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.

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