Monday, July 19, 2010

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.

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