Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Site 16: University of Sussex Library, Special Collections

July 30, 2008

While using the rather decrepit (but at least in the same dorm building) computers in Scotland, I managed to make an appointment for the following week via email with the University of Sussex Special Collections -- before my eyes gave out on the technicolor acid trip screens. Dalkeith, Scotland: beautiful in nature, not so much in technological comforts.

Anyway, the Special Collections librarians at Sussex work remarkably fast. After requesting a date and time, and specifying what works I was interested in viewing I am set (in the Bloomsbury Archives, the Monks House Papers were first made available to Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew, to write her biography. Which, I should say, was totally against her wishes. As much as Ms. Woolf was fanatical about writing, as well as in general, she specifically stated in her suicide note, that her husband Leonard should destroy her papers once she, well, drowned. In some respect, I do appreciate Leonard's denial, since I reap in the benefits. But it's sad that Virginia, who fought to regain power as a woman, and certainly in her literary life, was in the end denied her final request. But I digress!).

The Monks House Papers falls into three groups: letters, manuscripts, and press cuttings. As I was intending to visit the British Library at least once more (they have a good collection of secondary material on Woolf, as well as all of her journals), needing to put my shiny reader's card to some use -- other than adding to my already well-established collection of horrible ID photos -- I decided it best to narrow my selection to biographical manuscripts. It turned out to be a wise decision indeed because Virginia? She must've been on very close terms with the postal service. The woman, if anything, was prolific.

Armed with some knowledge of Virginia's upbringing, I was interested in how Virginia saw the events as they unfolded, and in retrospect. But first, I had to get my foot in the door.

Like most places in the UK, security is enforced, no ifs, ands or buts. The student worker at the door was nice enough, though, once I explained that I had an appointment and did indeed have proper identification. To even enter the university library you need a current student ID card; but thankfully I was granted a day pass, seeing as I was prepared for once. Scanning my bar code, pushing through the turnstile, I make my way upstairs to the Special Collections.

It's a small space, and the librarian at the desk kindly shows me where the lockers are to store my things -- other than a notebook and pencil. She retrieves the boxes I requested, and it's rather wimpy of me, I suppose, but I take one at a time. Loose manuscripts, they're hefty literary loads.

And then it's all Woolf. I won't get into painful detail, other than thank goodness for typed transcriptions. Everything I had access to wasn't the original source (they're photocopies), so that took some worry off my head; it's easier to concentrate on the material's content without having to stress myself over ruining the items themselves. Hopefully, it will come to some good in my research paper. Whatever else, it was like watching a Victorian telenovela unfold. Dead half-sister's husband arriving to propose to other sister, while everyone is still black in mourning? Check. Commenting about nephew-who-was-killed-in-the-war's sexual exploits? Check. Father substituting step-daughter in lieu of dead wife? Check. It's disturbing to the extreme, the shades of incest, gender inequality, and death that pervades Woolf's life and works. It's partly why so many biographers choose to cast her as fragile, her mind torn away by what went on behind closed doors.

Still, Woolf isn't one thing, one quality -- no one is. For all the ambivalence in A Room of One's Own, there's a note of persistence. For all the fire in Three Guineas, there's wariness of that anger. She's been criticized for racist comments, egotism, intellectualism, indifference to class. Margaret Thatcher doesn't like her at all. But Woolf is one of the core figures in feminist discussion today, in literary circles. Her works speak to us still, and for all her faults, she is with us for a reason.

Woolf may have drowned herself in a river in Sussex, near where the university that houses her papers stands, but her heart speaks of her struggles in London; as a woman wanting change; as a political activist. Woolf is as large as she is small, personal as she is private. She has something to say, and how we hear it is open to interpretation -- reinterpreting the text as much as the source.

University of Sussex Library Special Collections homepage
Monks House Papers
Images courtesy of the University of Sussex Library

Site 15: Trinity University Old Library

July 29, 2008

The Trinity Library is the easiest library to find ever (and this declaration coming from one whose default mode is "Hopelessly Lost"), situated as it is within the city centre of Dublin. Arriving directly outside (thank you number 10 bus route), I am excited to not only be at the right place at the right time, at Trinity College Dublin, one of the foremost academic centers in the world -- but also to have all of my travel gear with me at once, strapped to my back. As my flight to London leaves later that afternoon, I have no choice but to make like a turtle. It's entirely not awesome, and perhaps more so for my public transportation neighbors.

Despite my invasion of others' personal space via backpack(s), I am thinking about my day with a bright outlook. It's beautiful outside, possibly the sunniest day Ireland has ever known; and the Irish, already a happy bunch, emit rainbows and butterflies and break into song when the rain stops. (The attitude here is like the opposite of the Pacific Northwest, which while similar in wet dreariness, is downright cheerful. I'm sure the Guinness helps, in any case.)

As Trinity is a tourist haven, there are a good many signs pointing me to the rather expensive tour. But it's my last day, and I promised the customs inspector that I would spend all of my Euros in Ireland, so I have my word to keep and tours to attend. While I wait for the tour to commence, the guide does compliment my bag (well, one of them hanging around my person), which makes me feel better about my money being well spent -- flattery gets you everywhere, is what I generally say. The fact that the preferred bag is from the British Library does make me doubt his sincerity, however.

Anyway, I am meandering (as I do) from my purpose of this visit. Just what is so great about Trinity's library? Built in 1712, the library was part of the college's larger "new age" expansion -- so to speak (i.e. a popular joke in Ireland, or just what they tell to American tourists is this: 100 years is a long time for the U.S., and 100 miles is a far distance in Ireland; but I think for Hawaii there has to be an exception). Trinity College was the institution for Protestant ascendancy, and as such reaped the benefits: funding for buildings and resources for education. My favorite quote from Trinity's website has to be this dig at their rival neighbor: "Unlike the English universities Trinity took its duties seriously." Fighting words, indeed! But well-backed, considering the prominent authors that came out of the college: Swift, Beckett, Wilde, Stoker, et al. Students and fellows were expected to use the facilities for more than what privilege entitled them? Color me amazed.

I never really had a sense before having set foot on Irish soil, how small a place Ireland really is, and it's pretty inspiring to see what -- and who -- emerged. It's an impressive club, Trinity's literary alumni.

The Old Library of today is the largest library in Ireland, and a big fixture in Europe. Its holdings stand four centuries in the making: comprised of books, manuscripts, maps, and artifacts. The book stock alone totals over four million items, the big ticket attraction being the Book of Kells.

Which brings me to my present situation: hunchbacked and not as sun-worshipping as an hour previous found me. The line to the Old Library is mind-bogglingly long. A part of me, I admit, is ecstatic that people are out the door waiting to gain entry into a library, like it's cool. (Which libraries are, of course, though how often underappreciated!) But my admiration is in theory, not in practice where I have to queue up.

Once in, it's chaos, but an ordered chaos -- libraries must have some semblance thereof. The displays housing the Book of Kells are alternating, so as to limit the amount of light damage the papers are exposed to. After taking a History of Libraries course, and consequently doing a presentation on illuminated manuscripts, my interest in the exhibit was high. What actually trumped the Book of Kells soundly, however, was the Long Room. Glass cases run the center of a well, long room, lined with bookshelves and things of interest: winding iron staircases, globes, fabulously decrepit books. For any new Star Wars fans out there (I'm an old trilogy purist, I'm afraid), the pseudo-Obi-Won library scene is based on the Long Room. It's a distant, like other galaxy distant second, but you can't recreate the source material, now can you?

Trinity College Library Dublin homepage

Site 14: Library at the Bridge

July 22, 2008

Stephen Finnie, librarian at the Bridge, meets us literally at what appears to be a bridge: the library, a sectioned off portion between the wall of a college, dance studio, cafeteria, and pool, is sunk into the ground between two ramps. But this picture just given doesn't do it justice -- it's a beautiful library, certainly.

The architecture, modern and utilitarian, is at the same time very welcoming. A lot of light enters the space through skylights and full picture windows. A part of my mind wonders at the amount of light damage, but pushing that thought aside for a moment, thinking and seeing not as a librarian but a visitor, it's comfortable and informal, a place that I'd like to spend an afternoon. It's a space where children can run around, talk freely, meet with friends -- in a library setting. It challenges our notions of what a library should be; still a place to study and learn, but in a way that is not so separate from play. The noise isn't dampened, which makes for a different library from most, but that's the intent, I think. To reach out and bridge a community means making compromises, being flexible. There's a time for most everyone in the community of their choosing, whether in the morning for relative quiet, or afternoon for more liveliness, and sustaining a feeling of welcome is really the point. They want people in the door, and once in, they want them to enjoy their stay.

This sort of atmosphere is what Stephen, and staff at the Bridge in general, are after. It isn't about a strict sense of what libraries and librarianship should be, by adherence to a firm set of rules, rather pushing the boundaries to meet the community's needs.

Which brings to focus the community in question -- who makes up the community, and to what ends does the Bridge strive to connect? Stephen most helpfully has answers to give, both verbal and written (hand-outs, they are without a doubt, a blessing):

Situated in one of Glasgow's at-risk housing estates, Easterhouse, the Bridge serves at its most basic definition as a community center, but more than that, a starting point for revitalization of the area and the quality of life for its people. A little less than a quarter of all residents can claim ownership of their homes or vehicles, restricting access to what the wider city of Glasgow has to offer, in terms of jobs, education, health facilities -- and simply broadening their everyday resources. The very real issues of combating poor health, not meeting education qualifications, and a high rate of unemployment (one in five residents have never worked) persist.

The library at the Bridge came to be in support from Glasgow City Council, Culture and Sport Glasgow, John Wheatley College, and the Greater Easterhouse Arts Company; it works with the theme the Bridge altogether hopes to accomplish: providing a public space for the community to gather and to learn, for practical training, for leisure, and to take part in art and culture.

Returning to the phrase, "improvement of the quality of life" -- as an American, this notion is repeatedly discussed. We expect a lot across the board, and yet the disparities between what it means to have -- and what it means to have not -- are wide. In Scotland, in Easterhouse, they are working with a much smaller subset. But their vision, and execution of their vision: addressing the needs of their community with an approach that is both innovative and practical, placing the importance of arts along with health, along with education, along with workplace training, is a statement in itself.

I've seen proof of its popularity on the day of our visit, and its library is just as teeming with life as its pool (equipped with water slides, no less!). No small feat, to be sure. Keeping to the vision of the Bridge, in addition to traditional library use (i.e. reference, lending, in-house research), the library holds programs for youths in the community, such as crafts, technology, puppet shows, and various other workshops (I was particularly taken with the animation classes!). Theater, dance, the aforementioned awesome swimming pool, and connection with the college all add to a creative and enriching environment.

Adult classes in a similar vein (well, aside from puppet shows, alas) include parents into the equation, pursuing a great theme of lifelong learning: Support groups promote literacy, for adults as well as children. Health-related workshops improve self-knowledge and ease the process of getting help. On a lighter note, after viewing the television screens outside the pool's windows showcase their classes (belly dancing, duly noted), I kind of want to move to Easterhouse. Or at least, the Bridge. Not quite what the complex is after, I'm sure, but it's a compliment to the quality of their services. It's a compliment to a strategy well drawn up and acted on, and to the people of Easterhouse, who responded in kind.

Library at the Bridge (via Glasgow City Council)

Site 13: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

July 22, 2008

"Glasgow -- it's the real Scotland. Edinburgh, it's Disney Scotland." -- Dr. David McMenemy, Information and Library Studies Professor

True story: Glasgow is possibly the greatest place on Earth. Now, it's probably not the most beautiful (unless, of course, you're partial to industrial city chic and ever-present gray clouds -- and this in summer). But Glasgow librarians, if they are anything to judge the city by, are great ambassadors with their wit, their passion for the profession, and oh yes, their shortbread cookies.

(These Scots, they sure know their way to our graduate-student-starved hearts.)

We begin the day at the University of Strathclyde (second institution to teach library science in the UK, currently the largest library science master's program in the UK), with PowerPoint presentations, discussion, and tea. The main topic at hand being: the devolution of the library profession in the UK -- fairly heavy stuff at this hour in the day. But the Scots, in addition to many other admirable traits, they do know their caffeine.

This devolution process, as Dr. David puts it, is an attack of the profession and has lead to a crisis of confidence for librarians. Deprofessionalization affects us all directly, personally. With less value placed on higher education and training, librarians as trade workers weakens the quality of library candidates, individual libraries -- their scope and function, as well as the services provided to the public. With librarians receiving less pay, or cut-backs in job opportunities (especially for school media specialists, where in the UK, are not required at every school), the public is also given the impression that yes, librarians are not professionals, nor need they be. And so, UK's librarians, and Scotland's in particular, are trying to regain their footing. How to remedy and move forward in the field poses problems -- and hard choices to make.

It's no easy answer, and not one that a single PowerPoint can solve. It's a discourse, truly, and an honor to be included in the discussion, as Americans offering up our own opinions and experiences.

PhD Candidate at the University of Strathclyde, Christine Rooney-Browne, is writing her dissertation on a topic that can only bolster the status of UK libraries: The Traditional Role of Public Libraries, measuring performance by social as opposed to economic value. Her methodology is a daunting prospect -- attempting to measure what is generally thought to be unmeasurable. How do we weigh social merit?

In her research, Christine tries to go beyond statistical analysis, and to discover value outside of standards ways. She incorporates the use of open-ended questionnaires, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups, to name a few. Her goals are to remain on a personal level, to forge personal connections; to gain insight into the social impact of libraries, creating dialogues with users is a necessary step, in order to gather a richer set of data.

Going further than Scotland, and the UK, Christine's study sampling is international, centering on five distinct groups: rural, urban, indigenous, developing, and natural disaster. Her research is already empowering, an effort to promote global understanding, communication. Her use of real models grounds her research into something that can be applicable to real life library situations. Rather than basing decisions altogether in theory, tangible evidence of the worth of libraries will indeed help the cause.

Adding to the PowerPoint excitement of the day, another cultural shock came up in Alan Poulter's presentation: Forensic Readiness for Local Libraries in Scotland. A library's use policy (specifically in regard to internet use) was something emphasized time and again in previous library courses; in the UK, the need is just as pronounced, the critical difference being that user tracking is not only allowed, but an area where improvements are continually being made.

It's shocking -- I spent the first few moments dazed after hearing that logging and monitoring is a library practice here. In the US, so much emphasis is placed on intellectual freedom, the privacy rights of all users. Library records are cleared everyday, and librarians surely do not examine the sites visited.

I do find it interesting, however, the implementation of computer devices, and deciding whether to settle on random log-in or general log-in tracking (zeroing in on users whose web activity raises red flags). I do see the point that Alan makes, of course, and hearing the kind of sites -- and what goes on on those sites by library users, on library computers, is sickening. But the issue of privacy is so close to the heart of American values, it's hard to take a step in Alan's direction. If the constant "CCTV is in operation" signs didn't creep me out, the fact that librarians are monitoring me as well is much too Orwellian for comfort.

It's food for thought, in any case. How we construct librarianship, internationally, is in places so different, but we have the same basic goals. We want to provide the public with the best possible service. We want and expect of ourselves a certain degree of professionalism -- to be educated, recognized, and treated as professionals.

Information and Library Studies Postgraduate homepage
Speaker -- Dr. David McMenemy, professor, academic page
Speaker -- Mr. Alan Poulter, lecturer, academic page
Speaker -- Ms. Christine Rooney-Browne, PhD candidate, academic page

Site 12: National Archives of Scotland

July 21, 2008

If I've learned one thing about the United Kingdom's present reading culture, after scouring Charring Cross bookstores, and really any chain of Waterstone's, it is this: crime novels are big. Roomful-discount big. And it's with this thought that I enjoy the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect that the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) uses in its website: MIND OF A KILLER -- accompanied by side-by-side mugshot, naturally.

In all seriousness, though, the NAS maintains a pertinent website, and physical research space, for all users (however high or low their sensationalist tastes may be): residents of Scotland, those of Scottish descent, and any parties interested in Scottish history and culture. Our host on the day of our visit to the NAS is Margaret McBride, from Education Services. She welcomes us warmly to her workplace, and it cannot be denied -- it's a pretty grand place of work.

Situated in Edinburgh, the NAS is a government agency (working within the Ministry of Europe) composed of three branches: General Register House and West Register House in central Edinburgh, both open to the public; and Thomas Thomson House in west Edinburgh, which houses the NAS's main depository as well as conservation department. The NAS is further organized through two primary divisions: Record Services, which covers governmental, legal, private, and outreach matters; and a Corporate Services, who in turn concern themselves with accommodation, finance and administration, conservation, reader services, and information and communication technology.

Their general role is to maintain the country's records, upholding national archival standards. The added responsibility as a national archive means that presentation selection, access, media transfer, and provision of user services and advice, must all answer to greater expectations. Discussion at the NAS ranges from how best to preserve records, in what formatting, to identifying records are of special interest to users -- and anticipating the Scottish public's current and future searches.

Their mission highly takes into consideration that, as a national archive, the NAS's foremost duty is to its people, of whose records they hold in their care. As such, the NAS aims to preserve, promote, and protect Scotland's records in whatever medium; making these records available through exhibitions, talks, workshops, and like endeavors. Providing the best services is, by their own definition, perpetuating "lifelong learning." And more than meeting educational standards, the NAS hopes to engage its readers with their own rich history and culture.

The historical search room at the NAS encourages such public interaction. Functioning like most archival reading rooms, i.e. most belongings must be stored in a locker upon entering the building, those items allowed in are to be kept in a see-through bag, the historical search room is set aside as a quiet research space. Its OPAC is still a work-in-progress (public feedback influences the reconstruction), but an electronic ordering system is in place, retrieving "virtual volumes" for users. Excellently, use is free of charge for personal (read: not commercial) research. A good deal, with all due respect, especially when considering that the reader's pass for the NAS is valid for 3 years (for access on-site).

Our class was fortunate enough to be able to view some of the NAS's holdings (which total some 70 kilometers of records, from the 12th century onward). Margaret laid out for us on tables and under clear plastic cover (archival-approved, I'm sure) samples of family and estate papers; state, parliament, and church records; legal documents; photographs and drawn maps; and wills (1500-1901, after which date census data is used for reference). The detail is amazing -- that which goes into the information gathered, such as on farms (two words: sheep count), very often illustrated. The fact that these records are moreover handwritten makes translation a little difficult for my print-trained eyes, but it takes everything to a level that is so personal.

Of course, for users who are researching their own past, it must be an entirely other experience. At the moment, genealogical searches are of prime interest, and in 2009, Scotland is hosting a homecoming. The NAS is gearing up for a crowd of thousands, many of which will no doubt be curious about their origins. How to accommodate a huge influx of visitors, and whether to extend working hours, are some of the questions that the NAS, and the greater government of Scotland, are seeking to answer -- satisfactorily.

(And I, for one, am hoping to discover some Scottish in my own murky genealogy [i.e. thank you, birth and marriage records that... do not conform]. Hopefully nothing criminal, but I'll keep you all in the know.)

National Archives of Scotland homepage