Thursday, 17 July 2008

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

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