Thursday, July 31, 2008

Library @ The Bridge, Glasgow


After the wonderful morning lecture, and treating us to a delicious lunch, Mr. McMenemy took us on a field trip to tour an innovative, joint-use public/community college library project in an economically disadvantaged area of the city called Easterhouse. The library is integrated into a multi-use community center called The Bridge, and has been open for only two years.

The Library @ The Bridge occupies an open space between the college and the community center, essentially making it the heart of the facility. It is laid out in terraces divided by shelving units, so each area has its own defined space. The day we were there, two of those spaces were being used for different organized activities, face-painting and some kind of art project/video activity. Because of the terraced design, there is a fixed amount of shelving space, but this has not been a problem so far, according to the librarian in charge, Stephen Finnie. Even though, theoretically, libraries with movable shelving could create more space by rearranging the stacks, all libraries have a finite amount of space, and it is always difficult to find more. If, in the future, this library needs more, there appeared to be space to work with.


Sloping ramps lead down into the library, as well as up to the terraces, making it accessible for wheelchairs, while an upper gallery provides seating overlooking the library. On the upper level is also a 'treehouse' room called the Den, which is available for community use and is wired for computers. A terraced, grassy area outside the library, and resembling a small amphitheater, is used for programming.
The library has approximately 30,000 items, for a service population of about 29,000, with a core staff of six full-time library assistants, and a currently in-flux number of other employees (the space is being renovated). Suggestions for new materials are submitted by staff on a weekly basis to Mr. Finnie, who serves on a committee of six professional librarians overseeing the whole area (this number does not include cataloguers and other "behind the scenes" librarians). Each one of them is in charge of multiple libraries, and they are in turn overseen by two senior librarians. Mr. Finnie feels that this more lateral management structure has put professional librarians more in charge of how the libraries are run than the former structure in which each branch had a degreed librarian working on-site.

In addition to the library, The Bridge includes a swimming pool, a dance/theater studio, a costume shop, and a cafe, among other things. The wall between the cafe and studio can be opened up for large events. Most events at The Bridge are free, with a few exceptions. Mr. Finnie said the costume studio rents out costumes to the public, and will sometimes even make costumes upon request, at no extra charge, if they feel it is something that others will want to rent in the future. There is a section of slat wall in an area between the library space and some of the arts spaces that can be used for special displays, including end-of-year displays of student artwork from the college.

In the short time it has been open, The Bridge and its library have had a powerful impact on the local community, based on the handout prepared for us by Mr. Finnie. The neighborhood statistics are rather appalling, but the services now available at The Bridge have been increasing in use, and the library is proving to be as well-used as some in more affluent areas of town. It seems to me that The Bridge has accomplished what the Idea Store model was aiming for, but has missed. Clearly their biggest mistake was to get rid of librarians, because if they had someone with the knowledge, expertise, experience, and passion of Mr. Finnie, they would surely be succeeding like the Library @ The Bridge.

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

This visit provided the most extraordinary resource for my research, as the library lecturer who spoke to us, David McMenemy, has focused his career on public libraries. His expertise and research into the history and current state of public libraries in Britain were impressive, and while our previous site visits have been amazing, this one made a refreshing chang from the historical nature of those, providing us with topics more in line with what those of working in front line public service face every day on the job.

There are 4,515 public libraries and 846 academic libraries in the UK. The class was shocked to learn that there are no statistics on school libraries, because there is no requirement for public schools in the UK to have libraries. It made our struggle in the US to require all schools to have a certified library media specialist seem a little less desperate (although I'm still hopeful we don't give that fight up). In the face of continuing evidence of the positive effects of certified librarians on student achievement, this really was a surprise.
Libraries in Scotland and Wales are funded through their local governments, along with other public services, since devolution created separate parliamentary systems for the two countries in the late 1990s.
According to Mr. McMenemy, ther is currently a "crisis of confidence" among library professionals in the UK. The professional organization for librarians in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has been trying to find a way to deal with the problem, but there is little involvement in the organization by the majority of UK librarians. Mr. McMenemy has attended ALA as well as CILIP conferences, and has found them to be completely unalike in terms of attendance, involvement, and enthusiasm. He did not go into great detail about the possible reasons for this feeling amongst librarians, nor did he discuss exactly what CILIP is trying to do about it. I wish now I had asked, but we were running behind anyway. I may email him about it later. It would have been very interesting to do comparative research on public librarians themselves, and the profession, rather than (or in addition to) services. That is the biggest problem with hearing about other people's areas of research: it makes me wish I could research several topics. In any case, whatever the reasons, I find it very sad that librarians here are feeling discouraged, or apathetic, or however it is they are feeling. I know there are a lot of problems in a large number of US libraries, too, that are making librarians feel disheartened; but it seems that the frustration, mainly directed at non-MLIS administrators, brings librarians together to fight for themselves, rather than giving up. I hope the profession in the US never reaches such a state.
So, Mr. McMenemy summed up the key professional issues facing public libraries in the UK today:
  • Significant drops in circulation
  • How to attract non-users
  • Coping with the digital divide
  • Deprofessionalization of libraries
  • How to measure library services effectively
This last point lead directly into the presentation by graduate student Christine Rooney-Browne, who is conducting research on exactly this issue. She treated us to a wonderful PowerPoint presentation outlining her project, called Measuring Social Value of Public Libraries. I did not take extensive notes on the presentation, because right from the beginning, I knew it was something I would be interested in having a copy of, which she readily agreed to provide for the whole class. Her main thesis was that the social value libraries provide can not be measured using traditional, market-based performance indicators; and, in fact, that applying such measures to public library services will lead in a dangerous direction, since this serves to overlook or devalue such outcomes as self-esteem and impact on community. Finally, she stressed the need to create a relevant model, so that these things can be measured.

Two other members of the department, Alan Poulter and Alan Dawson, spoke about two different areas of IT affecting libraries. Mr. Poulter discussed Forensic Informatics - simply put, tracing what people have been doing on a computer - and its use in public libraries an alternative to filtering as a way to prevent misuse of Internet computers. Mr. Dawson gave us an overview of some of the current technology-based projects and initiatives the university is involved in, including the Glasgow Digital Library. This project has published ebooks (in HTML) with linked indexing, and links to publications about digital libraries. One of the most interesting points he stressed was how little technology is required to accomplish this: "The key is not expensive equipment, the key is knowing what you're doing" (A. Dawson).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

National Archives of Scotland

The National Archives of Scotland is a government agency charged with preserving, protecting, and promoting Scottish national heritage; and providing an accessible archive of records to the public. It is overseen by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, a government appointed position usually held by an archivist or librarian of some standing in the field. It is housed in three buildings, employs 160 staff, and maintains five websites.
The first building - the General Register House (the one we visited) - was built in the 1780s for the purpose of housing public records. The second, the West Register House, was purchased for the archives in 1971, and the third, Thomas Thompson House was purpose-built in 1995, and is therefore used for all conservation work, as well as storage, since it is the only one with the proper facilities for high-level conservation. Unlike the first two, the last has no public access.
The NAS is divided into two sections, the Records Services Division and the Corporate Services Division.
The Records Services Division is responsible for:
  • Government records;
  • Court/Legal records;
  • Private records; and
  • Outreach services;
while the Corporate Services handles:
  • Accomodation services
  • Finance and Administration
  • Information Technology
  • Conservation
  • Reader services
The main functions of the NAS are to select published records and other historical records, including deciding what should be done with items deemed unsuitable for the archives; preserving records in keeping with current standards of conservation; and promoting public access to records. Margaret McBride, our librarian guide, made an interesting statement regarding the role of digitization within an archive, that the most important reason for it is to try to create a balance between preservation and access. Based on the public survey results conducted by the National Library of Scotland, in which people stated that it was important for them to see original source documents, she is absolutely correct. People want and should have access to the documents, not transcripts, so digital copies are an excellent way to provide that while ensuring that they are physically available in the future. One very surprising fact I learned was that sometimes the covers of books are removed for digitization, and put back on afterwards, so that the copies are clear. I did not think to ask at the time, but I assume this is only the case if the item in question is a book with its original cover, which has not previously undergone any kind of repair (and doesn't need it).
Some of the other functions of the NAS are to offer any needed advice to owners and custodians of archival documents; be a leader in the development of archive and records management practice; and deploy resources effectively and efficiently.

The National Archives of Scotland holdings consist of more than 70km of records, dating from the 12th century, and including Parliamentary papers, register of deeds, church records, wills, taxation records, family and estate papers, court and legal documents, railway records, and photos. Access to these is provided through the OPAC, a paper catalogue, and the five websites:
  • NAS
  • SCAN
  • Scotland's People
Access to these records is free to the public, unless the research has a commercial or financial purpose, such as a lawyer researching records for a client, or accessing property values for the sale of a house.

Some of the interesting new developments in the works are the launch of a site called, where people can order copies of images from the database, and the digitization of the records of the Church of Scotland.

The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

This library visit was very different from others we have been to, in that the main presentation focused on the public display of an archival collection. It much more closely resembled our visit to the Museum of London, offering a very clear example of how relevant the creation of a good exhibition can be to librarianship, beyond jazzing up a simple book display.

The NLS acquired the entire collection of manuscripts, 1768-1920, from the John Murray publishing company in 2005, and is in the process of sorting through it. In the time the company was in business, it published works by 20,000 authors, including such notables as Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, and Isabella Bird. According to David McClay, the collection's curator, it is comprised of approximately 150,000-200,000 items, although that can only be a rough estimate since they have not finished cataloguing it yet. The collection includes manuscripts of books, correspondence between authors and the publisher, and other publishing documents, such as sales ledgers.
The cost of acquiring the collection was £31 million, making it the most expensive archive in the world to purchase, which has brought the NLS a large amount of publicity. One of the results has been that the John Murray Archives now accounts for 1/4 to 1/3 of all manuscript uses in the library, even though it is only a very small part of the archival collections overall. Another result has been that others have have come forward to donate items related to those in the collection. Mr. McClay also believes that when so much money is spent for such an important collection, the public also expects more to be done with it than simply cataloguing it and storing it. Also, since a large portion of the funding to acquire the collection came from lottery funds, all lottery ticket purchasers have a right to access the collection. In practice, of course, this means that every member of the public has access to it.
Outreach Manager Emma Farigher is responsible for bringing people into the library, as well as helping them feel comfortable using the archives. She and Mr. McClay worked very hard to come up with a way to publicize and exhibit the manuscripts in a way that visitors would be able to relate to them beyond just reading them. Ms. Farigher discussed some of the difficulties inherent in displaying manuscripts, central among them being how to recreate a context for the viewer. They decided this could not be accomplished by traditional, text-heavy display techniques, and instead decided that it needed to be theatrical (to create an emotional response), "object rich, label poor" (Emma), and information should be accesssed interactively. In addition, creative use of light and shadow could help to create atmosphere while protecting the documents from light.
As part of their market research, the public was also surveyed to find out how they would like to experience the collection. The results showed that people wanted to see real documents, not just hear about the content; they wanted the feeling of being in the time; they wanted to know how things might relate to their personal experience or knowledge; and they wanted some kind of narration they could listen to instead of always reading.

Image from the NLS website at

After hearing the presentation by these two amazing people, it was hard to imagine what we were about to see. It is probably impossible to describe the exhibit in a way that someone else can understand if they haven't seen it, but I will try. One of the most striking things about each display is the way the replicated clothing of the authors is diplayed, hung in life-sized display cases surrounded by their personal objects - including the relevant documents from the archive collection - visible from all sides, and arranged as if an invisible person is wearing them. In front of each case, a touch-screen, interactive computer monitor is mounted at an angle, and low enough for a child or a person in a wheelchair to reach. The computers are extremely easy to use, and a fun way to learn about the various objects in the case and how they relate to the author or the time in which they lived. The interactive 'publish your own book' computer was also fun, but needs to be expanded if it is really going to capture people's imaginations. Possibly my favorite part of the display, however, were the 'windows' around the perimiter of the room, that were part of the stage set, so to speak. Behind each wooden window frame was a simply animated (think Monty Python) old-fashioned street scene, featuring scenes relevant to the collection. In one case, Charles Darwin appeared and spoke to someone on the street, and in another, a newspaper salesman waves a newspaper sporting a headline about the burning of Lord Byron's memoir.

This really was the most ingenious exhibit I have ever seen as a way to bring a collection of documents to life. As the featured authors are changed out, the public will continue to find interesting things to see and do there, all the while learning more about authors they may or may not know.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive

This gem in Stratford-Upon-Avon was an incredible place to visit, but even more incredible is the fact that, what should be treated as a national treasure is a private, non-profit entity receiving no public funding. Clara Moffioli, Deputy Head of the library, gave us some general background information on the library and its collections before turning us over to User Services Librarian Jo Wilding to discuss some examples of the library's holdings in-depth.

Recently renovated, the library holds two main collections: the local collection and the Shakespeare collection. The first relates to Shakespeare as a person living in a particular time and place, and so contains materials relating to the history of Stratford-Upon-Avon during his time. The second collection deals with materials relating to Shakespeare the playwrite and his works. Patrons come to the reading rooms in search of information from both collections. School children doing projects relating to local history come looking for such things as old city maps and directories to compare with modern-day Stratford. The library has books similar to our city directories, but they include each person's profession as well. These are useful to people researching family history, as are the local cemetary plot indexes. A-level students also come in, but to study Shakespeare's works and histories of performances - including videos - as the study of Shakespeare is a required part of the national curriculum, and is included in exams. Fans of various actors come looking for performance photos, which can be searched from inside the library in their image database. An actors performance history is also accessible through the performance database, which can be used remotely through the library's website. Cast lists for specific plays can also be found here.
In addition to the materials in the reading room collections, the library has substantial archives of such things as early examples of Shakespeare's works, source materials which may have influenced his writing, criticisms and commentaries, and items relating to the history of performances. The library keeps copies of all prompt books, programs, photos, videos, music, costume and set designs, etc from all performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The library's collection development policy is essentially to attempt to collect a representative range of materials relating to Shakespeare's life, times, and works, especially any items that may be unique, in addition to archiving all RSC performance documents. They currently hold approximately 50,000 books, pamphlets, and manuscripts; but many items comprise only single sheets of paper, so it is difficult for them to know exactly how many items they own.

Ms. Wilding organized a wonderful display of items from the library's archives for us, basing her choices on two themes: A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Histories, as well as showing us one of the library's copies of the First Folio. Her presentation included some general historical information on the the Shakespeare Trust and the items in the collection.
Before turning to the display, Ms. Wilding discussed the history of the First Folio, of which the library owns three. She explained that the term 'folio' is a publishing term, which refers to the fact that the printed pages are folded only once to create the pages of the book. This results in a much larger and more expensive edition than a 'quarto', which is folded twice. Over 200 copies of Shakespeare's First Folio were published in 1623, seven years after his death, by two of his good friends and colleagues. It is assumed that many of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost had his friends not undertaken this task, as 18 of the plays included in this volume had not previously been published elsewhere. The copy we were shown was the theater's copy, and, by Ms. Wilding's account, the most interesting because of various notations.

Highlights from the display:

A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • 1690 quarto of the play
  • Playbill from 1816
  • Handcolored herbal guide, 1597 (unfortunately, I did not write down the name, because I have a photograph of it, which has not been developed yet)
  • A copy of Purcell's opera the Fairy Queen
The herbal guide is one that was in publication at the time Shakespeare was thought to have written A Micsummer Night's Dream, so it is possible that he referred to it in writing the play, which is rich in botanical imagery. Two particularly interesting items mentioned by Ms. Wilding were the reference in the play to 'loving idleness', which was a local name used for pansy; and the spelling of thyme as 'time' by both Shakespeare and the author of the herbal - was it a common spelling at the time, or did Shakespeare get the spelling from this text?

The Histories
  • A history of Lancaster and York, 1550 (extremely long title; I have an undeveloped photo of it)
  • A 1603 pocket atlas, in its original binding; the sort of thing Shakespeare would have seen around
  • Full-color map of London made in 1572
  • History of Four-Footed Beasts, 1658 - originally published in 1600, so it would have been available to Shakespeare
  • Costume design (color sketch) for the 1951 production of Henry V starring Richard Burton
  • 1889 prompt book for Henry V - the oldest prompt book in the collection
We also saw an 1879 poster for Much Ado About Nothing, the first production to play when the RSC theater opened.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Oxford University's Bodleian Library

According to John Cross, volunteer docent for Oxford's Bodleian Library, it is the main research library for the university. The university is comprised of many independently administered colleges, but the facilities are owned by the university. The library's collection is distributed amongst several rooms, in multiple buildings.
The first space we saw was the Duke Humfrey's Library, named after the younger brother of Henry V, who donated his own collection of almost 300 manuscripts to the university. The donation was too large to house in the space previously used as the library, so a new building was built to house the library.

In the mid-16th century, however, the library's collection was decimated by a local dean, in response to the king's desire to eliminate vestiges of the Roman church. The university being tied to the church from its inception, and the main subject taught being divinity, the library collection naturally included religious texts, as well as books written in Latin - all naturally suspect. The library was not replaced until almost 50 years later, when Sir Thomas Bodley offered money, expertise, and some of his own books to rebuild it. He designed the new library's furniture and shelving, created the first catalogue, solicited donations countrywide, and designed the first extension of the building that surrounds the quadrangle. Mr. Cross pointed out that Bodley's solicitations came at a time when the public was tired of the chaos and violence that occurred following the Reformation, and many with means were therefore very willing to donate to the establishment of something which would contribute to the rebuilding of stability and culture.
In the early days, books were not allowed to circulate, and were kept spine-in on the shelves to accomodate the metal plates and long chains which held them there, but still allowed for their use. A number was stamped on the page edges as a location mark. A section of shelf near the entrance is set up that way for visitors to see.
The first extension became necessary as a result of an agreement Bodley negotiated with the printing guilds, that they would send a free copy of everything they published to the library. This agreement established the Bodleian as the first official national repository, of which there are now five. Mr. Cross told us the story of how, upon receipt of Shakespeare's Third Folio (1663), the library sold their copy of the First (1623) for £24, it being less attractive. It took them over 200 years to get their hands on another copy, for quite a bit more money. Mr. Cross asked a critical question that can plague librarians, that of identifying which authors will become a Shakespeare in the future. Whose books should be kept, and whose weeded, especially in the face of limited space?

The library continued to expand over the centuries. A second building, the round, domed 'Camera' was built in the 1700s, and houses, among other things, the main undergraduate reading room. The upper rooms surrounding the Quadrangle became reading rooms, and space for book storage was created by digging down under the buildings. The New Bodleian Library was built in the 20th century, and is linked to the other buildings through tunnels connecting the book stores. One fascinating feature of these is the pneumatic tubes formerly used for sending book requests down to the basement for retrieval. Requests are, naturally, now sent electronically, but library staff still work in the basement to retrieve items, box them, and send them to the desired locations by way of conveyer belts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

National Maritime Museum Library, Greenwich

The National Maritime Library in Greenwich is the largest maritime history library in the world, a fact not so unlikely for a country with such a mighty seafaring history, in spite of its size. Their collection covers all manner of relevant subjects, including immigration, navigation, piracy, astronomy, and financial records of shipping companies. I was surprised to learn from our guide, Archive and Manuscripts Manager Hannah Dunmow, that many people come to the library to research family history through these maritime records.

The current building, housing both the museum and library, opened in 1957. The space for the library, named for James Caird, a philanthropist who not only helped fund the facility but also donated a portion of the core collection from his own library, was planned into the building design. A brand new building, with much more space for the library's sizable collection, is planned for 2012.
The library owns over 100,000 open-access books (post-1850); 20,000 pamphlets, only some of which are catalogued, due to the enormous number of staff hours required; 20,000 bound periodicals, approximately 200 of which are current; and 8,000 rare books (pre-1850), which are kept in secure stacks. Use of rare books and manuscripts requires two weeks notice, since the specialist staff have to handle them in a particular way, and many of them are kept off-site.
The library's catalogue is online, so most people come in already knowing what they want. This has been true at many of the libraries we have visited, since their focus is research, often with specialized collections. Currently, the manuscripts are included in the regular catalogue with the books, but the library is working on a project to catalogue them in a special database more suited to manuscripts. This will allow for better searching.
3-4,000 vistors per year grace the library, but they receive 15-18,000 questions, sinde most inquiries are made via email or post. Around 7,000 items are used annually, including those in the library and manuscripts, etc. A total of 12 staff members, full- and part-time, handle this workload.

The most fascinating part of our visit was when two of the specialist librarians, Mike and Renee, showed us some of their special favorites from the collection. Some of my favorites are described below.
  • "Journal of Capt. Charles Carlile, Francis, relating the burning of the Trompeuse, 1683": What impressed me so much about this one was actually the incredible penmanship of the captain. I know we always think old handwriting looks beautiful, but that's mainly due to the flourishes and the effect of quills and fountain pens. This man had truly impressive penmanship.
  • "USS Chesapeake: A set of signals presented to the Navy of the United States by John Barry, Virginia, 1800": This signal book was captured along with the Chesapeake by the HMS Shannon in 1813. This small book has a row of musket balls sewn onto the binding with a strip of cloth (probably sailcloth), so it would sink rather than be captured by the enemy in just such a situation. Obviously - and fortunately for us old book lovers - nobody managed to throw it overboard in this case.
  • "Victualling Account 1558": Large and beautiful, bound in vellum, this account book includes some marvelous details, such as a leather, belt-like strap with criss-crossed gut stitching as a closure, and a cut up section of an illuminated, Latin manuscript as spine reinforcement. This use of the manuscript reminded me of the Islamic bindings we saw at the art library, from which the book blocks were cut out as unwanted, or to use the pictures from the texts.
  • "Domestic medicine: or a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines/William Buchan dated 1779": While the text itself is not uncommon, this particular copy was owned by the doctor on the Bounty. The cover, sporting a sailcloth binding, has the words "H.B.M.S. Bounty" on the back. The name of the unfortunate doctor, who died during the voyage, is written - and crossed out - inside the front cover.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The first part of our tour was conducted by Assistant Librarian Frances Warren. This portion of the tour was not easy to follow, due to the speed and volume of Ms. Warren's speech. She also had a tendency to leap suddenly from one point to another; or perhaps it just seemed so, because I was missing a fair portion of what she said. She was very knowledgable about the library and its collection, but her inexperience with tours showed. Nevertheless, this is not a critique of her skills as a docent, rather an introduction to what is likely to be a somewhat disjointed blog entry.

The public areas of the library consist of two spacious rooms with upper galleries, the reading room and the 'center room'. The reading room is a space for silent study, and the center room is where visitors can register to use the library - Getting access to certain items actually requires references - make reference inquiries, request items, and make copies. For newer items, there are copy machines, but for older books there is a camera stand, which is a wonderful idea that many libraries could use! Patrons are also welcome to use their own cameras.

There area also three stories of closed access areas, for staff only. The first is called the Marshalling Area, where item requests are sent. Users fill out a request slip, which is put through a hatch, where a staff person takes it to find the item. Patrons must take an assigned seat number upon arrival, which is used on the request slip for bringing them their item. Interesting system.
Behind the Marshalling Area are the periodical stacks. The library has 8,000 periodicals, 2,000 of which are current, and the oldest of which date from Victorian times. Most of these are kept in hard copy, because they are used in museum displays. Most are also bound, but this is not being done as much recently both because of their desirability for displays and cost.
The second floor contains special collections in locked cabinets, for which staff keep approximately 20 sets of keys. These contain such items as medieval manuscripts, 15th- and 16th-centuries printing presses, and artists' correspondence.
The second floor also includes the staff areas, including the staff library - from which books can be taken home - Interlibrary loan services, cataloguing, and acquisitions. Items which are in process are retrievable, and can be catalogued quickly if someone requests them. The library's budget is very tight, and all donations of decent quality are accepted.
Exhibition and sales catalogues from the 18th-century on are kept on the third floor. In the past they were arranged by country, gallery, and year, but more recently by size, as space runs out. Ms. Warren pointed out the importance checking the press mark before going in search of an item.

The second part of our tour consisted of a small display presented by Librarian Jennie Farmer. This included samples of the types of books found in the collection, as well as examples of some of the conservation issues they encounter and how they have dealt with them, now and in the past. Amazingly, we were allowed to touch and photograph all of these items, even though some of them must have been incredibly rare, such as Jonathan Swift's own copies of Gulliver's Travel, and a proof of David Copperfield, with Charles Dickens' corrections and edits in the margins.
Some of the types of books represented were those on the history of the museum and library, such as Victorian catalogues of books on art; an early (1499) example of a printed book; catalogues; fashion books; Islamic bindings; and books that are art. Ms. Farmer noted with sadness that the many examples of Islamic bindings are both beautiful and sad, since the Victorian collectors did not value the contents of the books, only the bindings; as a result, the books were removed and only the bindings preserved.
In terms of conservation, only very valuable books, and those needed for museum displays are properly preserved by the conservationists. Otherwise, according to Ms. Farmer, the goal is to preserve the items in their current state, and keep them usable. Many techniques are used, including placing items in what is called a 'phase box' (because, theoretically, they are for phase 1 of the conservation process; in this case, that is their final phase), covering them with dust jackets, placing them in plastic sleeves or envelopes, and creating photocopied versions for use.

The aspect of this library collection that pleased and impressed me the most, is how committed the librarians are to keeping the items usable. It was amazing to be able to handle all of these items. Indescribable, really.

Museum of London

Our visit to the Museum of London was a bit different from our others, in that it did not involve a library. However, the work of a museum curator does overlap with that of a librarian in some areas, such as researching, creating displays, and cataloguing collections. On this visit, the curator of prehistory, Jon Cotton, was our guide.
He began with a slide show offering an overview of the museum's history, and also that of the prehistory collection, which are in some ways at odds. As the world's largest urban history museum, it focuses on the history of London as a city, which really began with Roman occupation in the first century A.D. Well, the Romans, as a literate people, are disqualified from being classified as 'prehistorical'. So the issue Mr. Cotton has faced is that of presenting the prehistory of the place which would become London.
His task was made more difficult by the lack of inclusion in the national school curriculum of prehistorical Britain, as well as the public's lack of in-depth understanding of what, exactly, prehistorical times were (the second problem resulting at least in part from the first, I'm sure).

In order to get an idea of where they were starting from, the museum surveyed visitors about what the term 'prehistory' meant to them, and discovered that people's initial responses tended to be superficial and stereotypical - for example, dinosaurs (the most popular answer), Flintstones, and cavemen - even after viewing the exhibits.
The museum wanted to create an exhibit which would help visitors to think of prehistoric people as having the same complexities as modern people, ingenious and adaptable in their response to the world, and as individuals. Mr. Cotton felt these were the keys to changing the public's perception.
When the new prehistory gallery was being planned, the design company chosen had a retail rather than a museum background, since the museum wanted a different approach. The curators wanted to focus on four key messages:
  • Climate: because of its affect on people and their effect on it
  • The River: as the central element of London's existence
  • The People: prehistoric does not mean 'savage' or 'idiot'
  • Legacy: the 'history' - as it were - of the prehistoric people of the area did not end with the arrival of the Romans, but continued on alongside Roman life.
Within the context of these desired messages, three design elements were decided upon:
  • A Landscape Wall along the outer wall of the room, used to provide a setting for the environment - natural and manmade - in which the prehistoric people lived: This area contains images of the natural world, including those in which prehistoric sites have been found; carved wooden diagrams of regional archaeological sites; and excerpts of narratives meant to reflect the possible experience of the prehistoric residents of the sites. These elements are arranged in the form of a timeline, moving from the earliest times to the present.
  • A series of plinths arranged within the space to display the artifacts and tell the story: The plinths are set up to take the visitor through the room chronologically. In addition to the usual artifacts and their explanations are videos showing how objects were made and used, in some cases by real people - such as how a large piece of flint would have been worked down into a handaxe - in some cases using computer animation.
  • A River Wall along the inner wall of the room, consisting of glass display cases backlit in blue, to emphasize the place of the river: This is used to display the many artifacts found in the Thames itself.
I especially liked the way that audio tracks were used to help set the atmosphere, not just in the prehistory room, but in the various exhibits. The prehistory room featured mainly bird and animal sounds, where the Roman exhibit consisted of street sounds such as voices and cart wheels on stone.

Overall, Mr. Cotton impressed upon me his strong belief in the powerful effect of place on people, and how integral that sense of place is to understanding people. The very personal connection he feels for 'his' people contributes greatly to the effectiveness of his displays.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Barbican Library

The visit to the Barbican Library was quite a contrast to the East End Idea Stores the previous day. I believe this was the first public library I have ever visited in which the staff claimed to have as much funding as they needed - in fact, one of the librarians even felt a little guilty about it.
The library is located in the Barbican Centre, an arts center in the city of London. Because the library is part of an arts center, the collection specializes in the various arts, as well as being an all-purpose public library, and includes two spaces for rotating art exhibits near the entrance. There is currently a two year wait for the space.

The Children's Library

The children's library employs two full-time librarians and six part-time assistants. Their duties and responsibilities are the same as those of children's librarians in the U.S. They supply books and A/V materials to children, and offer a fairly full calendar of events, such as storytimes - to both the public and school/day-care groups - crafts, arts, and other learning opportunities, and a book discussion group for older children. They also make visits to nursery schools fairly regularly, since there seem to be frequent staff shortages, which prevent the schools from being able to bring the children to the library. The librarians do not want the children to lose regular contact with the library. The children's library is heavily used, with about 25 children attending weekly story times.
The library is also expected to carry out several government initiatives, some of which do not come with extra funding, and can therefore be a hardship for some libraries. One of these, Book Smart, provides three book/activity packs for all children born in Britain before they are 5 years old: for age 0+, 18mos+, and 36mos+
I did note a couple of differences in children's services. The first is in the ages served. This library serves children from ages 0-14, and after that, they are expected to use the adult collection. There is a YA collection, but it is very small (and consisting mainly of Graphic Novels) as it seems to serve only as a transition from children's to adult materials. With the abundance of books written for older teens, I wonder if those are kept in the adult collection. Unfortunately, I didn't think to ask.
The other notable difference is in how the children's staff deals with age-appropriateness of materials. According to Amanda Owens, the children's librarian conducting our tour, staff will go check with parents if children younger than 11 or so want to check something out from the adult collection, or maybe even if they are trying to check something out in the children's collection that is for a much older child. While our children's librarians will discuss book choices with children in order to help them be sure they are really getting what they expect and want, library staff certainly do not go get parents to approve choices at check out time, as this would clearly violate privacy laws. I wish the librarians had had enough time to discuss differences in attitudes towards privacy between the U.S. and Britain, pertaining to both adults and children.

The Music Library

Our tour of the Barbican Music Library was impressively conducted by Liz Wells, one of the two music librarians on staff. The Barbican's music collection is one of the two largest in London. As a result of the Barbican Centre's role as an arts center, the library alloted space to build a music collection from scratch. Because it was started in the 1980s, the collection consists mainly of modern materials, including recordings, scores, and books and periodicals about music. The facility is used heavily by students, due to the large number of colleges in the City of London.

The library owns approximately 16,500 CDs, covering as many genres as possible: classical, jazz, musicals, film music, country, world, folk, and pop/rock. They are arranged only by main genre, and not separated into subgenres, as this would certainly cause classification difficulties in the pop/rock collection. Within each genre, the items are simply arranged alphabetically. The librarians add approximately 60-70 new CDs per month, and must be diligent in weeding, because of limited space. The Barbican CD collection is not archival. Interestingly, patrons must pay a fee of 40p per item to take out CDs.
According to Ms. Wells, the library has recently experienced a reduction in CD circulation; as a result, they are looking at other options for providing access to recorded music to patrons. They currently subscribe to an online database called NAXOS Music Library, through which library card holders can listen to - but not download - tracks from 20,000 CDs.
As the service has only been available since January, and usage has already reached 700 per month, they are attempting to convince the library to subsciribe to another service, as well, whose holdings include the entire Smithsonian collection, as well as music reference materials. Ms. Wells believes this service would also be heavily used. Currently, users have access to Oxford Music Online for music reference.

The library has a music DVD collection, which is not particularly large nor well used. Ms. Wells believes this is mainly due to the very high cost of £2.75 per DVD for a one week check out period. This is much higher than what is paid either to video stores or online services. The only advantage the library has is that some of its items are not available for rental anywhere. The music librarians have been trying to convince the library's governing authorities to lower the cost to a more reasonable level, so more people will make use of the collection.
I was frankly surprised to see that there was a usage fee for any of the materials at all, but one of my classmates on the tour told me that her library charges for movies, as well. I wonder now how common that is in the U.S. and if it is common here. That is not something I looked for on my tours of the Idea Stores, but I would like to know now.

In their collection of scores, the library tries to cover all genres, as in their CD collection, and also all skill levels. Unlike their CD collection, however, they try not to weed their scores, since so many go out of print and therefore become unavailable elsewhere. One thing I found particularly interesting and appealing was that all of their scores are bound. It is very expensive to bind them, Ms. Wells said, but it obviously extends their lives dramatically, as well as making them very much easier to shelve. Even small, individual works are bound in clear-fronted report covers.
While the books about music are arranged by Dewey, this system does not work as well for musical scores. For this collection, the library uses a system called McColvin and Reeves, which breaks items down by the type of score. So at the beginning, scores are divided by individual instrument, building up through duets, trios, etc. to large orchestral pieces. This same pattern is used for vocal music.
The librarians have to do a lot of original cataloguing, since there are no records available through the usual sources for many of their materials.

Possibly the most unusual feature for a public library is the electric piano, which can be listened to only through headphones, and can be booked for practice sessions.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Idea Stores

Today I visited two "Idea Stores" in Tower Hamlet, which is is in the East End of London. Idea Stores are basically combination libraries/community education centers, and came about as a result of a community survey in the 1990s, which caused the local council to rethink how better to meet the community's needs (

The first one I visited is in the area of the city known as Bow, and was the first Idea Store to open, in 2002. It is located on Roman Road, a busy market street in the neighborhood. The library had previously been less conveniently located at the far end of the road, and interestingly, the building the Idea Store moved into is an addition to a public library building originally built in 1901 (
This Idea Store appears to be heavily used and underfunded (what's new for public libraries?). While there were not a large number of patrons there on this weekday morning, there were people in every area, and unused spaces showed evidence of use. The front entry led into a very reasonably priced cafe, with library and classroom spaces on either side.
There was a career advisor employed by the council at a table near the entrance, offering career advice, job resources, resume assistance, etc. Her job involves outreach to the community, so she comes to the Idea Store once or twice a week.

The second Idea Store I visited is in Whitechapel, and is the largest of the four. The building is five stories high, each containing a different portion of the library collection, and all with program rooms and Internet computers. The cafe in this branch is on the top floor, and affords an excellent view of the area.
Every floor was in use during my visit - it seemed to be succeeding in its role as an all-purpose community gathering area. There was a class going on in one of the designated rooms, the computers were in use on every floor, several people were gathered in the cafe for lunch, chatting, watching the wide-screen TV, and reading. In fact, there were patrons reading quietly on every floor. It did seem to have a fairly small number of people in it, in relationship to the density and busyness of the surrounding neighborhood; but it was the middle of a weekday, so it was hard to judge. This branch, while appearing to have more money, also seemed underfunded, in that the number of books and staff members available, like Bow, did not seem to be proportionate to either the size of the building or the population of the neighborhood.

I have to say, I don't think much of the name 'Idea Store', but I like the concept behind it. These libraries, or I should say former libraries - the staff really don't call them libraries; I don't know whether this is by choice or coersion, but I have my suspicions, based on personal experience - are really trying to do something worthwhile for the urban neighborhoods in which they're located. I don't know enough about London to speak of the entire East End, but these two areas, at least, were clearly not affluent, and Whitechapel had a large immigrant population. They are trying to make themselves a safe, comfortable central gathering place for their communities.

British Library

Our visit to the British Library was just as fantastic as St. Paul's, but completely different. Our tour guide, Kevin, the Donations Officer, made us very welcome.

Although the building houses a gift shop, art galleries, a cafe, etc, Kevin pointed out that it is, in fact a working library; the books are just out of sight, on four floors underground. The library has three legal obligations:
1. To acquire the entire bibliographic output of the nation
2. To keep it archived forever
3. To make the collections available for use
It is also their professional duty to maintain and compile the bibliographic record of all the contents of the library. The library has a staff of 2,300 and an annual budget of £120 million with which to fulfill these obligations. The British Library is the third largest in the world, with a collection of around 35 million items on the underground shelving, which grows by about 3 million items per year.

A national collection began when Sir Hans Sloane, a philanthropist and scholar who believed that all knowledge should be shared, left his personal library to the nation is 1753. Other wealthy men followed his example in bequeathing their collections to the state. The national collection was, for many years, housed in the British Museum.
The decision to create a national library was made in the 1960s, but did not come to fruition until the 1970s. For many years the library was scattered amongst several buildings. Eventually all public records collections were brought under the umbrella of the British Library, which was finally able to move into a single building in 1998.

The books in the library are not classified by subject; they are not classified at all, but rather shelved according to size, due to space restrictions. The spine labels are marked with a grid reference showing location, rather than a classification mark.
Patrons must know the books they are looking for, and place a request with a staff member. These requests are then printed out downstairs, and brought up by an "automated book retrieval system," one of four systems which interact with each other to keep track of all the books.
Even thought the books are stored and retrieved this way, the various reading rooms are separated by subject, so that patrons have access to staff members who are experts in the subjects they are researching.
35% of library users are researchers from overseas, who come for the extensive collections of items in foreign languages.

Probably the most incredible part of the active collection, for me, was the library of King George III. He left 19,000 books to the library on the condition that they be on display and available for use. They are displayed in a multi-story glass case in the center of the library, with a small elevator for traveling to the walkways within the case to retrieve requested books.

The very best overall part of the library was the room of historical books and documents. Some of the amazing things I saw in there include:
  • Beowulf - oldest known copy, fully bound
  • Shakespeare's First Folio
  • Letter from Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra
  • Booklet with a story by Jane Austen, written as a young woman, dedicated to her sister, Cassandra ("To Miss Austen")
  • Asian book (Korean?), written on a scroll, in gold ink on a background dyed with indigo
  • Illuminated hymnal (maybe a psalter?) from the mid-13th century, written over the course of several years by a single scribe
  • Handwritten Beatles lyrics by John and Paul on various scraps of paper; A Hard Day's Night on a card from John to Julian for his first birthday
*Note of interest: the English are apparently willing to insert humor even into an environment considered too serious for jokes by Americans. The description of the plot of Beowulf included a parenthetical about Gredel's "(not necessarily attractive) mother." I love it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

St. Paul's Cathedral Library

The current incarnation of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, designed by architect Christopher Wren, was completed in the early 18th century, the library of which is housed in one of two rooms designed for that purpose. The collection is overseen by the wonderfully charming and witty librarian, Joseph Wisdom.

Mr. Wisdom showed us how artwork and design were used in various spaces in the cathedral to indicate the purpose of the space, including in the rooms intended for the library. Sculpted design elements built into the room are rife with books and scrolls.
While not all the books in the library are on theology, these, as well as related materials - such as liturgical texts, bibles, ecclesiastical history and law, and books on the lives of the saints - do form the core of the collection. Other subjects represented in the collection include Greek & Roman classics, civil history and law, political texts, and a small number of books on science and medicine.
The books in the library are arranged generally by subject, but are not confined to a strict classification system, being shelved by size within their subject areas, largest to smallest from the bottom to the top. The stacks are numbered, the individual shelves labeled with letters, which are used for locating books.

A major issue in a historical library such as St. Paul's is, obviously, preservation. Mr. Wisdom drew a distinction between conservation and restoration, making it clear that conservation is the goal of the library - that is, keeping the books intact and usable - as opposed to restoration, the purpose of which is appearance. His philosophy of conservation is "as much as necessary, as little as possible" (J. Wisdom, 2008). He also made clear that anything done to a book should be reversible. Some of the problems the library faces involve environmental limitations of the past, such as south-facing, opening windows (having been necessary for light and air), as well as technological shortcomings like badly-tanned leather (accounting for the beef jerky-like smell of the place).

A couple of particularly special books in the collection are a 12th/13th-century illuminated psalter and a very large 17th-century illustrated bible, which we unfortunately were not able to see the inside of, due to a cracking cover.

On a personal note, as Mr. Wisdom spoke of the interesting items he finds in old books, I was struck by the great difference in the two worlds of historical libraries and public libraries. For his goose-feather quills, old letters and pressed flowers, dutifully recorded and returned to the book, we get dead cockroaches, utility bills and dog poo. If we're lucky, a really cute bookmark.