Tuesday, 29 July 2008

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

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