What's my line?
In the first of a monthly series exploring some of the many professions that have an impact on architects' working lives, we ask what librarians can do for you
Viveca Koh is a second generation librarian. Her mother began as an interior designer in her family's architectural firm, Chadwick International in London, where she became interested in the management and orderliness of the firm's documentation systems. She taught herself book-keeping and librarian skills and became sufficiently confident to branch out and begin her own practice. Her daughter, who had also chosen to study interior design, remembers being regularly tested on her knowledge of CI/SfB in her formative years. Rather than being put off, she was enthused and has decided to follow in her mother's footsteps, She has subsequently taken on the business and for the last ten years has run it under her own name.
There are no architectural librarianship qualifications and so the specific profession is relatively selftaught and relies on a good knowledge of the business of architecture, its practical traits and drawbacks, and the requirement for disappearing into the background. One of the reasons why so little is known of architectural librarians, it seems, is that they try to be invisible - a physical representation of their clarion call, 'sshh'. Koh, however, wants to dispel the notion that librarians should be neither seen nor heard. Only by seeing themselves playing an active part in the architect's office can librarians hope to be utilised to their full potential.
Pride and prejudice
However, because the job is not really understood - it is often seen as a glorified tidy-upper - it is usual that in lean times the librarian is the first to go. 'I've seen it a hundred times, ' says Koh. ''Oh well, ' they say, 'we'll get the junior (or worse, a more senior member of staff ) to do the library. How hard can it be?'' Within a couple of months, she says, the library is usually a bomb-site and it is for no other reason than most practices haven't the time or inclination to return books.
They prefer to keep documents at their side for reference and to save revisiting the library. Therefore, the starting point in any architect's office, she says, is 'mess clearing' and 'imposing order'.
Rooting through the existing library and chucking out the old brochures is essential to maintaining the office's understanding of what's relevant and what's out-of-date.
Architects are notorious for not being aware of changing legislation, and it is easy for old literature to reinforce their belief that nothing's changed.
However, it is a double-edged sword and some practices hoard old literature as a fail-safe reference of historic projects. This is easily dealt with, says Koh, 'you just have to establish the ground rules at the start, rather than bother anyone every time something needs binning'. The librarian - after being briefed about the peculiarities of the office - must have the courage of his or her convictions, or you might as well use the office junior.
And anyway, says Koh, the ability to remove 'drossy old stuff ', as she puts it, knowing what's important and what's not, is what the job is about.
Old documents can easily be kept, but with a frontispiece attached warning readers to be careful.
Architects regularly keep books under desks, but Koh insists that she be told about them. She often 'trawls through the office for old copies', makes the guilty architect/technologist aware of any updates and logs her warnings on the front cover. This is done in the best possible taste and decorum, given that Koh says that she needs to be seen to be part of the team - not an outsider.
She's fairly dismissive of the idea that the paperless revolution is imminent, saying that hard copies, at the moment, have much more flexibility ('flickability') than virtual representations. Staff tend to download internet or extranet documents, and this has made her search for out-ofdate - or plain wrong - information more important and time consuming. Internet searches, especially by office juniors, are relatively undiscerning and there is often a danger that reports that have not gone through relevant peer review will be used as reference documentation. A good librarian is always on the lookout for unsubstantiated reference material to weed out. This alone is an invaluable contribution to safeguarding the integrity of the practice. Koh, as office librarian, will save time and printing costs, and eliminate conflicting information, by downloading documentation into the intranet server for all to see.
A librarian will be aware of updates, changes, addenda, etc, and her job is to bring it to the office and install it in the agreed location. For example, Koh also downloads up-to-date information to the server. For example, she says that CABE documents are 'very popular', as are local UDPs, etc, and she will, as a matter of course, chase them up. Moreover, by becoming a visible and active part of the office, she is more readily recognised as a core part of the office's organisation rather than being part of the office's furniture.
Because she knows where to look for 'stuff ', it is logical that office staff often ask her to find information, say, on technical details of materials; where contractors or suppliers of particular materials can be found; or how to source alternative manufacturers, for example. Although, these requests can be abused - and a librarian's essential role is still to order the library's information - 'data gathering' such as this is something to bear in mind for slack periods in normal librarian duties.
Personally, Koh says that she finds it 'satisfying'. Given that there are a lot of computer-wary architects out there, who could benefit from a bit of hand-holding, she is happy to explain how to carry out some key organisational tasks and to advise on problems, shortcomings and area success. After all, she says, 'librarianship is just about sharing information with people'.
The problem, says Koh, is that 'with all my experience and knowledge, gleaned from lots of different offices, I know a lot - it's just that nobody thinks to ask'.
When employing a librarian, it is important to provide him or her with a good idea of what the practice needs. By taking the librarian to visit the library (and around the office), he or she should be able to give a fair assessment of what the problems are and what is needed to put it right.
This can be translated into a number of hours/days per week with a rate attached.
Koh recommends that (depending on the particulars of the office and the appointment) that she be included in office-management meetings - or at least provided with the minutes - so that she can keep up to speed on projects and say what information she might be able to source to help the team out. The job of librarians is effectively to volunteer to find stuff.
On the road
The freedom that comes with selfemployment is the lure for Koh. She relishes the fact that she has different journeys to work, meets and gets to know a variety of people, and experiences a variety of disciplines; one day working for a large, commercial practice in the city, the next involved in a sole practice in the sticks. Maybe one day a month for a massive practice, one day a week for a small concern.
As a final personal plug, but one that should go for all professional librarians, Koh says that she should be seen more closely allied to a research assistant than is commonly the case: a loyal, discreet and keen ally to the practice. 'Eagerness, ' she says, 'is worth its weight in gold.'
Viveca Koh can be contacted on viveca@koh-creative. demon. co. uk