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The Digital Engineer

Although Mike Chrimes has notched up almost 35 years of service with the Institution of Civil Engineers he confesses to having strong feelings for the British Geotechnical Association. Claire Symes reports.

Services to engineering helped Institution of Civil Engineers director of engineering policy and innovation Mike Chrimes earn a place on the New Year’s honours list at the end of last year.

There’s nothing surprising in that, you may think, until you learn that Chrimes is not even officially an engineer, but a librarian.

The accolade was bestowed as a result of his passion for the history of civil engineering and his efforts to digitise the library service at the One Great George Street headquarters of the ICE.

And alongside managing the library, Chrimes is one of the main links between the British Geotechnical Association (BGA) and the ICE - a connection he believes to be of huge importance.

He says he is “fully committed” to the BGA: “The ICE has basked in the glory of geotechnics. The UK industry has a strong international reputation. Events like the Rankine Lecture help to draw in this expertise and create a focus.”

Historical interest

Chrimes’ love of engineering developed when he joined the ICE in 1977 as a film librarian when he was studying for a masters in librarianship after completing a degree in history. “I had no knowledge of civil engineering at that point, but I actually knew more about the sector than I realised,” he says.

He was promoted to deputy librarian after a year when the head librarian retired.

Chrimes is one of the ICE’s longest-serving members of staff and his presence has had a big impact on the development of the organisation’s improvement in library services.

He started the process of computerisation in the 1980s. “There was concern over the costs of the process but once it began, there were immediate benefits,” he says. “The emergence of the internet really changed the dynamics of the project.”

The library, which was established in 1819, contains 130,000 titles and is recognised as being the largest resource in the civil engineering sector.

In 1820, the ICE’s first president, Thomas Telford, gave part of his library collection to the institution and over the next decade the library grew slowly.

Some textbooks were added, but the collection chiefly comprised drawings and manuscripts. It was considerably enhanced when Telford left all his papers to the institution in 1834.

Chrimes also reports that the library has a consistently high level of member satisfaction and the establishment of a virtual library has now offers global access to the collection.

“I had no knowledge of civil engineering at that point, but I actually knew more about the sector than I realised”

According to Chrimes, digitisation is a never-ending task. In addition to making new texts available, he is aiming to make more professional meetings, such as those held by the BGA, available digitally. “Use of audio recordings and Powerpoint from presentations is growing,” he says. “It gives people greater CPD opportunities. Members have access to a broad collection and the evolving technology will improve what we can offer.”

Nonetheless, Chrimes still believes there is a place for central meetings at the moment. “At present the dial-up technology to watch a live presentation doesn’t allow for the same level of interaction and networking as being in the room,” he says. “But media like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are providing people with alternative methods of networking now.”

One of Chrimes’ most recent projects has been the digitisation of conferences and proceedings dating back to 1836, including some of John Smeaton’s texts. “Going from a paper-based service to a digital one has been one of the greatest achievements of the library team,” he says.

Chrimes’ role extends beyond the library though. “I am responsible for six teams within the ICE,” he says.

The teams are formed by the associated societies, innovation and expert panels, the events team, the policy team, the recently renamed dispute avoidance team and, of course, the library team.

“The British Geotechnical Association is one of the associated societies and also makes up one of the ICE’s expert panels,” he says.

According to Chrimes, the aim of the expert panels, which generally meet three to four times a year, is to drive the ICE’s agenda.

Shaping policy

“The panels should help to shape policy by being proactive and reactive, develop ideas for events and networking opportunities, look at the need for capacity building through working with training providers and universities, identifying areas where research is needed and liaising with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Another very important area is producing good practice advice.

“In geotechnics there is a lot of innovation by specific contractors but there comes a point where rivals catch up with the commercial advantage and a technique becomes general practice.

“People want to improve society through their engineering skills”

Development of diaphragm walls and auger piles are good examples.

“The BGA and British Tunnelling Society are both good at identifying when technology goes from innovation to state of the art.”

The learned society committee provides engineering intelligence and liaises with the expert panels on the subjects.

Chrimes says he enjoys working within the civil engineering industry, particularly those in the geotechnical sector. “People want to improve society through their engineering skills,” he says. “It is very friendly and supportive.”

Chrimes himself is friendly and supportive - and it’s clear he has a soft spot for the BGA and goes as far as to say he “loves the BGA”.

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