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.

National Art Library Tour

Visiting the National Art Library was a very interesting experience. By now, we have visited a few libraries or archives that live inside other institutions: St. Paul's Cathedral Library, British Museum General Archive, National Maritime Museum Library. Each of these has different but largely positive relationships with their partner institutions. However, the National Art Library seemed to be more tenuously tied with the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose space it shares, than the other institutions.

The National Art Library is open to the public, and most of the materials are closed access--in other words, a librarian must retrieve them for patrons. Patrons can then view their items in the Library's two reading rooms, one of which is for silent study and the other which allows collaborative study. The Library has an online catalog, but there is no remote access, and access to rare materials in the collection is only allowed if the patron can provide sufficient credentials and need to access the material.

While the National Art Library had an extensive collection of periodicals, exhibition and auction catalogs, and books to do with art, as well as rare books, it has very little space and a tightly restricted budget. As a result, the library has had to devise creative solutions to fit all its materials in the space it is allotted and shares the Victoria and Albert Museum's Conservation department.

This arrangement was very surprising to me, especially given the mission statement on the Victoria and Albert Museum's "About Us" page:

The purpose of the Victoria and Albert Museum is to enable everyone to enjoy its collections and explore the cultures that created them; and to inspire those who shape contemporary design.

All our efforts are focused upon a central purpose - the increased use of our displays, collections and expertise as resources for learning, creativity and enjoyment by audiences within and beyond the United Kingdom.

To me, that statement all but shouts for close interaction with and strong support of a library. A library aids scholarship by providing a body of knowledge that complements what can be learned from Museum objects themselves. A library provides background that allows scholars to understand the materials used to create a piece of art and how that piece fits into the history of art and of society as a whole. Even more, a library contains materials that will help the museum better share their collections with the public--books on museum studies, community relations, and principles of education. For all these reasons, I hope the National Art Library, with all its valuable resources, soon takes its rightful place as a mutual partner with the Victoria and Albert Museum with its mission of bringing art to the public.

Day Trip: Stratford-Upon-Avon

On Wednesday, we visited Stratford-Upon-Avon. After our arrival, we had several hours to explore the town. With two other students, I visited three of the houses that were of significance to Shakespeare's life. The tour began with the Shakespeare Birthplace, which contained a visitor's center that extrapolated beyond the hard and fast evidence that surrounds Shakespeare's life to an extent that I would never be comfortable with, myself, if I were presenting my own research. However, all of the houses had period furnishings and exploring them was a good opportunity to explore Stratford-Upon-Avon as it was in the past as well as how it is in the present.

Nearby Shakespeare's Birthplace, we found a Carnegie library--the Stratford-Upon-Avon Public Library. This library was small, but has several features that make it very user friendly. As do the Barbican and Bath libraries, the Stratford-Upon-Avon library uses Dewey Decimal classification but label the shelves with the subjects the numbers stand for rather than just putting the numbers on the signage. Also, the newspapers, microfiche, and family history materials are all housed in the same room, a very practical instance of grouping materials according to how they will likely be used. Finally, the main floor houses only fiction, media, and the information desk on the main floor--reference was upstairs. This arrangement shocked me initially, but after poking around the building, I could see how this arrangement could be very sensible: patrons who only wanted to stop in to grab a novel or a movie, or to pay fees, could do so with maximum ease, while those who wanted serious research help would be able to access reference, nonfiction, and the family research room all in close proximity.

After a lot of walking, a play was just the thing to finish the day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

London Library Tour

Image: Miniature books in a glass-fronted bookcase at the London Library

On today's tour, we visited the London Library. This library was unlike any other I've ever visited, either here in London or in the U.S.

Much of its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is not a public or university library, but an independent and member-funded institution. Our tour was broken into three segments: the tour of the building was led by deputy librarian Jane Oldfield, while librarian Helen O'Neill discussed the history of the Library and the Library as an institution, and Stella Worthington gave a summary of the work done by the relatively new Conservation department.

The library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, who was unhappy with the fact that materials at the British Library were strictly for reference use. Over the years, many distinguished authors have been members of the library, and many contributed part or all of their personal libraries to the London Library after their deaths. Currently, the library has approximately 7,500 members, including organizations--such as the Houses of Commons and Lords--researchers, and writers. The forcus of the Library's collection is primarily on humanities, with a little on the history of science and natural sciences.

As we learned during Oldfield's portion of the tour, the Library is winding up the most recent of the redevelopment projects it has undertaken over the years since its existence. This current redevelopment project focused on consolidating the four buildings the Library has grown to fill and adding in features to enhance user friendliness, such as a brighter mezzanine in the Art Library and lockers in the Library entrance.

Part of the reason the library has grown to fill all these buildings is that they never discard items. In addition, they circulate 97% of the collection, which covers books from 1700 onwards. As can be imagined, this means the library has a very real need for conservation, which resulted in the creation of a conservation lab and hiring of a conservator by Worthington, the Preservation and Stack Management Librarian.

Image: 19th century steel floored stacks.

The London Library has many idiosyncrasies, including its cataloging system, which was devised in the 19th century by Library Director Sir Charles Hagberg Wright. However, the librarians were all very confident in the decisions they made in the management of the library and its collections, a confidence which I believe stems from their independence from the demands of other departments and insecurity of funding that so often comes when libraries are part of city or university systems. As an employee of a city library very much dependent upon the fortunes of the city it is attached to, I envy the London Library the freedom they have to embrace their uniqueness and make it their greatest strength.

Monday, July 12, 2010

National Maritime Museum Library

Although my interests cover an eclectic range of topics, I have never had occasion to delve into nautical history--with the exception of the short forays in books like Treasure Island. Our visit to the National Maritime Museum's Caird Library, then, was a unique opportunity to learn about a very specialized topic.

Our tour leader, Hannah, explained that the National Maritime Museum's Caird Library's founding collection was donated by Sir James Caird in 1937, and that the collection now encompasses topics such as emigration, navigation, piracy, astronomy, voyages and expeditions, naval architecture, the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy, and genealogical services. The Library's collection encompasses modern books (1850-present), rare books (pre-1850), charts, letters, ephemera, and other two-dimensional items. Hannah's colleague, Martin, noted that the Library focuses on collecting personal items, while government records are left to the National Archives. Hannah also noted that the Library is used with equal frequency by lecturers, Master's and PhD candidates, and family history researchers.

Currently, the Library's reading room, where the modern books are stored, is a very traditional room with beautiful glass-fronted wooden shelves, and the librarians and archives have use a traditional paper-based method of recording document requests. However, the Library is in the process of creating a new, larger space to house their library and archival collections. When completed, they will have more space for their collections, a new automated system for tracking document requests, and a reading room that will both offer more space for researchers and heighten the visibility of the library.

To finish their tour, Hannah and Martin showed our group a selection of items from the Library's collections, explaining the significance of each. The items ranged from a copy of a set of Spanish charts made by 16th century British pirates to an illustrated book of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction written, printed, and bound by Shackleton's team of explorers in Antarctica. These items amply illustrated the history of exploration, piracy, and of England itself as it unfolded on the seas, and made me eager to learn more about this aspect of British history.

The Globe

This Sunday, I went to the Globe to see a production of Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part 1. It was great fun: the building was true to the original, as were the sets, and the director went a long way to ensure that the tone of the play was also faithful to a 17th century production.

Working in a library, visiting libraries, it's easy to forget that the the printed word, for all its ability to capture and preserve histories, feuds, and plays, is not always the supreme medium. When I first encountered King Henry IV in the printed form, it seemed a little formal and dull.

That is not the case in the actual production. A bawdy mummer's play began the production and songs bracketed the acts. Even with minimal sets, the actors brought both the humor and the conflict in the story to life. After seeing this performance, I am now convinced that a place like the Globe that keeps the tradition and art of performing these plays alive is just as valuable as the First Folio in the British Library's Treasure Collection.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day Trip 1, Part 2: Bath and Bath Public Library

After Stonehenge, we were on to Bath, which is a beautiful town with lots of Georgian architecture. It was surprisingly hilly--I am still in the process of converting my paper-flat mental map of England into a three-dimensional one. Between the the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, and Jane Austen, it's easy for visitors to forget that modern people still live, work, and want something to read in Bath. The Bath Public Library was a perfect reminder. Some of the information in this post is drawn from my impressions of the library, while more specialized information came from my conversation with the very friendly employee at the information desk.

As it turns out, we won't be visiting many public libraries as as part of our USM coursework, so visiting the Bath Public Library was also a good opportunity to compare what we saw on our visit to the Barbican and also with U.S. public libraries. Most of the basics are similar in all places: self check-out, media, nonfiction, fiction, centrally located information desk.

Several of the details at Bath, however, went beyond the basics and were very impressive. The employee I spoke to explained that there are three library branches. The branch we visited was located in the upper floor of a shopping mall, which makes them visible to an audience that might not visit libraries in a traditional standalone location. They had been in this location for a full 15 years. To enhance the feeling of connection with the larger community, there were two information boards filled with signs and brochures about community services and events: one immediately inside the library door and the other between the computing center and the information desk. Immediately inside the door on the other side of the room was the section pictured above: the "quick select" section. I thought this was an excellent feature that catered to the many patrons who might just want to make a short stop at the library while running other errands.

The library was relatively small, but the floor plan was very open, and high ceilings enhanced the feeling of roominess. The dialog bubble signage painted onto the wall for the Quick Select section was repeated for the each other section (a unique color for each section), making it very easy for users to navigate to the section they wanted to explore.

When talking with the librarian, I was surprised to learn that this library also used RFID technology to check out its books. At the Barbican, our tour guide had noted that this was an expensive endeavor. From my own experience working at a public library, I know how this is true not only in terms of purchasing new technology and supplies, but also in the staff time needed to process materials, switching over old barcodes or labels to new. The employee at Bath noted that most of the tagging of the books had been done by student volunteers--a terrific idea for making a daunting endeavor a little more feasible in terms of expense and staff time.

Overall, the Bath Library took a very modern, effective approach to meeting the information needs of 21st century residents in this very historical city.

Day Trip 1, Part 1: Stonehenge

Just as I was having a Neverwhere moment, Friday and Saturday USM students were given the chance to get out of the city on two day trips to the country.

Friday was Stonehenge and Bath. The drive west was amazing--we got a peek of West London, first (I know where I'm shopping on break), but the really amazing part was after we got past the grubby outer fringe of the city and into the country.

Heathrow in the middle of fields was an odd sight. I finally got how the airport in How I live now could be taken over by ivy.

Pass Heathrow, and the country was gorgeous--big, deep hills neatly divided into fields, some traced with deep green curlicues of irrigation, others contented horses and cows grazing, all occasionally obscured by grassy banks sprinkled with wildflowers and by thickets of trees.

As we got closer to Stonehenge, the fields (still spread across hills and valleys) started to come decorated with knobs of high ground left to grow trees. Our guide explained that the knobs were barrows--ancient burial mounds--and the farmers presumably left the trees rather than attempt to farm over a hill on a hill.

With such an introduction, I was thinking Stonehenge would be the high point, the crescendo of the orchestra, but it was rather less. I attribute this to its presentation. Based on my background as an anthropology major and avid museum-goer, I wrote an extensive rant in my commonplace book on how the monument's presentation could have been altered to enhance visitors' appreciation of the site. So as not to bore you all senseless, here are the main items:

1. Move the parking lot and visitor's center further away. Making allowances for accessibility, visitors should climb up to Stonehenge and feel its significance and the vastness of the landscape the same way as people did before the arrival of asphalt and cars, and have the privilege of *not* looking down on a car park and concessions.

2. This site had some sort of ceremonial usage. There is even a causeway, suggesting ritual processions. Rituals can take all sorts of forms, but the only vibe I got was free-day-at-Disneyland, and I just don't think that was the idea. Strictly limiting the number of people that can be on the site at once would be a huge improvement

3. High noon is an underwhelming time of day to look at a monument designed to mark sunrises and sunsets. Send those very small groups of people up early in the morning and in the late afternoon, when there are at least some shadows.

4. The little audio wands that visitors could carry to get a little narrative as they circled Stonehenge are a good idea, but at my hypothetical Stonehenge, I would put an interpretation centre. If you didn't take a course in anthropology, you wouldn't draw the line between an agricultural surplus and freeing up labor to build monumental architecture. And without a focus in prehistoric Britain, I never would have put two and two together with the barrows, or known that the people that built Stonehenge also made sophisticated jewelry, if our tour guide hadn't mentioned it.
Taking as a baseline the family who just happened to stop by for the day and thinks the pictures of Mum and Dad as kids are ancient history, here are some things that a good interpretation centre would include:
--A timeline to illustrate how long ago Stonehenge was built, and another display à la the British Museum to show what else was going on at the time, for context.
--A display illustrating how these people got their food, what they ate, what their sociopolitical structure was like, what their clothes and houses looked like if possible, original or reconstructed tools and jewelry, and what went into a barrow.
--A breakdown of the phases of construction of Stonehenge, complete with models of the site at each phase and a relief map showing where the stone came from, plus a sign discussing how the site would have been constructed and how it started falling apart. This would be a good place to put interactive stations for kids (press the buttons to see sunrise and sunset positions on the solstices, play with antler digging tools in a sandbox, try to drag the rock on the sledge, etc).
--My inner anthropologist would like a section with details of excavations at the site (what was found, how it enhanced our knowledge of the site), but that might be a bit much for our fictional family.

By the time my scribbled rant was completed, we were on to Bath, and more sights--to be detailed in their own post.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Library Visit

Image: a corner of the King's Library at the British Library

Today, we visited the British Library. The class was split into groups of about 10 and led by different guides; my tour was led by Heather Morley. As we learned yesterday on our tour of the British Museum's General Archive, the British Library used to share the same facilities as the British Museum. The current building opened in 1998, giving both institutions more space and allowing the British Library to include a few more collections, such as the Philatelic Society Collection and the Business & IP Reading room. The new facility also allowed them to better care for the items in their collections. The Library currently has three locations: the flagship site we were at, Colindale in north London, and the Document Supply Center in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

Both the scale and architecture of the flagship St. Pancras location and the cultural significance of the objects in its collections, particularly the Treasures collection, are awe-inspiring. However, I was struck at how the British Library is a very different institution from the Barbican Library. Whereas the Barbican, as a public library, invests a significant amount of time learning what their patrons want and providing it for them, the British Library is a repository library, and its mission is to collect, preserve, and record the existence of books in the British National Bibliography. The result is that access to the British Library collections is extremely limited. As our tour guide noted, this dichotomy between access and preservation has been a quandary since the time of one of its founders, Sir Hans Sloane, who had several scores in his collection ruined by a buttered muffin brought in by Handel.

For me, the perfect metaphor for the British Library is the glass-encased King's Library running through its center (or centre, rather): so many books, beautiful, varied, rare, but all behind glass, and the only door to reach all those books is behind a gate marked Staff Only.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

British Museum

After visiting the General Archive, I spent some time exploring the British Museum--particularly the areas dealing with the ancient cultures in Egypt, the Middle East, Greece, and Rome. Over the course of my visit, I developed a mild obsession with the signage. When I studied archaeology, I learned a bit about various ancient cultures, and a lot about the complexity of these cultures. Given this, and the difficulty in understanding a culture when all you have to do so is some of their stuff, I wanted to see how the Museum navigated this complex task to present their visitors, most of whom know very little about archaeology or ancient history, a clear picture of the significance of the collections.

I feel this applies to the work of librarians: no matter what setting we work in, we often have to create online library instruction tutorials and informational handouts, and lead library instruction sessions. All these tasks require distilling the very specialized, complex world of library information into its essence, breaking it down into manageable pieces, and presenting these pieces to patrons in such a way that even those who have never used a library before will understand.

There was some variability in the quality of the signage, with the very best belonging to objects included in the "History of the World in 100 Objects" series (for instance, the Rosetta Stone, signage shown here). The signage for Egyptian Life and Death and the objects from Sutton Hoo burial were a very close second.

The success of the signage in these three exhibits was successful for several reasons. First, the signs were large, with the text printed in a font that could be read without stepping right up to the glass. The signs for the Rosetta Stone and Sutton Hoo were made more noticeable by being black with white text, while the Egyptian sign had reproductions of images from the collection to attract visitors' gazes. Second, the signs avoided almost all jargon and explained specialized terms in the rare instances these were used. Each exhibit's signage also included elements that would help readers understand the context and significance of the collections. In the Egyptian gallery, maps were included for context, and key points were repeated on multiple signs. For the Sutton Hoo collection, there were many images reconstructing the someowhat corroded and decayed objects' original appearance and arrangement in the burial. My favorite, though, was the way the "100 objects" signs, like that for the Rosetta Stone, included a short list of contemporary Museum items from other regions for context.

I think several of these techniques can be adopted for signs, handouts, and presentations in the library: avoiding technical language is important if librarians want to avoid driving away the "uninitiated." Also, using eye-catching colors or images is important--signs and handouts are only useful if patrons know they're there! Repetition of main points is a good way to ensure those main points stay with patrons, as is presenting new information in context. Simple things, but doing them well has the potential to put a library in the same league as the British Museum.

Now if only every library could have a lamassu.

British Museum General Archive

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Today, a group of Library and Information Science students visited the British Museum's General Archive. I am not very familiar with archives, so every chance I get to visit one is a trip into a different world.

Stephanie Clarke, the Museum Archivist, and her assistant Bryony led our tour. There is only one other staff member in the Archive, a woman who worked in administration for many years and has been very valuable in applying her firsthand experience with the Museum to understanding the organizational processes that generated the papers now in the archive collection.

The Archive holds 6 record series. These include Finance Records, Staff Records, Trustee Records, Building Records, and Temporary Exhibitions records. Examples of objects in the General Archive collections include 8,000 photographs taken of the Museum and its collections, stereoscope images of objects in the collections, architectural drawings of the Museum buildings, minutes from meetings of the Board of Trustees, and successful job applications for Museum employees from the 19th century.

One of the major things that sets archives apart from libraries is that they inherit their collections from an outside entity. This means that their collections often reflect the organizational structure of the organization that created the records. Sometimes this arrangement appears quite sensible, other times it is quirky and unexpected. The General Archive is no exception: on one hand, I found it quite logical that, as Clarke explained, each Museum department has its own archival on material in its own permanent collections. On the other, I was very surprised to learn that the General Archive houses the reader's tickets from the British Library. This quirk in the collection is due to the history of the two institutions, Clarke explained. The British Library was originally housed on the British Museum campus, and when it moved to its new location, it left its archive of reader's tickets in the care of the General Archive.

Another surprising object in the collection was an exploded shell that had hit the Museum during Second World War. Clarke showed this to us along with photographs of the damage to the museum during the war. Most of the collections had been moved to underground storage when the war started, which was fortunate because the building was heavily damaged. I was very glad Clarke brought these things out for us; in the US, students learn in history class that London was heavily bombed during the War. Full stop. Period novels are a little better at illustrating the reality of what this entailed, but it wasn't really until I arrived here, and could see the entire Royal Festival Hall--built over an area bombed out in the war--and the entire Barbican, built over an area bombed out in the war--that I finally felt I understood what it meant for London to have been bombed.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Barbican Library Visit

Image: London Collection at Barbican Library. Libraries often have low light and are hard to photograph without a tripod!

Although I aspire to work in an academic or special library setting, my reality is public library work (circulation, ready reference, and shelf maintenance), and these experiences framed my experience of today's visit to the Barbican Library

As we learned on the tour, the Library is divided into three components: a General Library, a Music Library, and a Children's Library.

The General Library tour was led by librarian John Lake. He began by briefing our group on the Barbican Centre's history, the Library's history, and its user profile. I was not familiar with the history of the Barbican and was fascinated to learn that it was built over an area that had been bombed out during the second world war. The process from planning to completion was a long one, and the complex did not open until 1982. The library opened at the same time, and serves the 9,000 residents and 350,000 employees of the center. These are largely educated white British professionals, but the also provides services for migrant and immigrant patrons.

Like the library where I work, the Barbican Library's collection development and services are strongly geared towards meeting user needs. Lake explained that user needs are established by staff documenting informal feedback, as well as by surveys the British government requires all libraries to conduct every two years.

Touring the Music Library with assistant librarian Richard Jones was incredibly impressive, not only because the Barbican Music Library has such an enormous collection of musical scores, books about music, and music CDs and DVDs, but also because of the challenges unique to this sort of collection. For instance, every score the Library purchases must be bound to prevent it from becoming too damaged, and we were shown an example of a case that needed to be constructed to keep the two bound scores in a piece for two pianos together. The extent of this collection goes far beyond my own library's CD collection, and I envy not just the researchers and music students who make up the bulk of the Barbican Music Library users, but also the general public that has access to this amazing resource!

By the time we got to the Barbican Children's Library, I don't think anyone would have said no to a nap and we readily piled into the curved storytime seats. The Children's librarian discussed their collection and services, many of which are part of national services designed to get children started reading. One of these programs is the Summer Reading Challenge, designed for grade-school age children, and the other is Book Start, for children ages birth to three. The Children's Library's fiction books are divided into categories that mirror the age divisions used in Book Start to support the program.

Overall, the Barbican Library was an impressive example of what a library can achieve with what was clearly a dedicated body of staff and, importantly, government support in achieving its goals and creating programming.

Monday, July 5, 2010

St. Paul's Cathedral Tour

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On today's tour, we visited the Saint Paul's Cathedral Library and toured the upper floors and library with librarian Joseph Wisdom.

While my current focus in librarianship is academic librarianship, I was an anthropology major as an undergrad, focusing on archaeology, and have taken graduate courses on preservation and the history of the book, so I suppose I am also looking longingly at special collections. As a consequence of my academic background, I often find myself looking at the book as an object--often, its symbolism is just as interesting as the information written inside.

Wisdom introduced us to the Cathedral by pointing to a carving above the entrance depicting a stone book flanked by two cherubs. The book was blank--the symbol of the book, not any written words, were the most important thing to the designer of the carving. While waiting for the tour to begin, I found many other symbols, most of which were symbols of power. The symbols of power were associated primarily with God and Christianity, but also the intellectual, military, or political power of the people memorialized inside. The symbols included durable marble and metalwork, costly gilding, and, incorporated into memorial statues and plaques, books and scrolls.

Almost since its inception, Christianity has been the religion of the book, and similarly, St. Paul's has always had a library. As part of the tour, we visited two upper rooms, one which housed Wren's model of the Cathedral's original design and several architectural drawings of the Cathedral (the Fabric Archive) and the other which housed the Library. Wisdom pointed out carvings of books and quill pens in the scrollwork that showed that the connection between Christianity and books had been made by the builders in these upper rooms as well.

In the Library, Wisdom noted how central an understanding of the depth of time was to his work: one instance of this is keeping the various catalogs that have been created for the Library collection. These document the history of the Library, as well as items that the Library may no longer own--such as the volumes that were lost when the previous St. Paul's burnt down.

Nowhere was this depth of time more evident than in the beautifully illuminated manuscript psalter that Wisdom brought out for us to view. Both its handwritten and hand-decorated pages and deep, distinctive scent seemed to epitomize age. Listening to Wisdom describe his work, I was surprised to learn how much it strayed into curation. Part of Wisdom's job is to measure the heat and relative humidity in both the Fabric Archive and the Library, and his description of discovering the provenance, or history, of the psalter, was almost exactly the same approach as archaeologists take when puzzling out the significance of their findings.

Once I started looking at the library as a place to be curated, I found challenges to this goal everywhere--the collection included not just the manuscript but also printed books, both housed in a historical building. To add to this difficulty, St. Paul's is a functioning cathedral that cannot be dissected or torn apart to seal cracks, put in a new particle filtering ventilation system or close up windows letting in light. In spite of these challenges, Wisdom was enthusiastic about his work and about sharing its unique characteristics with us.

London Alive Walk: Photogenic London

My interest in photography led me to choose this out of the two walks every British Studies student was asked to take to introduce them to London. The guiding theme structuring this walk was the importance of composition. Professor Noble, the walk leader, led us along Thames past Gabriel's Wharf and the OXO Tower, under Blackfriars Bridge, through the Tate Modern, and across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's.

They were gorgeous! They were inspiring! They were nearly impossible to work into well-composed photographs!

I admit it--I was fussing internally over this, trying to apply everything I knew from taking photos back home and not feeling particularly successful.

Then it hit me:

I learned to photograph in the Southwest and West, where compositions include one mountain and sky, one cactus and sky, one interesting building (often a maximum of two stories high) and sky. Here in London, beautiful, tall, intricately detailed buildings crowd together with extremely tall churches, bridges, statues, signs, and telephone booths like they were all trying not to be the last ones out in a game of musical chairs. Not to mention the seven-odd million people (plus tourists).

Time to relearn how to compose.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Snappies Versus Photographs

Hello! I'm Allison, and this is the blog I will be keeping as part of my coursework for the USM British Studies Program.

As you might have inferred, I am very pleased to be here, and over the years watching British TV programs, reading British books, watching British movies and listening to British bands, I have amassed a small arsenal of British English words with which to express this and many other things besides.

I have maintained another blog, Shop on the High Street, for a few years now, but I chose to add this blog to divide the two different types of blogging I hope to do while in London. Photography is another one of my hobbies, and similarly, I take two types of photography I engage in. On one hand there are the snappies, quick photographs snagged on the street in just a little time and often with little care. On the other are the photographs, images that I carefully compose in my mind's eye to bring together the lines, colors, and shadows so they capture for the next viewer what caught my eye.

In the same way, Shop on the High Street will be where I chronicle little snappies of my month, quick and unstudied impressions. Here, on Chuffed!, is where I will take the time to focus my mental images in an attempt to capture what I see so I can better its beauty or significance for others.

To ground these experiences in the context of their place, I have included a map of several of the places I will visit in class and in the course of my own exploration, and a BBC weather widget for London. Living in a consistently hot, dry, place, I know I was surprised at how often London weather changes!

Thank you for reading--I hope you are just as chuffed to see London as I am!