Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

Great moments in a darked room

Great moments in a darked room

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

Some years ago, I was in the technical library of the University of Sheffield thumbing through an old card index when something caught my eye. ‘Interesting’ I thought, ‘… wouldn’t mind a look at that.’ And so, distracted, I set off to look for my discovery.

I confess I am easily distracted by interesting things, especially in libraries and archives, and I’ve had a number of great moments in a darkened room. For example, while once in the British Archives in London researching the origins of the first national regulations covering school playgrounds I found myself sat with a mound of original documents and bound volumes on the desk in front of me.

In the main these documents were quite dry, written in a typical governmentese kind of language that can be hard to decipher, and although these papers were telling me ‘what’ decisions were being made they didn’t give me many clues as to ‘why’. After ploughing through a dozen or so volumes I picked up the next one from the pile, opened a few pages to make a quick scan of the contents and literally jumped as if hit by an electric shock!

This bound collection of papers included an agenda and a number of supporting papers for a meeting of the Council of the Board of Education held in 1908. The meeting discussed the results of a recent nationwide inspection of new local school building which examined how faithfully new facilities were being constructed in terms of the then national building regulations.

This is different  

What was exciting, though, was that this was the copy of the then President of the Board and the margins were chocked full of hand-written notes detailing his own thoughts and the progress of the meeting. It was informative beyond description and a complete surprise.

I was hoping that the day in the darkness of the university library in Sheffield was going to be similar but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The listed document I had discovered reference to was nowhere to be found.   

I’m not completely sure of the year this took place, but I estimate it would have been between 1999 and 2001 and I confess I soon completely forgot about my distraction. However, in 2011, I found myself back in the same library and remembering my previous trip. This time the library index had been greatly revised and fully computerised, so I easily found reference to my earlier discovery. I was a little surprised though to find that yet again when I went to the shelf the document was listed at it was not there.

This in itself is telling as it suggests that this particular document had been missing since at least the time of my first visit and as a result it had probably not seen the light of day for some considerable time. I was determined to find it.

It's easy to lose things

You might be surprised to learn how easy it is for books and documents to go missing from libraries and archives and the greatest cause for disappearances is not theft but when things are put back in the wrong place.   It’s very easy to do and can cause havoc. At least this time I had a much clearer idea of what I was looking for as the revised index now listed the document as a manila envelope; and after a significant amount of digging around, I found it.

This may sound silly, but my hands were shaking a little as I opened the envelope and a waft of a familiar smell leapt out as, despite the fact that I knew roughly what the envelope was meant to contain, I was not completely certain as to what was actually in there.

The answer was four copies of a simply typed, four-page handout reproduced on an old stencil duplicator also known as a mimeograph. These hand-cranked copy machines printed papers in a distinct blue ink that easily comes off on the fingers and has this very particular smell. Each of the copies were held together with a rusty paper clip and were clearly spares of those that had been given to participants at a seminar held at the department of architecture in the university in 1970.

And here's the point

The author was one Simon Nicholson, and the title of the paper was ‘How not to cheat children – the Theory of Loose Parts.’ This, was one of the first versions of his theory that Nicholson had put to paper and it was a clear precursor to the version that finally made it into print the following year in the journal ‘Landscape Architecture’ (p30-34) – a significant paper that launched an entire approach to working with children and their playing.

But there was more. Tightly jammed into the envelope along with the stencilled copies was the original typed version of this paper. And I got to hold it in my hand.

Now that was an exciting day in a darkened room.

Marc Armitage


photo - one of my many trips to the darkend room of the British Archives in London.

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