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Searching questions should be directed to RIBA's living library

Most people will remember David Rock's RIBA presidency for his tremendous achievement, with Rod Hackney, in negotiating the agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum. This initiative will create the world's finest collection of architectural records and archives and work is now well under way in the detailed planning of this venture.

A lesser-known legacy of the Rock era is the creation of lunchtime talks which council members have, ever since, enjoyed during their 'all-day' council meetings.

Believing that a better sense of purpose and co-operation could be fostered amongst council members by creating a series of informative and enjoyable lunchtime events, Rock also used the initiative to create improved communication between council members and staff. In particular, he was anxious that members should have a better understanding of the diverse and extensive activities within the various departments at Portland Place and, of course, across the network of regional and branch offices where so much good work goes all too often unnoticed.

So we were once treated to a fascinating talk by Robert Elwall who is the curator of the RIBA library's photographs collection.

On another occasion Jane Oldfield explained the role of the RIBA's information unit, which acts as a clearing house for general enquiries on behalf of all the institute's departments, including the library within which it is based.

In the previous year this service had dealt with 18,000 telephone calls as well as some 5000 letters, faxes and e-mails (40 per cent from members and 60 per cent from nonmembers). To assist this work, the current council has approved a major review of the telephone operations at Portland Place and a substantially more sophisticated system is planned for next year which will provide a service capable of dealing with the projected year-on-year increase in enquiries.

Calls are charged at the same flat rate no matter where they come from, so a Newcastle or Belfast enquiry costs the same as one from London. (The phone numbers are 0906 302 0444 for members and 0906 302 0400 for the general public. ) Most calls last less than 3 minutes and the service generates a useful revenue to the institute as BT passed 50 per cent of the call fee on to the RIBA.

The range of queries is enormous. Many calls involve a search of the library database although this service is now available on the library's online catalogue (www. architecture. com). Searches may be for the latest items on a particular type of building; the work of a rival practice; or information published on costs for a particular building type. Alternatively, it might be an attempt to obtain a lead on a half remembered AJ article so that the caller can source it in their own library.

There are also a large number of practicerelated questions: the length of time an architect should keep record drawings; advice on client relations and problems; the rules on professional indemnity cover; where to place EU Journal adverts; information on fee scales and current salary levels; and where to get practical training and general careers advice. Then, of course, there are the inevitable questions on VAT , on JCT and SFA forms, continuing professional development and CDM regulations as well as the more unusual questions: the current levels of building costs in Greece; how to run an architectural competition in Russia; and problems with copyright. Someone tried to trace an old friend from architectural school, while one architect wanted the name of a sculptor to make a replica of his client's dog!

In order to handle such diverse enquiries the unit employs qualified information professionals, most with past experience of practice. They only occasionally have to refer a caller elsewhere, or undertake further research before calling back. It is a wonderful service - best described by a tutor who told Part 3 exam candidates that if stuck they could always write: 'I do not know the answer to this question but I would ring the RIBA Members' Information line to find out.' Praise indeed!

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