Journalism moment of 2015: visiting a warehouse in Swindon

For me, the best thing about being a journalist is getting the chance to investigate and learn new things. My favourite articles in 2015 were ones where I got to do this. For Guardian Healthcare Professionals Network I found out about the data used to track the health of people in cities, and then the big issues that will affect urban health over the next few decades. (And I mapped them – below.)

For I found out about natural language generation, or robo-writing, to realise that while my line of work is probably safe for now, people who write long dull financial reports face an uncertain future. I also wrote about online mapping, which convinced me to try Mapbox myself, as seen above.

But my article of 2015 (in terms of fun had researching and writing; hopefully also in terms of quality) is ‘Bookworms’ Weston mecca: The Oxford institution with a Swindon secret’, published by The Register in September. It was great to go to the opening of the new Weston Library in Oxford, but my journalism highlight of 2015 was visiting its Book Storage Facility – an IT-dependent darkened and sealed warehouse that holds about 10m items  – on the outskirts of Swindon.

With a high-vis jacket, a member of BSF staff and a press officer, I progress through a roll-up metal door into Chamber 3, one of the four windowless rooms that hold the actual stock. And my sense of scale breaks.

I am facing a city of books, housed on metal shelving units, each more than two dozen shelves high. Each aisle looks like a triumphal Communist avenue in East Berlin – uniform and many storeys high – but with a road width from old Amsterdam. I am eye to eye with the fifth storey, but still feel dwarfed by the 11-metre-high shelves. Despite the sight of a distant far wall, the aisle appears to carry on over the horizon. Like the Grand Canyon, photos don’t really do it justice.

We walk down one of the BSF’s 31 aisles. The chamber is sealed, and quiet at the entrance; within the aisle, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books, there is near silence. If we were to stay still long enough, the lights would go out as they are on a timer. The Bodleian’s press officer notices some curious two-foot long boxes on one of the eye-level shelves used to store items that don’t fit in the trays. So we open the box…

To find out what Indiana Jones-style beswastika’d artefact we uncovered, read the full article here.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2016!