Thursday, July 29, 2010

King's College Maughan Library Tour

The final tour we took as part of this trip was to the King's College Maughan Library. For me, this tour held particular interest because I have done some exploring of the Franklin-Wilkins café and Information Services Centre, and also because of the way the library, housed in a quintessentially Victorian building, is adapting to current trends in library services to best meet the need of their 21st century users.

The Maughan Library holds 3/4 of a million items, has seating for about 1,000 students, and computer stations for about 300 students. The Library serves the Strand campus of King's College, and has close relationships with the University of London, among others, and extends access to affiliates of these universities. In addition to housing the Foyle Special Collections Library, the Library holds legal, music, humanities, and natural science materials, as well as films and audio recordings in various formats, all of which support the studies of students on the Strand campus.

The Library moved into its current home, the old Public Record Office building, in 2001. The building was designed to hold a large volume of paper-based materials, and consequently, its load-bearing capability did not have to be enhanced. Many restrictions applied to the renovation of the building, because of its age and historic importance, but the resultant spaces were very clean and tastefully decorated, if a little confusing to navigate.

The library is putting into place several further innovations in its services. They have already installed wi-fi in the building, and are in the process of implementing RFID technology and self-checkout stations, bringing staff away from service desks to provide roaming services, and creating more collaborative student work spaces to complement their silent study spaces. I was interested to see that these services were chosen for the mix of new services, because these are all innovations I have seen becoming widespread, not so much in university libraries, but in UK and US public libraries, which are generally well-attuned to their users' wants and needs and committed (budget permitting) to satisfying these needs.

Another innovation I noticed before visiting the library. As part of the research for my final paper, I had looked the King's College Libraries up online, and had discovered that they fell under the umbrella of Information Services Centres. This was a term I was unfamiliar with, so I looked it up: on the ISCs and Libraries webpage, it says

Information services centres (ISCs) and libraries, situated across all campuses, provide access to multi-disciplinary print and electronic information resources and local IT services.

I am intrigued by this concept: on one hand, it suggests that libraries are primarily providers of books, but it ties them in tightly information-related services that students will need and use. It would seem some other people are grappling with the idea: at Franklin-Wilkins, there is a white address label with "Library" written on it in green sharpie next to the ISC label on the building's floor directory. Part of the difficulty in innovations, even if they are good ones, is more than securing funding or staffing to remodel buildings and RFID tag books: people are used to the old way of doing things whether or not the old way is "best."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Doing Research: University of Sheffield

Image: St. Pancras Domestic

Yesterday, I hopped on a train from St. Pancras up to Sheffield to do research at the St. George's Library, one of the University of Sheffield Libraries. I will be looking at the University Libraries in my research paper, and the University has the best-ranked LIS school in the UK, so they also hold a large collection of LIS materials.

Image: View out a little back window, St. George's Library, Sheffield

I had received a very encouraging response from the Libraries in reply to my question about ILI resources, which emboldened me to take the 2-hour trip up. As promised, I was readily admitted to the library to use their materials (reference only). The St. George's Library is small for a university library, but there was a lot to choose from in the way of LIS books and journals, on both general and specific topics. Internet access and wifi in the building was limited to those associated with U Sheffield, so I worked old-school style: browsing the stacks, taking notes with pencil and paper, and digging through (gasp) bound copies of journals. It was a surprise to find Dewey in use at a university library, as all the universities I've visited in the States use LC, but I am much better at Dewey, so it was a good surprise. As an online student accustomed to finding all my materials online, it took a conscious effort to switching gears from online searching to shelf searching, but flipping around in paper books turned out to be quite comforting. I also got a lot of help from the employee at the Information desk. He got a gold star for giving bang-on directions to materials in stacks on another floor, another for being quite polite (not a prerequisite for desk work in any country, I've been sorry to find), and a third for wearing a plaid shirt. I do love plaid shirts.

Best of all, I found plenty of information to get me on the right track with the rest of my research!

National Archives of Scotland Tour

Image: frieze in National Archives Reading Room

On our second day in Scotland, our final tour was the National Archives of Scotland. By this time, we had toured several legal repositories, special collections, and another archive, so we had seen not only a variety of collections, but also a variety of approaches to making their collections accessible to users. I don't know if I could pick a favorite collection, but I can say the National Archives was my favorite archive/special collection in terms of their approach to making their collections accessible to users.

As with all repositories we had seen so far, the National Archives holds a vast amount of material: legal, commercial, and court records being some of the most numerous in their collections. These collections are housed in three locations in and near Edinburgh, and are used by academics, lawyers, realtors, and individuals conducting family history research.

The Archives' mission statement is to preserve, protect, and provide the best possible inclusive and accessible archive that educates, informs, and engages. In my opinion, they fully lived up to this mission. In order to preserve their most-used materials--wills and church records--which are additionally endangered by use by individuals unaccustomed to handling fragile old materials, the Archives digitized these materials, making them available to all researchers working in the General Register building or remotely.

While the Archives does not have the resources to put all its materials online, they are strongly committed to making the contents of their collections known. To this end, they have put out a grand total of eight websites that make the collections visible to users, and in some cases, as mentioned above, access access digitized copies of materials.

Many professionals who are accustomed to working in archives and with legal documents use to Archives, but as we had seen elsewhere, amateurs researching family history also make up a large portion of patrons using the Archives. To cater to these researchers, the Archives has formed a partnership with other organizations to create ScotlandsPeople, an online service that aggregates various records of use to family researchers. Better still, the National Archives hosts free two-hour training sessions to get researchers started--and hopefully get them hooked on family history research!

Finally, this tour was a lot of fun: our guides Margaret and Tristam were extremely enthusiastic, describing records and opening up closets and cupboards for us, and generally infecting us with their own enthusiasm for the materials they are lucky enough to work with every day.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dunfermline Library Tour

The first tour on our second day in Scotland was across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, in Dunfermline: the Dunfermline Carnegie Library. This is Andrew Carnegie's birthplace, and the site of the first Carnegie Library. This library was a quintessential example of the paradox that I have found in many of the libraries we have visited thus far--a strong connection with the community of the often-distant past and an equally strong commitment to their present community.

The Dunfermline Library opened in 1883, and at that time, the librarian actually lived in the library. The library was so popular that on the first day they ran out of books and needed to apply to the town council for the money to buy more. Now, over 100 years later, the Library lends out 20,000 books per month. I was not surprised; even as early as our class tour began, we were already getting in the way of patrons coming and going with bags full of books.

Today, the Library's collections include fiction, nonfiction, a children's library, a family history library, special collections, and an exhibit space. The special collection houses an extensive Robert Burns collection comprised of images, books, papers, and artifacts.

Another area in which the Library would seem to be absorbed in the past is in their local history collection. However, this department's extensive collection of newspapers, books, census records, parish records, council minutes, and photographs is actively used by family history researchers, and records for most of the objects in the collection are available on a digital catalog with an extremely simple user interface. In this way, the Dunfermline library uses the history of the region to connect with 21st century patrons.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Edinburgh Central Library Tour

After our visit to the National Library of Scotland, we crossed the street for a tour of the Edinburgh Central Library. This visit was an incredibly positive experience--five staff members, each from a different part of the library, spoke to us about their work. Not only were they all very well-informed and passionate about their work, but they were also very glad to speak to us about what they do at the Edinburgh Central Library.

The Central library opened in 1890 and has expanded from its original building to two adjacent buildings. The Central Library has Scottish, Music, Art, and Children's Libraries, in addition to the standard reference, fiction and nonfiction departments. Further, they have special collections and a digital library. Our tour began with a talk by four staff members, followed by a tour with the fifth.

Like the library where I work in the U.S., the Edinburgh Central Library is heavily invested in keeping relevant to their patrons. Putting a portion of their photographic collections online, communicating with patrons via a blog, and tracking patron comments online is one approach they have taken to staying relevant. The other, however, is to place reading--reaching out to readers and serving their reading needs, be they for fun or information--at the centre of their work. As the librarians spoke to us about how they geared their programming and collection development to meeting these needs, I was impressed by what a strong sense they had of who they were as an organisation, and where this organisation was going.

Postscript: These brilliant librarians also gave us tea and biscuits, in real cups with saucers. At that point in the day, we had all been going since breakfast (or rather the time at which one normally eats breakfast), so having a pick-me-upper was absolutely brilliant.

National Library of Scotland Visit

We began our exploration of Scotland today with a visit to the National Library of Scotland. We did not have an actual tour, and explored the building individually.

As evidenced by my post on the British Museum's presentation of their materials to visitors, I'm very interested in how libraries, museums, and archives can get visitors and patrons interested in the things that make librarians, archivists, and curators geek out.

Right inside the door of the National Library, there is a compact exhibit space that held four different exhibits on Library collections: Scottish maps, the history of golf, the John Murray collection, and the National Library itself. The National Library exhibit, entitled "More Than Books" took a bold, visual approach to conveying the mission of the Library and summarizing the contents of its collections. The entire wall to the left as visitors enter the exhibition space was filled up with poster-sized images of representative objects in the collection--manuscripts, maps, newspapers, children's books, popular culture magazines, and photographs. A small section of text described the objects shown and highlighted that the focus in all their collections is Scottish culture.

In the montage, visitors learn that the Library is one of six legal repositories in Great Britain. This leads in to a display on the adjacent wall in the form of an eight-foot-high bar chart that illustrates for visitors what being a legal repository entails in terms of volume and rate of collecting.

The second exhibit that I was very impressed by was the exhibit telling the story of the John Murray Archive. This highly interactive exhibit could be entered in two ways, but only the front entrance had a plaque giving the background the publishers--who they were and how their collection came to reside in the Library. The exhibit used stations, each one containing period costumes, artifacts, video, digitized copies of documents, and audio recordings that built up a profile for a different author who worked with Murray. Each of these stations contained a digital touch-screen that allowed visitors to access more information, as well as the digitized papers and audio of letters being read aloud. For me, this is what took the exhibit to a new level. Incorporating images and costume catered to visual learners, while the audio recordings of letters brought in aural learners. Melding all these elements in the digital screens allowed learners of all kinds to actively engage with the material, making the history come alive.

With such an encouraging introduction, I felt that this was a place that was actively working to draw in readers and assist them with their research, be it family history or Scottish culture. However, I only found the reader registration room while exploring the depths of the gift shop, and when I walked upstairs to see the reading room itself, I opened the door to find a wooden turret of a desk flanked by two gates that physically and visually blocked off the collection and manned by a librarian who was not particularly enthused by my arrival.

This reception put me in mind of our visits to the British and Bodleian Libraries, two of the other legal repositories in the UK. Both of these had staff that gave wonderfully passionate tours, but when it came to welcoming actual readers into the library, both were much more cautious. While I fully understand the responsibility that comes with the pledge to preserve original materials for posterity, and my own experience in a public library has shown me that readers can be more destructive than rats, acidic paper, and unstable environments combined, I am still discouraged by what would appear to be an active suspicion bordering on dislike of readers. The repositories are preserving this material for someone, after all, and I would rather that the legal repository libraries approach readers as partners in preserving these materials for posterity, and encouraging them to step up to this responsibility.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bodleian Library Visit

Visiting the Bodleian Library was a fascinating experience. As our tour guide, Celia, noted, it contains a quirky mixture of archaic and modern elements. I was particularly intrigued by the often leading place the Bodleian Library has taken in the history of academic libraries.

One of the earliest innovations that can be traced to the Bodleian Library, we learned, was the now-quotidian practice of keeping books on shelves. The Bodleian also devised an early cataloging system--because its books were chained to the shelves and had to be filed spine-in. The practice of chaining books to the shelves was discontinued only in the early 20th century. Now, the library's books are stored in several stacks and are delivered to the reading room via a complicated conveyor belt system. From its start, with just 20 volumes, the Library is a national repository (along with the British Library)and collects 6% of materials printed in the UK.

Although our tour was extremely thorough, covering the growth of the library buildings as well as collections, I was disappointed that we were not shown any specific books from the collection. And although our guide was enthusiastic and well-informed, she was not a librarian, and so we didn't receive that unique perspective on the Library.