(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