Tuesday, July 22, 2014

History with a dash of heat wave

Mass confusion and security checks. Thus began our visit to the Westminster Abbey Library!

The biggest issue was locating the library. The main entrance to the abbey, with the line of people waiting to go in didn't take us there. The back exit near the shop was also incorrect. So how was one even to find the library? Through the cloisters! On our way, we were stopped by a number of security guards asking where we were going, and we all had our bags searched. This was one of the libraries with the tightest security we have been on this trip (I think the British Library wins).

We finally found the door labeled "Librarian and Keeper of Muniments." After being buzzed through the doors, everyone immediately began fanning their notebooks on their faces. It was an unnatural 80-degree day in London, but the inside of the library was significantly more stifling.

Entrance to the Westminster Abbey Library
We were given another excellent history lesson by the librarian (I think when I get back to the States, I will devour any British history book I come across as the people I have talked to on this trip have truly inspired me to learn more!). As the coronation church since 1066, Westminster Abbey has survived political turmoil over the centuries. When Henry VIII decided to close down all the monasteries, the books were destroyed or sold. Queen Elizabeth I reestablished the monasteries and worked to provide a new library. William Camden was the first librarian in 1587, but John Williams in 1620 is considered to be the founder of the library that exists today. He added the shelves (which are sagging with the weight) and a number of books.

This used to be a chained library, but all of the chains have since been removed. I never did make it to see one of the few existing chained libraries, and I was pleased to hear that I was standing in one even though the books didn't show any sign of once having long chains attached.

Most of the collection was acquired through gifts, and today is deemed to be a closed collection as they very rarely acquire new materials. The collection represents a wide variety of materials, ranging from the writings of the early Church fathers, historical materials, and British literature.

Anyone is welcome to come and use the reading room (materials can be found through the ESTC), but appointments are required. Only two people can fit inside the reading room at a time! There is nowhere to charge a laptop, but use of one must also be approved for logistical concerns. The library has some issues meeting modern needs on account of the location's age, but the librarian seems to do everything in his power to compensate. Like the many librarians and archivists we have met on this trip, our host was kind, welcoming and extremely intelligent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The past lives on

After our trip to Scotland, we were free to go anywhere we wished on our 5-day mini-break. I chose this opportunity to visit the Palace Green Library in Durham, as I believed this institution would be a fantastic asset in my final research paper on special collection development. Jon Purcell graciously offered a guided tour through the non-public parts of the library.

View of the Palace Green Library (on the left) and the Durham Castle (back) from the tower in the Durham Cathedral
Durham University is one of the older universities in England, but the Palace Green Library (which houses the special collections for the university) has its origins centuries before the university's founding. John Cosin, the Bishop of Durham, founded a public library in 1669. This library is still in its original building inside the Palace Green Library, and the original university library books are up in the gallery of the Cosin Library. Walking into this bright and cozy library, I hope I closed my jaw before I looked like a gaping fish. An image truly cannot capture the sense of traveling to another time, one in which the beauty of books and the sanctity of the library is revered.

Cosin Library
I also saw the Routh and Bamburgh libraries, each untouched by time. All three libraries have been organized exactly the way the owners left the library. The Cosin Library, for example, has shelf marks based on the portraits hung above the shelves.

Original shelf list catalogues in the Bamburgh Library
Interestingly, more of Sudan's national documents exist in the Durham libraries than in Sudan. Over the years, they have been contacted in an attempt to give the documents to Sudan, but since the documents are all available online the libraries are not willing to lose a major collection.

Cosin Library and Exchequer Building (part of Palace Green Library)
Over tea, we discussed the various aspects of Palace Green's collection development policy. The library relies heavily on donations, as is apparent through its long history of entire libraries gifted to the institution. Therefore, a lengthy gift policy detailing procedures and types of materials accepted is available online. Even if the gift is not something the library wishes to acquire, they will do their best to find a good home for the material. Based on our conversation, there doesn't seem to be a budget for the purchase of new materials, but there is a board that raises money if a desired item comes on the market. Once new items are catalogued, they can be searched and located through COPAC, the union catalogue for all research libraries in the UK.

After this visit, I'm confident using the Palace Green Library in the final paper is a solid choice. Jon was a wonderful host, and shared a lot of great information about the history of the institution. His passion for the history and mission of the library is apparent in the programs, exhibitions and goals--the past is very much a part of the present and the collections are given new life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Church or library?

Upon walking into the New College Library, I was a bit confused. Did I just walk into a church?

New College Library
Indeed, the library was the Free High Church until 1934. The stained glass windows, and the bookcases that bear striking resemblance to pews reveal the original purpose of the space. The ends of the bookcases are actually the carvings from the pews, and each one has a different design.

As this is an academic library, primarily students pursuing masters and doctoral degrees use it. New College is an school in the University of Edinburgh offering degrees in theology, divinity and religious studies. Members of the public are welcome, but there is a subscription fee in place.

Our hostess graciously pulled some of the library's treasures for us to view during our visit. On display was a first edition of a 1611 King James Bible, a sermon written by John Knox, and a Torah Scroll. I was most intrigued by the scroll, as it is in remarkable condition and little it known about its provenance.

Torah Scroll
New College Library is one of the UK's largest libraries specializing in theology. The majority of the materials are related to the Protestant tradition, but recently there has been a shift to include all religions. In the collection are 250,000 items, with 50,000 considered to be special collections. To meet the qualifications of a special collection item, it must have been produced before 1850 or be a unique item. We were given guided tours through the three levels of stacks. The books used to be catalogued using Union Theological Seminary classification, but now almost all of the books are organized based on Library of Congress.

Stacks in New College Library
Interestingly, the librarians indicated that the special collections are not the property of New College Library. Instead, they belong to the Church of Scotland. New College does not have a budget for the acquisition of new materials. Anything acquired has come from the generosity of a donor and based on the suggestions of the researchers who use the library.

There are, however, some funds for conservation. Although there isn't a line in the budget for conservation, funding comes from the sale of books and from the Church of Scotland. While in the stacks, I noticed a shelf of materials labeled as needing work. Minor repairs were needed to ensure the integrity of the resource, but for the most part the books held in the library were in phenomenal condition.           

And the award goes to...

Of all the libraries I have seen thus far in this program, I am most impressed with the use of innovative technology at the Central Library in Edinburgh. Instead of stumbling to reach the line of technological advancements like most libraries, Central Library appears to stride confidently in front of that line to provide its patrons with invaluable resources.

Strategic planning is something all libraries must do, especially to ensure that every patron's need will continue to be met. Central Library has a clear vision for meeting (and in my opinion, surpassing) these needs. The focus of their Next Generation Strategy is threefold: social, digital and physical. All are given equal importance in library services and illustrates the library as a community center.

Four resources available through the Central Library are truly inspiring and representative of the Next Generation Strategy goals.
For a quick dose of local history, this is the perfect resource. One can find short stories about local figures, old photographs and maps illustrating the ways in which a modern city is rooted in the past. Personally, I enjoyed the personal time machine the street views of contemporary photographs overlaying old photographs provided.

Load this resource, and you will see a Google map of Edinburgh populated with book covers. Each of these books have an identifiable and mappable location within the city, thus providing an excellent resource for those who wish to read something close to home (or who are like me and gobble up anything about Scotland or Edinburgh). To the side of the map is a brief synopsis of the listed resources. The books listed here are held by one of the libraries in the system and the listing links to the catalog record, providing easy access to the material.

As the first fully transactional mobile app in the UK, Central Library has made tremendous strides to enable library access from anywhere at any time. This remarkable app allows patrons to search the catalog and renew items as well as view the library blog and news. Say you're in an overpriced bookstore and you found a book you can't live without (not an uncommon occurrence)--with this app you could scan the book's barcode and instantly know whether that book is owned by the library. My favorite part, however, is the public transportation journey planner. How much easier my stay in Edinburgh would have been if I had only known this existed a few days ago!

Children's area

The children's area of the library recently underwent major renovations. With the advice of librarians (imagine that!) the area was transformed into a bright, colorful and mobile environment. With shelves at the proper height, art on the walls, accent lights that change colors and furniture that could be easily moved it's hard to imagine any other place a child could feel more welcome. This children's area is also completely separated from the rest of the library, so the young ones can be as loud as they want and not disrupt other patrons.
Area for young children

Sitting in that "tree" would have been my favorite reading place as a kid

Fun places to sit in the chapter book room

If one thing is clear, the Central Library has a dedicated and progressive staff willing to take on a challenge (and enjoy it!). I can only hope to one day be employed in an environment of talented and dedicated colleagues, in an area receiving a wealth of community support. I highly recommend that all library students (and anyone else looking for a dose of professional inspiration) chat with Central Library's staff to explore a library's potential and experience forward-thinking innovations. 

And besides, how can a library with a dalek be anything but awesome?
Dalek in the public library

Monday, July 14, 2014

Like a kid in a candy shop

We are all familiar with the standard exhibition case--that rectangular glass box on top of spindly legs. Most libraries and archives use this to display some sort of object. The National Library of Scotland created a different approach.

Exhibitions are a method for outreach and engagement with the material. In an age where numbers = dollars (how many people come through the door, how many reference requests, how often has this item been used...etc.) exhibitions are an excellent way of increasing public awareness of resources. The National Library has a few rooms set aside as exhibition space, in addition to areas within the reading rooms.

In one of the rooms is a permanent exhibition relating to the John Murray Archive, a large collection of the publishing firm's history. Several well-known authors have had relations with the company, and their writings are included in the archive. These authors include Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Lord Byron and Washington Irving.

Image from the National Library of Scotland
The exhibition room is dark, with only colored accent lights and digital window scenes to guide the way. The front of the room is designed to look like Murray's drawing room, with bookcases along the wall and stuffed armchairs in front of the fireplace. The digital windows depict the street view, and if one looks long enough, some of the figures walking by will be easily recognized.

There are tall glass cylinders filled with objects relating to a specific author, with touchscreens in front. Pressing on the touchscreen will activate the exhibit, and lights will come on in the column. The room is kept dark so as to not damage the manuscripts or other materials in the cases. Each case had a complete outfit, a document and objects related to the character. The touchscreens give the viewer more information about the objects in the case, and a transcription of the manuscript. There is an option to have the transcription spoken aloud, as a way of increasing access and adding a level of curator interpretation on the contents of the document. It's also a way for viewers to have a personal connection with the material and see a human element in something that may have little significance otherwise. After the touchscreen has been idle, the lights inside the column dim.

Image from the National Library of Scotland as photographs were prohibited. The actual John Murray Exhibition Room was darker than this image portrays.

The contents in some of the cases change every few months, but this is otherwise a permanent exhibition. The library staff truly took a risk in creating an exhibit space so unlike any other, but the rewards are great. Our attention was certainly captivated, and the ambience set by the lighting added an entire new layer of engagement and interest in the material. If I am ever responsible for an exhibit in my future career, I will look to the National Library of Scotland as an example, and do my best to avoid the boring square glass cases.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sometimes it's the small things that have the greatest impact

The Wiener Library is the world's oldest Holocaust collection, and quite possibly the largest.  In the 1920s, Alfred Weiner began to collect newspaper clippings that had a focus on Nazi work. Later, he worked to gather first-hand accounts of Kristallnacht. After Hitler came to power, the collection moved to Amsterdam and later to the UK for protection, but unfortunately not all materials made it across the English Chanel. Even while in London, the collection has a history of moving. The collection was first brought to Manchester Square in 1939, and then was moved to Devonshire Street in 1956. The final move to Russell Square in 2011 added some benefits to library services--the new facility has better exhibition and teaching spaces, and is equipped with climate control.

This new location is not in an obvious location. It's not a standalone building, and looks rather like an entrance to someone's living quarters. To enter, one must ring for the door to be unlocked, where the visitor is welcomed into the exhibition space. Upstairs is a small reading room, where a reference assistant can help find the desired resources.

Weiner Library Reading Room
Due to its unique nature, the materials are organized based on subject in a classification scheme developed solely for the materials in the collection. Some of the subjects include "Church and the Third Reich," "Anti-Nazi Writings" and "Nazi Ideology." Each of the subjects is assigned a letter, which form the beginning of the shelf markings.

Today, the collection is still growing. The Holocaust has been covered quite extensively, and now the library is attempting to fill in some of the larger gaps on other genocides, historical material and other non-Jewish groups. Although the collection is primarily manuscript and book (with 2,0000 document collections and 70,000 books), the library has recently acquired digital and audio-visual material.

Digitization efforts are just beginning at the Weiner Library. A newly created Digital Curator position has been filled, and the collection of 17,000 photographs are priority for digitization. These efforts will establish a greater presence in the scholarly community, one in which the Weiner Library is already closely connected and relies heavily upon for information on existing resources waiting to be acquired by the library.

Of all the libraries I have visited in my life, I'd have to say the Weiner Library was the most narrowly focused on subject content, and it's fantastic to see so many resources on the topic under one roof. There is also something overwhelming about submersing oneself into the one of the darkest periods in human history, and I found my visit to be enriching. The small library staff seems to be more of a family, and they graciously welcomed us into their home to share their extensive knowledge.

Too much and not enough

This morning's trip to the British Museum left me with two thoughts: too much of a good thing can be bad, and although an institution's mission centers on the preservation of history one cannot assume all departments are treated equally.  

Inside the British Museum

The British Museum was founded in 1753, and opened its doors in 1759 as the world's first national public museum. From the beginning, entrance to view the nation's treasures was free. Its early days saw 4-5,000 visitors per year, carefully regulated through a mandatory application process and escorted hour-long journeys through the museum. Today, people are free to come and go as they wish. I witnessed the results firsthand--hordes of people making it difficult to maneuver through the exhibits and see the items. Trending in museums and libraries is the idea of increasing public access. I never thought there should be a limit until this more frustrating than beneficial experience at the British Museum. Allowing people to see the valued cultural and historical artifacts for free is truly remarkable, but in this case the cost outweighed the benefits. With this much difficulty in the middle of a working day, I cannot begin to imagine what a weekend must look like. I'm too afraid to go back and find out!

Beneath the museum and through security doors lies the museum archives. The entire documented history is tucked away in cramped quarters. Many of the volumes are crumbling and in serious need of conservation work. Housed here are the original papers, staff records, finance papers, gift records, trustee minutes, excavation records and reading room registers. Although the public can use the materials in the archives, it is unlikely that a prospective user will even think to contact the archives, as a catalogue of materials is not available to the public. The archivist currently maintaining the collection indicated that a catalogue is in progress, but this will take time. 

Cramped quarters of the archives

All users of the reading room were required to apply for a ticket. If one cares to decipher the signatures in the reading room registers, several literary giants including Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be found among the pages. The British Museum once had a grand collection of books and manuscripts, but slowly lost those resources to the British Library. The Cotton and Sloane manuscripts, mainly consisting of medieval documents, were sent to the British Library in the 1970s. Today, the reading room is used as an exhibition space since the remaining books were transferred to the British Library in 1997. 

Can you spot Bram Stoker's signature in this reading room register?