are few noteworthy observations from Moor about the effects of strenuous walking.

  • Your body learns to recognize good and bad foods: “you begin to acutely feel the quality of the nutrition you are putting into your body.” You come to crave those that will give sustaining energy for hours of walking, while cheap highs of sugars and fats can come with a devastating crash afterward.
  • Many walkers loose weight, shedding fat and building muscle. The result is often that as walkers go on they can walk farther and farther distances.
  • The body’s adaptation to walking, though, makes it less adapted to other demanding activities. A simple swim in a lake left Moor and another hiker “blue-lipped from the water, clutching ourselves and shivering electrically.”

Enjoy your explorations. Even if you are stuck between four walls at the moment, the imagination knows no limits!

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 5: Online Teaching Leaves Me Feeling Drained

(Read previous entries part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4)

Things are starting to get routine. My teaching day goes like this: I check my email for any messages from students and respond to individual questions and problems. If someone raises a question that I think others may be wondering about, I send out a general email to the whole class or to all my students. I try not to send more emails than necessary, because I know my students are already getting a lot of information from the administration, but sometimes important things need to be said or reiterated. I’ve been surprised by how many of my students have missed or misunderstood basic instructions about how to participate in online discussion for my classes, but I don’t hold it against them. We’re all struggling right now, and I have to be aware that just because I understand something doesn’t mean that my students do. My job is to give them the information they need, and if that means repeating the same information in different words four or five times, then I will.

Next I grade and comment on any assignments that have been submitted. Then I move on to the online discussions. Wherever there are new comments, I record who participated in the discussion so that I can give credit. To do this I have a sheet of paper, on the same model as the sheet I always use for taking attendance at the start of class, with rows for all my students’ names and columns for the different discussion topics. When a student makes a comment on a given topic, I make check mark in the corresponding box on my sheet. At the end of the semester I will put this sheet together with the attendance sheets from the first part of the spring and combine them to give participation grades.

Depending on the day, this process can take anything from an hour to the whole afternoon. When I have time to spare, I work on my current book project, which is getting close to being finished. This schedule is exhausting, but in an entirely different way than a day of in-class teaching is. After a good day in the classroom, I feel energized and alive. Even at the best, this online teaching just leaves me feeling drained.

I miss the spontaneity and verve of the classroom. I miss the way a good class takes on a life and spirit of its own. I miss the dumb jokes and pointless but entertaining tangents that help bind students and professor together. I miss the performance-art craft of leading a discussion so gently from my students’ own questions and ideas to the points I wanted to make that they feel like they got there on their own. I miss the wonder of seeing my students strike off in new directions and arrive at ideas I never expected them to come up with.

This is an emergency situation, and we all understand that this is how things have to be for now. My fear at the moment is that we will not be able to return to the classroom in the fall. I know that there are some professors who are amazing at online teaching, but I am not one of them. For all of us, the end of this spring semester has been a rickety tub held together with duct tape and twine. With a summer to prepare, I’m sure I could make my online teaching better in the fall if I have to, but I cannot be at my best for my students from the other side of a screen.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 4: The Things that Matter Are Still Pretty Much the Same

(Read previous entries part 1, part 2, and part 3)

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted about teaching, and in the past two weeks things have started to become clearer. Students are starting to engage in the online discussions and submit online assignments, and I’m seeing how they respond to what I’ve asked them to do.

The results are mostly good. Students are thinking about the questions I’ve wanted them to think about, and coming up with some pretty good responses. Some of the work I’ve seen is even better than I would have expected out of a classroom—one student wrote up a paragraph about how different types of early Christian churches reflect the social dynamics of Christianity at different levels of Roman society that could have come from a scholarly book. (It didn’t, as far as I can tell.)

More typical responses rephrase the ideas I’ve already given them in my written introductions, but that’s good enough for these times. There is pedagogical value in paraphrasing. The act of putting an idea into your own words is a useful kind of thinking, and for my lower-level classes, it is as much as I feel I can ask of my students under these circumstances.

For my upper-level Roman Law class, I’ve posed a number of hypothetical cases for my students to try to interpret, and occasionally given them the chance to come up with hypotheticals of their own. The results can be amusing, but they are also good for seeing how clearly my students have thought through the logical implications of various legal principles. (On the other hand, because some students were making reference to it in their responses, I have had the misfortune of having to find out what Tiger King is all about. Thank goodness for Wikipedia, but also: yuck.)

Perhaps the biggest thing that has become clear in the last few weeks is that even though everything is online now, the things that matter are still pretty much the same. The students who were active and engaged in the classroom are active and engaged online. The ones who sat in the back scrolling on their phones through classtime are nowhere to be found online. Students who were confused in person are now confused by email, while the ones who always turned their assignments in on time still do.

The same principle can be applied to the university administration. The administrators who were helpful and responsive before the crisis are helpful and responsive now. The ones who were overpaid nonentities in person remain overpaid nonentities at a distance.

Like many crises in history, this pandemic has not so much caused new problems as it has revealed the problems that were already there but we had gotten used to not seeing.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 3: Grades Mean Nothing

(Read previous entries here and here.)

So far, it’s going okay. I have started posting introductions and discussion questions for the blocks of content that my students will be covering for the rest of the spring. Across all my classes, there will be a total of twelve blocks for students to read and respond to. Prepping one block takes me about two solid days of work. I have posted five so far, with seven left to go. Allowing time for housework, fresh air, cooking, and other essential things, I’m probably looking at between two and three weeks more of work to get everything online. Then I’ll be spending the rest of April grading assignments as they come in and keeping an eye of the discussion forums.

Students have started engaging in discussion already. Only a few so far, but that’s understandable. I know everyone is busy right now and it’s going to take people time to get used to new ways of doing things. Responses have been productive. Students are engaging with the ideas I want them to engage with and showing that they have done the new readings and can relate them to ideas we discussed earlier in the semester. That’s as much as I feel I can ask of them right now.

I’m holding virtual meetings with my classes this week via Zoom (videoconferencing service). Not to teach anything new, just to check in with them, go over the procedure for the rest of the semester, and answer their questions. I’ve let everyone know that these meetings are entirely optional, and there will be no negative consequences if they don’t join in. I hope a lot of them will show anyway. I miss seeing them, and I’d like to know that they’re okay.

The big question hanging over all of this is: what will happen to this semester’s grades? As I mentioned last time, the university administration is considering the possibility of shifting to a pass/fail system for this semester, or of giving students the option to individually take courses as pass/fail. Nothing is certain yet, but clarity will hopefully come soon. I’m divided on whether I think it’s a good idea or not. On one hand, there is no way to treat this semester like an ordinary spring or to imagine that the grades students get at the end of it are really comparable to their grades form other semesters. A lot of my students are in difficult situations right now, and going pass/fail might take a burden off their shoulders. On the other hand, implementing such a big change on the fly is going to be a mess, and I worry about people falling through the cracks in a system that none of us have had time to think through and shake the bugs out of.

You see, the secret truth about teaching is: grades mean nothing. Or at least nothing much. A grade is never anything more than your professor’s best attempt to convey to you how well they think you have understood what they were trying to get you to see, and there is no objective way of measuring that. Even in disciplines that have clear right and wrong answers, the decision about what questions to ask is still fraught with human subjectivity. Good and conscientious professors will try to use their grades as a way of communicating honestly with you about what you have accomplished during your time in their class, but the whole thing is an eggshell balanced on top of a rickety shack built on quicksand. You don’t have to stir the sand much before everything breaks.

Let’s hope we don’t break things too badly and we can find a way of doing right by our students.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 2: Students Are Stressed Enough Already

(Read my last entry here.)

Just a day after my last post, the university administration announced that all classes are going online for the rest of the semester, so I have spent much of the past week figuring out how that’s going to work. I started with a few basic principles and worked my way on from there. Here’s what I started from:

  1. Everything sucks right now, and it probably sucks worse for my students than it does for me. I want them to have a meaningful educational experience, but I don’t want to add to the burden of what they’re already dealing with.
  2. Different students are dealing with very different situations right now. Some of them are relatively safe and calm; their lives have not changed much. Others are back in the midst of bad or stressful home lives from which college was an escape. Some of them have plenty of time and technology on their hands; others are lucky to get a few hours to themselves and have a dodgy cellphone connection to the outside world at best. My course needs to work for all of these students.
  3. My students are good students. They want to put in the work that I am asking of them and do well. If they are struggling right now, it is a reflection of their circumstances and the failures of the larger governmental, social, and educational infrastructure they live within, not of their willingness or ability to learn.

Putting these basics together, I have made the following decisions about my courses:

  1. I will not require anyone to be available at any particular time. I will miss our face-to-face interactions in the classroom, but trying to recreate that experience online is doomed to fail and will only put unnecessary stress on my already stressed students.
  2. I will not require any work that depends on having a stable internet connection and plenty of bandwidth. As long as people can get online occasionally, that should be enough.
  3. I will not hold anyone to more stringent due dates than are absolutely necessary for me to be able to fully and thoughtfully review their work before giving grades.

From these fundamentals, I have decided how my online courses will work.

Instead of the rest of the semester being divided into class days with their own readings and assignments, I have divided the remaining content into large blocks organized around a common theme. Each block represents a week or so of what we would have done in class. Students can now do the readings on their own time, and I am writing short introductions (covering the ideas I would have been introducing in class discussion) with broad, open-ended discussion questions attached. These discussion questions are posted online as discussion threads on Canvas (our course management website). Between now and the end of the semester, I am asking every student to make at least two comments in the discussions for each block. Participating in the discussion threads is counted as part of the attendance and participation grade for the course.

In addition to the discussions in the blocks, students have most of the same writing assignments that were scheduled before we moved online, but I am shifting their due dates to the end of the semester, so that everyone can get their work done at their own pace. I have dropped a few assignments that seemed overly burdensome: those that involved library research (because, even though there’s a lot you can do online these days, it seemed like too much pressure), or visiting museums (because, I mean, duh).

These changes have meant rearranging the grading standards for some courses, which is tricky, but I’ve tried to make sure everyone still has plenty of opportunities of getting good grades. The university administration has made some vague noises about shifting courses to pass/fail grading for this semester, but no decision has been made yet. On the one hand, going to pass/fail would make my job a lot easier—I could give most of my students their course grades right now. On the other hand, some of my students have been putting in a lot of time and effort, and it would be sad not to be able to reward them with the grades they’ve earned. Well, we’ll see what comes of it.

I can’t say with any honesty that I know how the rest of this spring is going to go. We’re all making it up as we go along. I have confidence in my students. They are strong, smart, and hard-working, and I want to see every one of them come out of this experience okay.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 1: Nobody Knows Anything

I’ve decided to use this space to chronicle my experience teaching college classes during the covid-19 pandemic. I can’t promise how interesting this will be to anyone else, but here’s a glimpse inside the process.

We’re still in the first few days of the officially-declared pandemic, and nobody knows anything right now. The federal response in the US has been just about useless. Actions at the state and local level have been more coherent, but we still don’t really know what the next few weeks or months are going to look like. Will we be stuck at home? Limiting our social contacts? Returning to business as usual? Lining up for tests? Hunkering down under quarantine?

The university has not been much help either. Classes have been canceled for a week, in addition to spring break, but no one knows what comes next. We’ve been told to prepare for possibly teaching our classes online. Or not. Or only for a few weeks. Maybe. They’ll tell us later. Maybe.

Now, I don’t envy the administrators who have to make the call about whether to massively disrupt thousands of people’s plans for the next two months or to put those same thousands of people at risk of contracting and spreading a deadly virus. I understand why they’re hesitant to make a decision at this point, but it really isn’t possible to make any plans when I have no idea what I should actually be planning for.

In the absence of any clear direction from the top, I’m thinking of making a decision on my own. I’m thinking that I will plan for all my courses to run online for the rest of the semester. Then, if in-person classes do resume, I’ll make them optional, because I know some of my students have personal or family health concerns, and I don’t ever want to put anyone in a position of choosing between their grades and their or their relatives’ health.

The big problem is: how, exactly, do I do that? I have some colleagues who have taught online and done it very well, but their experiences don’t exactly translate: those were planned online courses that they had months to prepare for, and every student knew what they were signing up for. That’s a long way from cobbling together half a course on two weeks’ notice for students who weren’t planning on taking an online course. I have no idea what kind of technology my students have available to them or what their own living situations right now allow in terms of time and resources, and I have never even thought about teaching online until a few days ago.

The one good thing to emerge so far from this confusion is that I have had to spend some time thinking very seriously about what I want students to get out of my classes, so that I can focus any online teaching on those elements. It’s been a useful exercise. Of course, I have spent plenty of time already thinking about what students should take away from my classes (I’m an ancient historian—having to explain to other people why my field is worth studying is an occupational hazard), but I’ve never tried to distill half a course to its fundamental essence before.

I’m teaching three different courses this spring: Classical Tradition (a broad history of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome), History of Rome (from the foundation of the city to the end of the western empire), and Roman Law (an intensive course on legal reasoning—mostly using Frier’s casebook on delict, for those of you who know what that means). Classical Tradition is an introductory-level course mostly for non-majors, History of Rome is a mid-level course with a mix of majors and non-majors, and Roman Law is an advanced course mostly for majors, especially those in the pre-legal track.

We’ve already covered more than half the material for each course. From what’s left, I’ve tried to extract the most important questions I want my students to grapple with:

Classical Tradition: Why did new religious movements, like Christianity, the cult of Isis, Mithraism, and Islam, emerge out of the context of the Roman imperial frontier? Why did some of these movements thrive while others foundered? How did the followers of these movements engage with, repurpose, challenge, or reject the artistic and literary legacy of Greece and Rome?

History of Rome: How did the Roman Empire reach some level of stability in the second century CE? Why did that stability fail in the third century, and why couldn’t it be recovered afterward? What choices did people living in, at the edge of, and outside the empire make in response to these changes?

Roman Law: What’s the most effective way of getting away with murder if your weapon of choice is a live bear?

Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but not by much—that is exactly the kind of bizarre hypothetical that we often argue over in class. Hard cases, as they say, make bad law, but weird cases are the ones that really show you how the logic of the law works and where its limits lie.

A little more prosaically,

Roman Law: How did the Roman jurists try to construct a logically consistent set of rules that could cope with the vagaries and inconsistencies of Roman society?

Now all I have to do is figure out how to give my students some meaningful way of engaging with these questions online instead of in guided classroom discussions.

I’ll check in later and let you know how it goes.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.