Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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.

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