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

Site 11: National Library of Scotland

July 21, 2008

The National Library of Scotland is a short walk from the Waverley train station and North Bridge -- and its proximity to Scotland's National Archives even closer. A nice combination of convenience, as we visited both on the same day. (But rest assured, with deep fried Mars bars to be had, there was a good deal of walking done -- and needed!)

I must admit that I've been puzzling over this entry for a while now (I won't say how many times I've opened the "edit" function for this draft, only that it's a sad tale). Not to put up more excuses, but after our ten-hour bus ride to Scotland, I wasn't feeling my very best the next day. My foggy state of mind obviously translated into my note-taking, which resemble outtakes from Memento. The notes, I mean -- I haven't noticed any tattoos (yet).

Anyway, that aside, thankfully, the National Library of Scotland had the foresight to give us all hand-outs, as well as maintaining an excellent website. Their PowerPoint presentation for our visit was narrower in its focus, detailing their most well-known collection, the John Murray Archive. And this John Murray Archive? It's a pretty big deal.

Founded by John McMurray in 1768 was the John Murray Publishing House, which over seven generations grew to be quite the impressive firm: representative of notable women and men over the centuries in the fields of art, science, and literature. It is the most expensive -- and arguably, important -- archive in the UK, totaling an estimated 150,000 items, fetched for a whopping 45 million British pounds. The authors covered in the collection span from Jane Austen to Charles Darwin, Lord Byron to Dr. Livingstone; not only are their writings preserved, but other ephemera: letters, clothing, and in some cases, pictures.

How to manage such a large and really, priceless archive, is under the pressure of heavy considerations: learning outcomes, marketing strategy, exhibition risks, preservation, classification of materials, et al. First and foremost, however, the National Library sets out in the same light as many other libraries; key aims are to guarantee access, research facilities, and to appeal to a wide range of people, of all ages. Setting out to see to these aims takes form in several ways:

A learning programme works with Scotland's schools to enhance and supplement educational curriculum, and a touring exhibition travels throughout Scotland (it's been booked through certain sites for the next three years) to reach a general public. The exhibition currently on-site at the National Library is one that I've had the pleasure to view first-hand.

The John Murray Archive is probably my favorite exhibit during my entire stay in the UK, in fact. Its intimacy, its careful arrangement of items of interest, and interactive nature is a very fresh take on very old items. After weeks of sensory overload (re: the British Museum, to name one), it's a nice change of pace not to be in shock and awe of the architecture alone, which in some respect is too distracting from the actual articles on display. The room that the National Library offers is small and darkly lit (to lessen the light damage), but it is anything but stuffy thanks to the subtle movement in the exhibition design. "Windows" are television screens that show an outside view, with a paperboy calling out headlines (i.e. Oscar Wilde's fall from glory) in thunderstorm weather. A cool mood piece, if nothing else.

There are upright glass cases that model the attire of some very famous writers and travelers, and offer a kind of historical biography. A touch-screen computer panel accompanies each case and visitors are able to "browse" through a person's life, taking a closer look at the articles on display (i.e. letters in the author's own handwriting), but also digitized pictures, and background information for historical context. I was very into Isabella Bird, guys. A women traveling the globe during the Victorian era! Her photography made her famous, and brought far off places close to her native England. It is an amazing trek for a woman, person, at any age to make, and especially so in that she still conformed to certain standards of a woman of her pedigree in the late 1800s. They have on display a heavily layered dress and tiny boots; how on earth she hiked through the heat of South Asia in a corset, I can't even imagine.

As you can see, the viewing process is rather absorbing.

Moving on, I make my way to a circular table which casts -- as from a projector -- a picture onto the table, that is actually interactive. It's a publishing game (very John Murray of them), and I pick my options accordingly. These options include writing form, genre, type of marketing, style, title, which all magically amount to a summary of my novel: The Origin of Emma. I like the fact that it's kid-friendly, but adults (well, if I count) will find it enjoyable too. It's a lot more fun than actual submission to a publishing firm, in any case. And I can't resist being trite, but it's a happy atmosphere at the National Library of Scotland, John Murray Exhibition. We're all winners -- published and best-selling romance authors, too.

(a la J.K. Rowling)

National Library of Scotland homepage

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Site 10: The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive

July 18, 2008

(Shakespeare's home)

(The rooftops of Stratford upon Avon)

Stratford is what I certainly think of -- or thought, I'm beginning to alter my impressions daily -- when England came to mind: quaint, with wooden houses lining a river, bright flowers hanging over sidewalk signs, and a hint of rain always hovering. Its ever-present dreariness overpowered by the cheer in architecture and gardens. I'm sure it wasn't quite so charming in Shakespeare's time, not in the sense that it looks postcard ready at all times. But if there's one thing that might've remained from the 16th century, it's this: a circle of people weaving out of a pub, one, maybe two of them pausing, starting, and then, puking out his guts. Welcome to Stratford-Upon-Avon. It's almost four in the afternoon.

Not that I'm casting generalizations about town. It's just that after viewing the library, which was amazing, amazing, amazing -- returning outside to rain and vomit, it's pretty much a let down. So I'm going to return indoors, back to the library, where I should've started in the first place.

Clare, the library Deputy Head, greets and then ushers us into the catalog and search room. It's like a blip through time; the libraries we've seen thus far have been typically (a) very old or (b) very modern. The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive seems to have caught somewhere in between, a slight 1970s snag. (You guys, the fake wood paneling! It's like a missing episode of The Brady Bunch, British-style.) But it's nice and neat and orderly -- everything a library should be. I like it immediately, especially being seated at a computer desk to write on (and later browse their OPAC with).

Clare gives us a few facts and figures about the library: They are a deposit library for the Royal Shakespeare Company, collecting all materials related. The collection is much older, of course, with pre-1700 books up until modern day. They take care to say that they do not collect everything Shakespeare -- staffing consists of only a dozen librarians, library assistants, subject specialists, and importantly, volunteers (i.e. who help a great deal in creating databases, conservation work, and in the case of an ex-theater director, gifts of excellent costumes and props). But they aim to be of use to their community and to do justice as the library of Shakespeare's birthplace; as such, their holdings number 50,000 books and thousands of supplemental items (maps, articles, et al).

The library user base is relatively small, about 3,000 people come to visit the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive (heretofore referred to as SCLA -- for my sake, thank you) every year. These literary pilgrims arrive for a variety of reasons, some to research family history, others to consider property values, and some are very young -- school groups regularly come to map Stratford geography and history (i.e. streets, shops), to see how changes have happened over time. Most contact is made however not in person, but virtually, through phone and (more in recent years) email.

For those that do make the trek to Stratford, use of the reading room is fairly standard: pencils only, weights (not elbows) for page turning, gloves when touching photographs, et al. To preserve the original materials, readers are granted access solely to copies -- unless, of course, you are budding library students. Then you are given the VIP treatment, rolling out the shag rug, the whole shebang: viewing first editions, photographing them, swooning in due form, and then bragging about it in a terrible fashion to any who will (or will not) listen. Can you say, special? (Also: going to my head?)

It is with great anticipation that we meet with Jo, a user services librarian, who in turn shows us into a meeting room where she's set up a table of treasures. We learn that the oldest book on display is from 1550, that Plutarch was Shakespeare's reputed source on ancient myths. We learn of herbals and of a bestiary and are shown pictures of Shakespeare's productions from the 1800s to more recent affairs (i.e. just how much stage make-up Richard Burton uses, no longer a mystery). It's mind-blowing, more so when Jo brings out Shakespeare's first folio. As in: Shakespeare. His first folio.

The rest of the afternoon is a fog, a euphoric fog, but a fog nonetheless. Jo continues her streak of wonderful and brings us to view the archives, the video archive in particular, but my heart is too full to process the other collections, to do them justice. Even the rain can't bring me down. Even the folks puking in the gardens. I apologize for my inarticulacy -- if that is even an actual word -- but there you have it. I humbly submit pictorial evidence instead.

The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Site 9: The Bodleian Library

July 17, 2008

I feel as if I should start off with a grand statement because the Bodleian Library, it's like The Big One. The one I've heard most about from my professors, quoted in movies and film, and it's at Oxford University, for heaven's sake. The stakes are set sky high.

But I must cave into the pressure. I have no words, none besides, the Bodleian is all that -- if only I had a good idea as to where I was at any given time during my tour. To put it not very eloquently: the Bodleian Library is a big place. Our librarian/docent for the day is one Mr. Cross. He looks to be of a certain age, but let me tell you, he could probably take me in a foot race. In his three-piece suit, even. Part of the reason is that he's climbing through this maze called the Bodleian day in and day out.

We start off level enough, though. As we make our journey just inside the reading room, Mr. Cross enlightens us further on the history of the Duke Humfrey's Library, the main research library for manuscripts and early printing. (It is in fact the oldest reading room within the greater Bodleian library complex, and according to the official website: "the principal reading room for those studying Medieval and early-Modern manuscripts and Papyri, pre-1641, special and rare book collections, and codicological, bibliographical and local history.") I am pretty impressed on sight and smell alone (old books, they kill me -- in a good way).

The Duke, as the library is named after, donated his collection of 281 manuscripts and classical texts in the middle 1400s; such as large gift called for a greater space to house them, and work began to construct the Divinity School. It opened... some time later, as most university-funded projects do. It should also be said that Oxford University at this time was not a school with deep pockets in terms of money; the Reformation and the creation of the Church of England split the country in half religiously, politically, and with these drastic changes, the university suffered both in its prestige and actual educational capacity. Anything papal was in the midst of being destroyed, and the Duke Humfrey's library, having such early promise, by 1450 was nearly empty. The library had to resort to various means for funds, such as the selling of its property -- desks, chairs, and the like. Still, these sorts of measures could hardly have raised enough revenue to maintain let alone develop their library collections.

Enter Sir Thomas Bodley in the late 1500s: a rich and educated gentleman, Bodley was more to the point, a philanthropist. He donated money to restore the old library, as well as books from his own collection and other donors -- 2,500 in total. Samples of the books still exist today, their pages made of cloth or rags.

The first printed catalog came out in 1605, the contents of each bookcase written on a notice board; and looking at the books themselves, lining the shelves 400 years later, it's curious to wonder how much, or how little has changed. A famous story, one that Mr. Cross tells us now, concerns the King at the time, Charles I. Duke Humfrey's library, among others at the Bodleian, was not a lending library -- a tradition that persists to this day. Charles I, on a visit to the university, wished for little bedtime reading and sent someone to fetch him a book from the library. Unfortunately enough for him, being King of England did not curry him any favor with the university librarians, and the rules applied to him as well. (Librarians: tough cookies to crack.)

For centuries, the Bodleian library was a chained library, in fact; storage was backwards, the book spines facing the wall (the only way to attach chains to the books). The beginning of the 19th century allowed for the chains to be taken off, and the books righted spine-wise. Today there are two stories of reading rooms going around, forming a quadrangle. And below, there are seven stories sweeping downwards of book and manuscript storage.

Which leads us to our present predicament, following/chasing after Mr. Cross into the bowels of the Bodleian Library. It's like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for librarians, passages going here and there, machines whirring, library assistants blinking curiously as we pass -- and of course books, millions of books. To access any of Bodleian's materials, patrons use request forms, which are sent and put through tubes, where those librarians and library assistants below go on a search to retrive them, sending the selected items up on a conveyor belt. (Of course, for access to rarer sources, readers need to put up good reasons and recommendations.) It's pretty freaking neat.

We ask about digitization in terms of promoting access, and work is being done (although, to compare perhaps unfairly, not nearly to the extent as in the U.S.). What to keep, what to reformat, what type of formatting -- these are all questions which pertain to libraries, whichever the specialization. For the Bodleian Library, since 1610 they have been in negotiations with legal guilds, and anything published by the guilds is given free of charge to the library -- in addition to a number of other titles selected. Curators then have one week to sort through the incoming materials, deciding whether to weed (British terminology!), keep, distribute to other libraries, and so forth. Needless to say, it's a huge responsibility. How do they begin to predict what will have literary worth come ten, twenty, hundreds of years from now? A blunder that keeps librarians humble here concerns perhaps the greatest playwright of all, one William Shakespeare. The Bodleian had in its possession a copy of the first folio (1632) and for whatever reason resolved that it was not worth saving. More than that, it was sold for a mere £24. (Amazing. I can only hope to be at such a book sale one day.)

It's a sobering thought, and easier to say in retrospect: how could this happen? But these things do, and we're not perfect in practice. The Bodleian isn't the British Library, mind, preserving all materials in the country, but its aspirations are not small by any means. While it isn't possible to predict the next Shakespeare (if any such comparison can be made), the Bodleian, being one of the most esteemed libraries in the world, has come far these past 400 hundred years -- with luck and perseverance, but never by accident.

The Bodleian Library homepage
Images courtesy of Dr. Teresa Welsh

Site 8: National Maritime Museum Library

July 16, 2008

(To Greenwich, by water...)

(... and on foot!)

I have to confess that I wasn't totally on board with the idea of visiting a maritime library -- initially, that is. It's my old bias against boats, or the connection really to fishing, which I have only hard feelings for (long story short: it's boring). Well. I have another confession to make, and it came upon me very quickly after entering the museum, and up to just outside the library doors. Maritime history is far, far from boring, and I've changed my opinion about boats in general -- for the better. Walking past ship design via actual ships parked in hallways, and displays on naval fashion (hot or not?), and a really cool display of ocean liners through history, I've come to appreciate the varied facets "maritime" encompasses. And so thank you, National Maritime Museum. You've shattered all of my biases, and I haven't even set foot inside the library yet.

Hannah, the Caird Library Achive and Manuscripts Manager, gathers us around on chairs and bean bags in the e-library. Behind us are computer stations where visitors are able to search the library catalog, without having to register for reading room access. In our circle, Hannah gives us a general description of the library, but asks that we don't start off with the hard-hitting questions just yet -- it's only her third month on the job:

The library, founded and funded (the two, naturally, go hand in hand) by Sir James Caird, opened in 1937. It's presently the largest research library on maritime history, touching on emigration/immigration, migration, piracy, astronomy, shipping records and wrecks, and the Royal Navy, among others. (There's a book, actually, in print called Ships and Stars that relates in greater depth the history of the museum, but is strangely not in the gift shop. Yet.) With so much subject area to cover, the collection is huge: over 100,000 books (modern titles being 1950 and on), 20,000 pamphlets (partly cataloged), 20,000 bound periodicals (200 current titles, i.e. Mariner's Mirror), and 8,000 rare books (1474-1850). The working collection is post-1850; any request for earlier materials must be given two weeks notice in order to retrieve from the library's stores. Making sense of this library working through a museum concept (the blur for me started at the V&A/National Art Library), there are a few fuzzy areas in terms of collection development that Hannah clears up, much to my relief: paper and 2D items go in the library, 3D in the museum. How succinct can you get? Nice.

Thanks in part to recent funding (notably, the Heritage Luxury Funding donated a whopping £35 million), new renovations on the reading room have been made. Still, the library is far from any state of decay. The rotunda for example, connecting the e-library to the reading room, is a serene, light-filled space, designed by Sir Edward Lutchins, of New Delhi fame. Its original oak fittings from the 1930s are as solid, rich, and warm a color as ever.

But pushing forth. To register for the reading room, visitors go through similar procedures as previous libraries: signing forms, producing ID, and working under the expectation that prior research is called for. Not to feel thrown to the academic wolves, however, the librarians on staff are there to assist readers, and are highly qualified to do so: all are professional librarians or archivists, many being subject specialists, and they work to form teams of six. By all accounts, the staff is kept busy; 3,000-4,000 people visit the library every year, viewing roughly 2,000 books and 5,000 manuscripts. That is, to state the obvious, a lot of material to collect.

We meet two such eager and knowledgable librarians: Mike, of the manuscripts team, and Renee, a rare book librarian. I enjoy their presentations tenfold before they've even uttered a word when they both give us photocopied notes on the items we're about to see. It's crazy how much nicer it is writing up my blog without having to decipher my notes, tracking down just what my weird spellings of English names could mean, and in what context (I still don't know who Foster/Forster/Forrester is, only that he was a friend of Dickens, which is pretty sad for his sake).

Splitting our class in half, I get to hear Mike's spiel first, and many of the books are fascinating, both in content and construction. According to my (yay) type-written notes, we are looking at firsthand accounts of sea captains. I don't know why I should be constantly amazed by how neat and beautiful people used to write, but I am. And the pictures! Having to record not only numbers and figures, but of the ship, and places and people seen, sea captains were trained artists. Their illustrations, often colored, are insanely beautiful.

Mike then introduces pirates (!!! -- which always require excessive punctuation). It's just as interesting to go over their accounts, and the line tread by honest and dishonest sea-faring ways: so fine, it's often cast overboard. Seriously, and not always by choice. For Captain Kidd, his actions were fully supported by a good number of public officials... until they lost their seats the following term. And Kidd, docking his ship none the wiser (or foolishly, if he was), lost his head for it.

But the resourcefulness of sailors is outside of all moral judgment. Such a quality is put to great use in terms of books. Books with pages made of sails, books with musket balls sewn into their spines -- to be thrown overboard in the worst case scenario. The things men contrive having spent months at sea.

Switching gears slightly, Renee has similar treasures in store for us: another great set of journals, and also grammar books for sea men, and children's books on navigation. The information is all in the context, it would seem; it's debatable among scholars how much we can derive from personal accounts, as drawings are not the same as photographs, and written opinions even further removed. What do we make of the slave trade through a sea captain's eyes, the dress and manners of foreign peoples? How are we to draw lines as what truths, or half-truths to accept -- and what to reject? Everything is understood to be through a certain lens.

But on a basic level, there is the construction of books as a science. Types of bindings and printings; the colored print, with gild layering on top, is an especially beautiful technique. Patterns and woodblocks and fabrics being imported from all over the world. Who better to try them out than the men who were transporting them?

[To read more from the other side of the river (where the grass is, no doubt, greener), check out the Caird Library blog.]

The Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum
Library Collections Online
Library and Manuscripts Catalogue

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Site 7: National Art Gallery Library

July 15, 2008

I haven't mentioned it here in this blog (for shame), but London museums rock in a number of ways that I can count: (a) many of them, especially the larger ones, are free -- a strange concept, having been hardened against that word in all cases save for "Winona" -- and (b) they are just a few tube stops away. The National Art Library, housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, takes that awesomeness one step further and has their entrance connect to the tube. As in, you never have to leave your snug, exhaust-filled hole for the light of day. Ah, how's that for convenience?

Situational excellence aside, the museum itself is great in its own right. I haven't an artistic bone in my body (attaining my fine arts credit in college was a series of unfortunate events, all of them involving charcoal, except that one time in sanguine), but I know enough to appreciate those who do. Walking through the entrance hall filled with huge, marble sculptures, I'm thankful to have arrived at the library staircase in one piece. There was a lot of gawking on my part. And plaque reading. But mostly gawking.

Our guide for the National Art Library is Frances. She's brisk, and it's a trait she sticks to for the remainder of our tour -- which is not to say it's a failing, per se, but certainly a challenge for my less-than-nimble fingers. I'm up for it -- I hope.

Upon entering the reading room, we are thankfully allowed in our backpacks (mine is well over the limit and roughly the size of a small farm animal). Frances gives us the library run-down as we hurry by different centers, on our left, counter service (3-5 staff members), on our right, the enquiry desk (visitors are able to register for 3 years or 3 months -- a curiously wide gap). We likewise hurry by other places of interest, such as special collections (where they have a day book to sign in and out members), a camera stand (for books before 1930, journals before 1900), and librarians doing things that are no doubt Important and requiring Deep Concentration (I presume for the best). And then we're whooshed through to the Marshalling Area.

It's not as exciting as the name implies, unfortunately. Basically, it means that the materials placed here are closed access, apart from reference items. Users can request up to six items at a time (searchable through the online catalogue, organized by Dewey). Librarians deliver the materials to individual seat humbers, which users pick up upon arrival in the reading room. I do like this part, similar to eating in a diner, only this time it's feasting on books. And it seems to be a system that works: it's been in place since 1899.

One of the perks of being a staff member in the National Art Library, in addition to handling such beautiful books, is the ability to borrow them. From the general collection, the terms of borrowing are in-house; staff are allowed to check out up to twenty items, "keeping" any for up to three months. I'm not sure how meaningful this type of lending would be for me in theory, especially as patrons can still borrow a librarian's borrowed titles, but it's for the betterment of the collection -- that most everything stays put. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of this lending tunnel: in the staff area, titles are available that librarians can borrow in the traditional sense.

The staff area is also home to the acquisitions, cataloging, and art librarianship departments (as well as a cornered off break room/cubicle, which again, is a nice effort, but seemingly only in theory). As with all cataloging departments, the backlog comes with the territory, but it's a workable system; all items are accessable on the date the book arrives on the premises. The gifts and exchange network the library has set up collaborates with libraries and art galleries across the globe, and this global influence is seen further in their exhibition catalogs that date back to the 1700s. Once more, the dreaded size classification scheme comes into play (alas, the sore lack of space! But the librarians here bear their cross more than willingly), but there is further organization that I can get behind: by country, gallery, form -- then moving towards size.

It's certainly a gorgeous library, which we are able to see to its full effect, standing now on the second floor balcony that overlooks the reading room, and next the west room, cleared out for a gallery space for a 20th century collection. Book slips are tucked between the titles that line the walls, and books themselves are tucked into every space possible (the boiler cupboards set into the shelves, for instance). Nicely enough, Frances lets us snap away with our cameras -- something not to be taken for granted, as is often the case.

Indeed, when we're taken to our final destination, the Word and Image Department (located several hallways, flights of stairs, and oh yes, the inevitably overpriced but divine-smelling-at-this-hour café away), there are book treasures galore laid out on a long cloth-covered table. And more than simply seeing them, we're allowed to take pictures of the actual items. A part of me is pretty paranoid -- when is it not? -- but the worry here is for good reason. Before us is assortment of mind-blowing proportions, among them: illuminated letters, an annotated edition of Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield with Dicken's own impossibly neat notes. However strong the desire is to photograph to my geeky heart's content, the librarian in me comes with her own deep-seated warnings. What kind of light damage are we doing? And why are we risking it?

I suppose I can rationalize our possible wrongdoing with the fact that this is not a public display, an everyday showing. It's both gratifying and humbling to be trusted with such rare materials, but all the while knowing that they will remain long after I've left this world. And it's not such a maudlin sentiment, really. I find a lot of comfort in knowing that these places of learning, if not the libraries themselves (alas), but the drive behind preserving our past in books and ephemera, these feelings will sustain. Whether they be in smaller collections, gallery spaces -- or museums, found at the end of tunnels.

The National Art Library homepage

Site 6: Museum of London

July 14, 2008

"What do you think of when you hear the word, 'prehistoric'?"

That's the question that Jon Cotton, Senior Curator in Prehistory at the Museum of London, poses to visitors. His answers run the gamut, from dinosaurs to images of cavemen (club in hand, loin cloth strategically placed), to fictional -- i.e. Fred and Wilma, as in Flintstone. Rarely do people suggest what Jon hopes, prehistory referring to a time before written records.

I must admit that when I think on the term "prehistory," I am not on Jon's wavelength, but Steven Spielberg's, unfortunately; watching Jurassic Park a million times at the age of eleven will do that. But even without the aid of Hollywood special effects circa 1993, dinosaurs have been linked to the very idea of prehistoric. And it's arrogant to think so, I know, but I hold these thoughts nonetheless -- history has always seemed to begin with us. As a human concept.

Even Jon concedes, however, that prehistory is a relative definition. It depends on where one is, in place and time, to be treated in a specific context. Ancient Egypt relied on stylistic pictography, Hieroglyphics; but for Australia, formed several hundred years later, prehistory is everything before Captain Cook. And if we are to view prehistory in the sense that written records determine history, what do we then make of places such as Hawaii and greater Polynesia, oral cultures? Did English-speaking missionaries bring, along with religion and language and a much stricter dress code -- did they bring history to these islands? There is no simple answer, neither should there be, and I'm afraid I must move past my pondering.

Back to Jon Cotton, everyone. He has much more interesting things to tell us, and it's too early in the morning for philosophy anyway.

Jon greets us at the entrance to the museum, which we found our way to by walking up a staircase and crossing a bridge, leading us to a large, mirrored sign: MUSEUM OF LONDON. (I am highly gratified by very large signage, something I've never stopped to appreciate before, and something which the British appear to despise.) It's clear at first glance that the Museum of London is the most modernly designed building we've seen so far -- "modern" being determined by the fact that it's made of glass and clean lines and no plaques stating its Tudor/Georgian/Victorian origins (I'm no architecture buff, it's no secret). Inside, we're ushered into the Learning Room, where a PowerPoint presentation is at the ready.

After spending the past week breathing in the dust of ancient tomes, it's a bit weird to be back at a "regular" lecture. But easier on my feet, certainly. Jon's lecture isn't my typical presentation, however, and he is different from every other scheduled guide -- in the fact that he is not a librarian, and he is not showing us a library collection. As the senior prehistory curator, he's learned more than a few things about museums; and we as budding librarians, aren't so far removed from what knowledge he has to impart.

Most visitors, Jon begins, are interested in three time periods: Roman London, Tudor/Stuart London, and Victorian London. Curiously enough, prehistory hasn't cracked the top three, maybe even five, but Jon has plans to change people's perceptions, one exhibition case at a time. He wants to replace the "caveman image" with something more positive, something tangible, and perhaps, something even accurate.

We're shown an image of a man. He has a lot of facial hair and anguish going on. But apart from a few suspicious facts we're privy to, like that he's been frozen for 5,000 plus years, he could easily have been mistaken for a mountaineer within the last century, his frustration born out of having run out of trail mix. The caveman image, that indeterminate time between creeping out of the primordial sludge and drinking it in the form of corporate coffee, isn't so pronounced. This man could be anyone, from any time. He's had his battles, to be sure; the tools found with him, as well as the five types of blood found on him, oh, and the arrow struck in his back -- these give a greater, if still mysterious, backstory. Prehistory isn't so hard to picture when we can see it, and come to think of prehistoric peoples as individuals.

Putting history out there on a personal level is what Jon sets out to do, especially in his exhibit "London Before London." On the upper level gallery (the ground level being closed for renovation -- swiftly eliminating the Tudor/Stuart competition! Oh, and for the good of the museum, I suppose), Jon takes us to the start of story. We've seen the PowerPoint on it: the Museum of London, having grown from a private museum attached to Kensington Palace, then moved to Guildhall Museum for the city of London itself, finally standing in the city for which it holds its history. The museum houses London's history as well as prehistory -- half of a million years of human activity before the Romans even set foot ashore.

The Thames River, more than a natural landmark, is and has always been London's defining trait. Used for travel, for sustenance, for religion, for political intrigue or fashion, the Thames stands as evidence of the power of place. The effect landscape has on the way people organize themselves as a society. Using the Thames as a running theme in the exhibit is such a perfect creative move, it seems the only choice that could be made. (This is one of those times that, in the face of something so right, any trace of coherent articulation leaves me. I'm just glad Jon and company are the ones in charge to think of the smart ideas.)

But -- and there almost always is a but -- ideas are one thing, and execution another; the consideration of space, and how to work with what's available, makes the need for creativity to some extent, bend to its will. The space Jon was alloted wasn't terribly large (nor was the budget), but design and organization make the finished product flow. Key pieces are chosen to display: a video at the entrance, artifacts found in the river, examples and models of dwellings, interactive stations for tool-making and quizzes, et al. Being panel-dominated, the exhibit requires visitors to do the work (i.e. read). An inventive choice was hiring a design firm which normally works for retailers. Repeating a storefront experience in a museum is a subtle piece of change, not only to transition visitors into learning, but to transform museums too, and the way they teach.

So, after all my typing, the big question remains, and it has nothing to do with prehistory (I promise). What, for all Jon Cotton's words of wisdom, does this relate to libraries? While in a different way, and dealing with different objects -- although some of them just as fragile and rare -- libraries want to share and display our collections too. We select books to recommend, we come up with themed events, we make our libraries spaces where people feel welcome to study and learn, and to appreciate. Presentation is key in very much the same vein. When we put ourselves in our patrons shoes, what do we see, what do we expect? Do we think dinosaurs -- or do we think, maybe cavemen deserve another shot?

The Museum of London homepage
London Before London exhibit