Saturday, 12 July 2008

Site 3: The Poetry Library

July 9, 2008

The Poetry Library is situated a stone throw away from King's College, at the Southbank Centre, and the close vicinity was a good option (for me and my misguided sense of direction, that is) for two key reasons: (a) it was raining and (b) it was raining really hard. One day, I will stop whining about the rain, since it is England, and all that downpour is probably why poems about rolling hills and English roses were written. But today, I am sorry to say, is not that day.

Since this is my first independent research day, I am armed with three different maps of various sizes and degrees of helpfulness. I manage to right myself, but I show up much too early and the library hasn't opened yet. My main problem, however, soon becomes clear when I return an hour later from the Queen's Walk; I did not anticipate the grand opening, or exclusive invite-only celebration, of Mark & Spenser's in the Royal Theater Hall, the very same building which houses the Poetry Library.

I'll try not to go too far into my trials and tribulations (your welcome), but this is how the saga unfolds: I walk around the building, once, twice, an embarrassing, stalker-esque number of times. I ask one, two, an annoying amount of security guards as to which entrance I go through to get to the Poetry Library. The answer: the next one. Which must be a lie after I've circled the perimeter. I read a sign that tells me to go to the entrance near the glass lift to enter the Poetry Library and security will escort me up. It's really quite mind-boggling at this point. I had no idea that a grocery store opening was such a hot ticket.

The most, if only helpful (although the security people were all very nice) advice was given to me by the not-as-nice store clerk opposite the Hall. The glass lift, as it turns out, was hidden behind the mobs of lined up people, and it made me feel rather important if ridiculous, ducking behind the velvet rope in front of everyone to go to the Poetry Library. With a suit-and-tie escort, no less.

Once inside, I give my thanks to whatever gods came to my rescue, and park myself in front of the first welcoming spot: the computer. Here, I orient myself with their databases. Through the library itself, users are granted access to three online databases: Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections, The Columbia Grangers World of Poetry Online, and Litfinder; although usernames and passwords were provided on a laminated sheet attached to the monitor, I was only able to gain access to the first mentioned.

Browsing Chadwyck-Healey, I read through their about section (they aim to make available literary canon as well as lesser known contemporaries -- all in e-format) and have some hopes as to finding relevant materials for my research subject, Virginia Woolf. I perform a few test searches, and do find books by Woolf, but none really with biographical information. I decide to try my hand at the shelves.

While it is not my intent to focus on Woolf's poetry, I do like that I am in a public library with open shelf access; it's a freedom, really, that I'd taken for granted. I take my time walking through the stacks, taking stock of the building for the first time.

It's a small space to work in, only part of the fifth floor (I can't judge how large a part, I'm afraid, outside the library being Suits everywhere, inhibiting my freedom to wander). It's a small space, but warm and quiet -- a good feature, considering that the windows face Waterloo Road. Reference makes up roughly half of their stacks, with lending items making up the rest. Periodicals and journals line the shelves, but are reference material, so no lending on that front. There are pamphlets and brochures advertising poetry events, contests, workshops, readings, and so forth -- but no official Poetry Library guide, which is a little disappointing. But their website proves to be much more enlightening.

The poetry library homepage is beautifully and simply designed (my favorite web combination): with a lot of white space and tab links that take you exactly where you expect to go (i.e. About Us, Poetry Queries, Events, et al). Some history on the library: founded in 1953 by the Arts Council, the Poetry Library moved into its present building in 1988. The collection prides itself on being the "most comprehensive and accessible collection of poetry from 1912 in Britain" -- well worth such bragging rights, I'd say. What variety of formats available is also noteworthy, with print, audio-visual, as well as ephemera, among other media. The stand-out feature, though, is the exhibition space for artists and writers, which is very key, I think in engaging readers in real time, with real people. Working so much from a distance with reading material, it's a whole other experience to see it performed, and to speak with performers -- to interact on several levels.

The remainder of library information on background and content is pretty standard for libraries: providing service, access, acquisition, and promotion. Which is not to brush over these qualities, nor to make light of them, rather to make the connection, that public lending libraries, no matter the specialization, have much of the same aims as their traditional counterparts.

Having gathered my thoughts somewhat, for my next visit, I am hoping to speak to a librarian. That, as well as keeping my fingers, toes, or what have you, crossed -- hoping against hope that the weather takes pity on me, and that other grocery chains set their sights on the other side of the river.

The Poetry Library
Images courtesy of The Poetry Library at Southbank Centre

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