A Data Rescue Mission

This week, I had the honour to visit Lord’s Bridge, one of the University’s storage sites. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the trip, to be honest. I was, and still am, on a quest to recover hard-copy questionnaire data on adolescent depression collected between 2000 and 2004. No-one in the department could tell me whether the data still existed or not. However, I was reassured that íf the data existed, it could certainly be found at Lord’s Bridge. Hence, we set up a little rescue mission. Sitting in the back of my colleague’s car, I was bracing myself for piles and piles of paper, thick layers of dust, spiders (many) and rat droppings (at least a few). I would not be disappointed.

Lord’s Bridge was built in the Cambridgeshire countryside in 1939, as a military depot for highly explosive materials. During the Second World War, a forward filling depot was constructed on site to fill mustard gas bombs at a rate of one per minute. After the war, enormous quantities of mustard gas remained at Lord’s Bridge, either in bombs or in one of the two massive underground storage tanks. After an explosion destroyed one of the two tanks in 1955, all remaining mustard gas and explosive materials were transported away, and the park was closed. The University of Cambridge bought the ammunition park including the filling depot in 1957, and founded an astronomy observatory on site. The filling depot itself, however, remained untouched until the summer of 1997, when it was finally thoroughly decontaminated and assigned to be used for storage.

A university staff member awaits us at the heavy gates. As we enter, the site’s intriguing history comes to life. We pass the former guardhouse, the toxic change and bath house, an emergency water storage room, and finally the tall charging room where the mustard gas bombs were filled; all largely intact and beautifully desolate. The two underground storage tanks, now excavated and infilled, are easily recognisable by the high metal fences around them. Our sought-after questionnaires are supposedly stored in storage shed N, formerly used for the storage of empty bomb shells. Inside, we find a variety of random items collected by the University throughout the years, including fifty-ish filing cabinets and many more blue storage crates marked Department of Psychiatry. For me, a scientist, seeing so much data in one place is very exciting. Also, our data looks strangely out of place, stored on the remnants of chemical warfare.

While I’m primarily here for my little data rescue mission, I’m also assisting my two colleagues in their purpose: to, in line with research conduct guidelines, destroy old data that is no longer used. We open the first crates, curious to see what’s inside but also alert to lurking spiders and/or aggressive rodents. Some crates are like little time machines, containing vintage test materials, an old doll house, hand-written letters, and portrait flashcards of people who were undoubtedly considered fashionable in their days. Most crates, however, open to unveil endless paper files. Very aware of the painstaking work that was put into collecting this data, we reluctantly start moving the files into shredder bags. Years and years of work, to be destroyed in a shredder in a matter of seconds. I carefully sort through the first few files to remove all metal pieces, until my colleague reminds me that the shredder machine is like a giant monster with no mercy for anything, which makes me feel even worse. “If anything”, I think, “all researchers should have the right to destroy their own data, if only for the sake of closure”. And “What if this were my data?” As with everything, however, desensitisation kicks in shortly and I soon find myself discarding data without so much as looking at it.

By noon we run out of shredder bags and have to call it a day. I had located the data I needed (or, as I would later found out, half of it; the other half had been destroyed already). The enormous pile of data in shredder bags, about to be abandoned by us now and then later fed to the monster machine, makes me genuinely sad. To cheer us up, we decide to go for a little tour on the premises. The University staff member happily shows us room after room after room filled with, well, rubbish (at least to my eyes). Broken chairs, a freezer with no door, metal desks, an old wooden cart, rusty radar systems, audio cassettes and VHS tapes, chemistry laboratory equipment, a caravan.

As we go around the back of the old emergency bathroom, a barn owl emerges from the brick building and hurries off. I catch a last glimpse of her just before she enters the woods, and I can’t suppress a little dance. There are only 4.000 pairs of barn owls in the UK, and less than 3.000 in the Netherlands, and here we are seeing one of them! I don’t know why, but birds cheer me up big time. Who cares about data; today has just become the Day of the Barn Owl, to be added to my list of favourite days alongside the Day of the Kingfisher, the Day of the Spoonbills, and the Day of the Common Tern.

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