Monday, 22 October 2007

British Studies Class Blog

This has a great group picture of our class at Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station. Very exciting for all of us Harry Potter fanatics!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Guildhall Library ~ 3 August 2007

The Guildhall Library is a specialist research library that is part of the City Of London Library System. It is a local, publicly-funded authority and is actually the largest of the City's libraries. The first site was built in the 1420's, and of the original collection, only one manuscript remains. The next site was built in the 1820's. This facility set the current theme as a focus on the City of London, its immediate surroundings, and its history. A third site was established in the 1870's to reach a wider audience; it was one of the earliest public libraries in England. The library lost many items during the Blitz in 1940, so they were forced to replace a large portion of the collection. In the process, they ended up acquiring many prints and maps. The new library was constructed in the 1970's.

The Printed Books Librarian was our tour guide, and he informed us of the division of the staff: 10 staff members in Printed Books, 10 in Manuscripts, and 19 service staff. They also employ volunteers in indexing projects. Unlike most of the other research libraries we visited, the Guildhall Library does not have membership restrictions. The library's collection is organized into three sections: Manuscripts, Books, Prints/Maps/Drawings. Each section has its own reading room. The collection holds treasures of London as well as recent publications. They cover legal history, government reports, local studies, family history, collections from 95 trade-guild libraries (the clock and watch-making library is one of the best in the world!), and the London Stock Exchange's historic records and annual reports from 1880 to 1964 (takes up 2.5 miles of shelf space).

The Enquiries desk receives 10-15 letters/emails per day. The librarians give 20 minutes of research time free of charge, but if the request requires more in-depth research, they provide a fee-based service for 50 GBP/hour. I have mixed feelings about this method. Ideally, librarians should provide a free service to the public. But I realize people could and do take advantage of that mentality by asking librarians to perform complex research tasks on their behalf. That could be distracting the librarians from being available to help other patrons and complete other tasks, so I can understand why charging for certain levels of research would be a wise idea.
The library's online catalog uses the TALIS system, which is apparently quite common in British libraries. The library has closed access, meaning the readers find an item on the catalog, then fill out a request form for it. Using a tube system, the librarians are able to efficiently get the materials to the readers at their seat in the reading room (within 10-15 minutes). Like in the National Art Library, readers are permitted to use digital cameras here when photocopying would damage an item. The computer terminals also have access to the Internet and electronic subscription services. I found it interesting that the staff doesn't seem to mind the students who come into the library only to use the Internet. I might have to check my attitude if I were in their position!

The library uses two separate forms of classification: for the London-related materials, they use a uniquely-designed system created by a Guildhall librarian in the 1930's. For the non-London items, they use the Dewey Decimal System, but items are shelved along with others of the same pressmark. In the Prints/Maps/Drawings collection, I thought it was neat to learn that the materials are often subjects of research for film and TV producers and book publishers, in addition to amateur historians. What a fun population to work with! An impressive feature we were introduced to was COLLAGE, a major project that digitized 30-40,000 images from the collection. In the Manuscript collection, readers can view manuscripts in digital form or microfilm and only the original when necessary. That explained why I saw an unusually large amount of microfilm machines.

Jane Austen House Museum ~ 2 August 2007

Nestled in the quaint village of Chawton, the Jane Austen House Museum keeps the memory of Jane Austen alive and beautiful. As soon as I stepped into the house, I felt thoroughly welcomed as a guest of the Austen family in 1810. The museum is an independent institution, administered by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust. The staff was very knowledgeable about Jane Austen's life and history, especially the "steward" I spoke with in the gift shop.
Jane Austen lived there from 1809 to 1817, and it now houses many of the family's belongings. Seeing where she resided and learning about her daily life gave me a glimpse into her character. It shone through everything, every handwritten note, every trinket she saved... Learning about what was important to her and what she held dear, I can now see how her heart shines through her works and the legacy she has left behind.

Some examples of the museum's collection include: first-edition prints from the early 1800s, pieces of furniture from the early 1800's (her father's bookcase!), a timeline of her life with literary and historical landmarks, the family's tea dishes, letters, Bibles and prayer books that belonged to the family, the printer's first proof copies for the illustrations of Pride and Prejudice (1894), a display of a scene (Jane and Cassandra mannequins), and outbuildings.
Some of Jane's personal belongings that were displayed include: her manuscript music book, a lock of her hair, her writing table, her donkey carriage, and a sewing case she made for her niece (signed "With Aunt Jane's love").

The grounds had a beautiful garden with benches, so I could sit and take in the scenery and completely immerse myself in Jane's world. Every aspect of the museum was authentic and genuine, much more so than the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. For example, there were actual objects from her life (many contributed by her nieces and nephews); the exhibits related to her family, in detail; and there was a greater focus on her books, rather than the film adaptations. I also appreciated the atmosphere of walking through the Austen home, and the displays complemented the sense of hominess. For example, manuscripts, letters, and photographs were in picture frames, along with their labels and transcripts, and hung on the wall. Items were displayed in cupboards with glass dividers, to create the appearance of current use. Every room was labeled, which made it especially memorable to actually be in Jane Austen's bedroom! The museum was truly a memorial, very honoring to Jane: there were little sprigs of purple flowers laid across chairs and sofas. And the display about her death was beautiful; in her will, she left almost everything to the care of her dear sister, Cassandra. Jane's relationship with her sister seemed the most important in her life, and its preciousness lingered with me long after I left the museum.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Barbican Centre Library ~ 2 August 2007

Our visit to the Barbican Library gave me an overwhelming wealth of information and insight into the operation of a public library in England. And, this library is unique, because it is made up of very strong individual sections (Arts, Music, Children's, and Adults' Services), and because of its important integration with the Barbican International Arts Centre. It was the only lending library that we visited, so I treasured this opportunity for its relevance to my career path.
The Barbican Library was opened in 1982 to provide lending services in fulfillment of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museum Act. It lends around 500,000 items a year. An average of 1,200 patrons per day visit the library, and most of the patrons tend to be business people who work in the city, often stopping by during their lunch break. The patron demographics are not what I expected: typically, there are more males than females, and the average age range is between 25 and 45. What an entirely different population than we normally serve in most American public libraries, which is mainly female, and below the age of 25 or over the age of 45.

ORGANIZATION: There are four counters, recently reduced from seven, which is easier on staff and less overwhelming for visitors. There are 44 people on the library's staff, including 10 chartered librarians, 6 senior library assistants, and 12 library assistants. This library is also funded by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. Under the Opportunities Fund, they have to provide free access to the Internet and "self-booking." There are no limits to what visitors can access on the public terminals, but they are allowed only one hour per day. The catalog, CD-ROMs, and databases are all available on the web, but limited to library users. A neat new feature that the library has installed is radio-frequency identification--tagging each item with a radio-frequency ID, it can be checked out or returned simply by being placed on a mat. With this up-to-date technology, the computers are able to identify the books without having to scan a barcode.

ARTS: The temporary art exhibitions are a high honor, since getting artwork on display there is very competitive. The Arts Library is managed by one of the senior assistant librarians. It has a reference desk, art periodicals, and 14,000 books in its collection. It does face some distinct challenges, however. First of all, it is difficult to organize the materials in a logical sequence, because art books are often varying sizes. Secondly, the arts section still has quite a formal structure, but the staff would like to see some changes in that aspect.

ADULT SERVICES: The Skills for Life collection is a special feature, containing audio, fiction, and non-fiction materials. There is also a large collection of maps and tourist guides. A special collection of finance materials is another popular section. The library's goal is to make sure that every item on the shelves is actually what the public currently wants, not what the public from five years ago wanted. I found it very surprising that the non-fiction collection is actually used more frequently than the fiction collection.

CHILDREN'S SERVICES: The Children's Section serves children from newborn to age 14. The Young Adult section is part of the Adult collection. Apparently, it is difficult to get teenagers involved in library activities, like reading groups, because there is such a small population of them in just the square mile that is the City of London. Within the Children's Section, there are two full-time staff members, the Senior Library Assistant and the Children's Librarian. In addition, there are about 10 staff members who also work there part-time. With 25,000 loanable items, this is the largest children's library in London. The stacks are organized according to age group: 5-10s, 10+, 13+. This section does have filtered Internet terminals, which I was glad to hear about.
Most of the local schools use the library's services, since they don't really have extensive libraries of their own. The Barbican Children's Library supplements the schools' collections with project boxes (40 books in each box) that are compiled and sent out every term. It was interesting to learn about this relationship between the schools and public libraries, since it's completely different from American schools, which tend to rely on their own resources. The Children's Library seems to be doing some great things in its community. For example, it hosts events and workshops for free, once a month. The librarians lead a Story-time three times a week for different age groups (and they get an average of 25 kids each time!). There is a school-age readers' group that gets involved in creative projects, like providing input for the Carnegie and Greenaway awards. I was impressed with the Bookstart program, funded by the National Book Trust. They give out bags with free books, library membership applications, resources, etc. to parents to encourage them to start reading to their children at an early age. I would love to know more about this program, how successful it has been, how it is implemented, etc. Knowing how essential it is for children to be immersed in literature before they start school, I am curious about how a program like this might be applied in the States.

National Maritime Museum Library/ Royal Observatory ~ 1 August 2007

National Maritime Museum Caird Library

The National Maritime Museum is part of Maritime Greenwich, a World Heritage Site. The Museum's Caird library is purely a reference library that was established in 1936, designed by Sir James Caird, who was also the library's director. [Cool side-note: The library still uses the original shelving!] Our tour was incredibly comprehensive, as we were guided by several different information specialists, including the curator of manuscripts. Our tour began in the E-Library, which was opened in 2002 as an entrance room that would make the library's resources more accessible to the public. Since visitors to the library must be over 18, the E-Library has children's books and a seating area for reading. It also has computers with access to the online catalog and e-journals. The librarians perform story-time here on the weekends and provide educational visits from school groups, when they bring out some of the treasures of the collection. Also in the E-Library are the enquiry desk (for obtaining reader tickets) and temporary exhibitions (materials related to the Falkland Islands were on display).

Next, we discussed some of the library's features and challenges. Along with books, the library's collection contains ship plans, atlases, photographs, manuscripts, and current journals. They use the Universal Decimal Classification system. The library is funded by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (which I am noticing is the main funding source for most of the institutions we have visited). A special committee must approve all acquisitions. It's interesting to learn of the relationship between information organizations and their funding sources: I am curious to see if there is greater accountability required, since these libraries/museums are often dependent on the provisions from a state-funded organization. Another common issue is space: there are some storage facilities off-site, since the library's fairly small facility seems to be rapidly running out of room. Another challenge involves the patrons: there is some tension between two different kinds of user groups. The academics want to have a quiet atmosphere for independent research, but the family historians tend to talk and interact with the librarians in order to conduct their research.

The most exciting part of our visit was when the curators showed us some samples from their rare books and manuscript collections. The library holds 4.5 miles worth of manuscripts, from the 15th century to the present, relating to maritime history. These include naval logs, journals, letters, etc. They have many rare books about pirates--for example, the Royal Naval log from 1720, recording the killing of Blackbeard the pirate. There were merchant logs as well, mainly from slave ships. In fact, we actually got to see one of John Newton's ship logs from when he was a slave trader. Among other documents we saw were letters from Admiral Lord Nelson to his wife and mistress and a huge collection of Titanic material (including a dinner menu and original photographs from the rescue of the Titanic survivors). From the printed collection, the samples of rare books that stood out to me were a book from 1478 about astronomy, a Ptolemy atlas from 1562, and a medicine book from the H.M.S. Bounty (1787), with its binding replaced by part of the ship's sail.
I was inspired by the immeasurable value of libraries from this trip, as well as reminded of their power that is too often under-recognized. I also appreciated the opportunity to learn how important special libraries are, because they combine specialized subject knowledge with the skills of preservation and classification, to create an institution that is absolutely priceless to the public.

Royal Observatory

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich is the home of the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time. It was founded in 1675 by Charles II in order to "make accurate measurements of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars." The Observatory holds several exhibits, including a reconstruction of the apartments belonging to John Flamstead, first Royal Astronomer during the 1690s. The Octagon Room, designed by Christopher Wren, houses a year-going clock. In the gallery, there were several parts of the exhibition that impressed and interested me: instruments of navigation from the 16th century; monitors explaining the concept of latitude and longitude; star charts, timekeepers, old methods of finding longitude; a telescope you could look through and view a tiny video screen; some interactive features (for example, to explore certain documents, the visitor must open the door to find the answer). Especially neat was the huge model of a turret clock (1888) with parts labeled.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

National Art Library ~ 31 July 2007

The National Art Library moved to become part of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1851. Since then, a love-hate relationship has developed between the library and the museum, because the library's collections are taking up valuable gallery space, yet they are an integral part of the museum.

Our tour guide was part of the collection development department, but she informed us that staff members often move around between the departments, so she is also involved with access. The library consists of a Centre Room for registration and enquiries, a silent reading room, the marshalling areas, periodicals stacks, gallery, special collections materials, West Room, and staff room. I appreciated getting such a thorough tour, as it allowed us to see the library as a whole-- how the departments interoperate and how each section connects with the rest.
The Centre Room holds the registration desk, where patrons may also pick up and drop off books that have been requested. At the enquiries desk, a staff member is always available during business hours to take requests over the phone or in person. The Centre Room also has computers with access to the online catalog (which is indexed by artist and can be accessed from home) as well as some reference books that may be accessed directly by the visitors (organized by the Dewey Decimal system). To maintain security, the library requires that all visitors use clear bags for their belongings. That, however, is the only measure of detection they enforce.

In the marshalling areas, the behind-the-scenes activity is happening. There is a photocopier available for patrons, as long as they abide by copyright laws. Also, I learned of another option that surprised me: visitors are allowed to take digital photos of the materials they use in the library. Also in the marshalling areas, there are two teams of paper-keepers. When readers request books, they fill out a blue slip, which is sent through a system of chutes to the paper-keepers. They fetch the books and hold them in cubbies organized according to seat tags from the reading room. There are book lifts to transport materials back and forth between the stacks and the marshalling areas.

Next, we ventured up to the periodicals stacks, where 8,000 titles are held (2,500 current). Many of the titles are for Victorian journals, and there is a large international collection, as well. The library binds older journals for conservation purposes, which is actually included as part of the budget. In regard to the library's conservation practices, they only conserve books that will go on loan or on display. The rest are simply preserved, which means they prevent the books from becoming further damaged.
In the galleries, we saw the library's collection of theses from the Royal College of Art, a representation of the collaboration between the two institutions. The collection also holds everything published by the Victoria and Albert Press, in three copies (one for the general collection, one for the crypt/archive, and one for special collections). This area is tight for space, so the books are organized by size. The space issue also means that some items must wait to be catalogued, leading to a large backlog of incoming items. I am noticing that this is a common theme among all the libraries we have visited. It is dealt with in various ways, but it is never fully resolved-- it seems like limited space will always inevitably be a challenge that libraries must face.

Some examples of the special collections materials that our tour guide pointed out include exhibition catalogs (organized by country, city, gallery, and year, dating back to the 1700s); sales catalogs (for art auctions); and price catalogs (documenting "who bought what and for how much"). Apparently, the library also has a large collection of items that one would not immediately associate with art, such as children's books and Charles Dickens manuscripts. I found this most interesting... I'm learning that libraries have the surprising ability to draw connections between things in less obvious ways than you would normally expect. What a desirable skill! A nice feature in the special collections area was the findings list for staff members to consult when they don't know where an item is located.

In the West Room, the collection of fine bindings is displayed, and it is actually part of the curatorial department. The library includes this collection for the books as objects, not for their content. It was neat to see the staff room; it looked like a comfortable and stimulating work environment. Cataloguing, accession, and collection development are all taken care of in the staff room, which is where librarians are working when not at one of the counters (four at registration and one at enquiries, at all times).

My favorite part of the visit was seeing some examples of "book art," parts of the collection that represent how books can be made into pieces of art. One was called a tunnel book, which was actually a Victorian concept. Drawings in a Nutshell was a charming piece-- the front and back covers of the book were the two sides of an actual nutshell, which opened to reveal a tiny book with a small drawing of a nut on each page. There was a book for which the reader becomes the creator: different strings make shapes when "read" in a certain light, almost creating a photographic scene with the shadow of the strings on the page. Other books took the concept of "pop-up" and expanded into a whole technique of paper engineering. It was fascinating to see how artists have explored creatively with the "bookish" concepts of binding, text, and graphics, and how these concepts can interact to add complex levels of depth to the narrative.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Writers' Museum ~ 25 July 2007

The Writers' Museum in Edinburgh is a collection of items that focus on the lives and works of Scottish writers, specifically emphasizing Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Established in 1907, it is located in a historic 17th-century home. In the introductory area, there are busts of all three writers and an informative video about printing and publishing.

Robert Louis Stevenson: This exhibit contains a large collection of photographs of Stevenson as well as some of his original manuscripts and some artifacts related to his travels. It was especially neat to see a book that belonged to him with his personalized bookplate on it.

Sir Walter Scott: Once again, in this exhibit, there were photographs, manuscripts, letters, and some of Scott's belongings. A highlight of the exhibit was a model of Scott's dining room with figures representing Scott and his publisher and the accompanying feature of an audio conversation between the two gentlemen. It was neat to see Scott's writing desk there in the dining room display.

Robert Burns: Along with photographs and belongings, Burns' exhibit displayed his writing desk and a newspaper account of his death from 1796. A feature of this exhibit that I really enjoyed was the audio interpretation of some of Burns' letters and songs that played in the background as we browsed.

Some additional areas in the museum include a reading area and a display dedicated to the Makars' Court, which is essentially a "literary commemoration in stone." In the Makars' Court, stones are etched with quotations in honor of contemporary Scottish writers and added to the courtyard outside the museum. Makar is a Scots term and it refers to the role of poet/author as a skilled worker in the craft of writing. Beautiful! The funding for the Makars' Court comes from individuals and organizations such as Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise, Ltd. and the City of Edinburgh Council.

I appreciated the design of the museum, because I felt like I was actually walking through an old home, creaky spiral staircases and all. Every part of the displays sets the writers in context of the world in which they lived and worked and why they were so influential. I learned a lot about these three particular writers, and I liked that there was more to learn about than just what they wrote. Instead, visitors are able to see these men in the light of their greater political and social surroundings.

National Archives of Scotland ~ 23 July 2007

Our guide at the National Archives of Scotland is the Education Officer, and her duties include teaching different age groups, leading workshops, and other educational lectures. I love to see examples like this of the harmonious relationship between information institutions and education.

The Archives are made up of three separate facilities: the General Register House, the West Register House, and the Thomas Thomson House. There is a van that goes back and forth amongst the three sites to deliver requested materials. The General Register House is the repository for holding official records of Scotland. In the Robertson Wing, there are computers for searching digital copies and the online catalog, as well as microfilm and microfiche. In the Historical Search Room, the patrons are able to look at the records for research. The General Register House is open to the public and its records date from the 12th century, with a total of 70 km of items. Its records include diaries, government reports, church records, wills, etc. I was very surprised to hear that the collection is still organized by a paper catalog!
The West Register House contains additional storage and was opened to the public in the 1970s. Its records include court records, business records, maps and plans, etc.
The third site is the Thomas Thomson House, which is only used for storage and sorting (not open to the public). The conservation department does a lot of their work at the Thomson House, which is named after Thomas Thomson, who had set up policies for cataloguing and conserving records. On the website, I appreciated seeing images of an old map, before and after conservation.

There are three overarching categories for the Archive's records: government; court and legal; and private. A recent development is their Electronic Ordering System in the search rooms, facilitated by archive attendants. Researchers must obtain a reader's ticket in order to see original documents, and they can only view three at a time. We were able to see several samples from the Archive's collection. A few of the most exciting were an original letter from Mary Queen of Scots written in 1550 and a scroll from 1495, in which a monk recorded the first known written reference to "whiskey."

Interesting aspects of the Archives: No pens allowed! [This I learned to be a typical rule in most archives.] Parking is a problem for the General Register House, which brings to mind the power of external issues to affect the accessibility and patrons' use of a facility. Our guide informed us about some of the National Archive's endeavors, including "Scottish Wills," a huge digitization project containing wills from 1500 to 1901. It was neat to find out how much organizations work together to meet common goals in the community, as demonstrated by all the national collections joining resources to support the national education standards. Our guide mentioned an area that captured my interest: paleography skills (the ability to read handwriting). When working with ancient manuscripts and handwritten records, it is obviously very important to have these skills. Now I am curious-- I want to learn about paleography!

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

National Library of Scotland ~ 23 July 2007

The National Library of Scotland adopted its current title in 1925. Before that, it was the Library of the Faculty of Advocates. In 1710, it became a deposit library for publications in Scotland, as well as Britain and Ireland. It not only receives books, but also music, official reports, and electronic publications, leading up to a total of 8,000 items per week! A large part of the library's collection includes maps and gazetteers, of which it holds around 3 million. One of the library's challenges is to try and promote wider access--to become more welcoming to the public. Their digitizing projects intend to meet this challenge. Another challenge to the library is the difficulty in getting funding, because the impact of the collections and archives is hard to measure and seems less obvious than other community institutions. To face this issue, the library has set up a new fundraising department with four staff members.

The focus of our visit was on the most recent treasure added to the library, the John Murray Archive. Both the senior curator of the archive (David McClay) and the education/outreach coordinator (Emma Faragher) shared a lot of valuable insight with us into the archive's history and the process of its design. The John Murray Archive contains 200,000 items from the John Murray Publishing Company that remained popular throughout its 167 years of existence. The National Library purchased it for £33 million with funding from the Heritage Lottery Grant and some state funding. There are currently three permanent cataloguers working on the John Murray project.

Ms. Faragher shared with us briefly about her duties: she teaches adult education courses on how to use the library and archives; she works with the core users of the library, university students; and she is involved with getting speakers to come in (writers, historians, etc.). She also spoke with us about the process of designing the John Murray Archive Exhibition and all the elements that went into the creation of its display. It took about 3 years to design the exhibition. I found it extremely interesting to learn about the task of transcribing manuscripts and interpreting them for the visitors. I also learned of the significance of exhibitions for the success of the library, because they are used to promote the collections and ultimately to raise public interest and increase access. A related challenge is that it is difficult to evaluate the visitors' learning from the exhibit and how it has affected them.

The John Murray Archive Exhibition is in a creative facsimile of John Murray's Victorian home that immediately transports the visitor back in time. It is made up of 11 character pods that spotlight writers from the John Murray collection, including Lord Byron, David Livingstone, Sir Walter Scott, and Isabella Bird Bishop. Each pod has clothing and props related to the writer and a digital screen that allows the viewer to explore further: background information, manuscripts, etc. Although the John Murray Archive was the highlight of our visit, I did look through the other exhibits that were available in the library, including the "Scotland and India" exhibit. It contained several interactive areas and artwork and books relating to travel, medicine, the British Empire, and missions.

Museum of Childhood ~ 20 July 2007

In cooperation with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Childhood is a collection of objects representing childhood from the 16th century to the present day. The museum's funding comes from a Victoria and Albert Friends grant as well as visitor donations. In the front gallery, there was an impressive temporary exhibition of children's clothes and accessories that were turned into works of art by students from London College of Fashion. In addition, there were displays of art (eco-friendly designs of clothes, lunch boxes, etc.) created by primary school students as part of an artist-led project. The front gallery also hosted the "Dreams of Flying" exhibition: Jan von Holleben's photographs of children in certain poses, interacting with objects in such a way that it gives the illusion that the children are flying (several inspired by classic children's books). These exhibits were an amazing introduction to the museum and drew me right in!

Here are some examples from the collection that stood out to me as I explored the three floors of galleries:
~Historic toys, including those from around the world-- It was so interesting to read about the origins of some of the toys, and it was quite nostalgic to discover that toys from the 1970s and 80s that do not seem far removed from my lifetime were there on display behind glass!
~Some artwork that supplemented the historical information about toys, etc.
~An interactive game simulation
~A giant Magna-Doodle :)
~An arts and crafts area-- It looked like museum staff members were leading a group of parents and children in an activity.
~Play areas (sand pit, puppet shows) and reading areas scattered throughout the museum
~Amazing doll-houses and models
~Dress-up items and children's clothing, displayed chronologically by time period
~Educational tools
~The "Good Times" section with games, crazy mirrors, and fun music playing in the background
~An exhibit about exploring the lives and families in London's East End community

The overall sense that I got from this museum is that it represents the celebration of children and imagination, as evident in the quotes about childhood that are worked into the museum's design and the numerous opportunities for visiting children to play, explore, and create. There is also a highly active education department within the museum, with an exciting schedule of teaching sessions and workshops. I felt that the museum was very open, well-designed, and very well organized. It provides a fun and educational activity for children and their families (or for anyone who loves children!).

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Bodleian Library ~ 19 July 2007

The Bodleian Library of Oxford University is divided between the Old Library and the New Library. The Old Library was established in 1488. We saw its stacking system where the stacks are suspended from the ceiling in order to be moved easily. These stacks are able to hold 2 million books (mostly the smaller books of the collection). We also visited some of the reading rooms, where I noticed local catalogs and annotated booklists.

Next we moved on to the New Library, which was built in 1938. The facility contains 8 floors of stacks that are open to readers only and several specialist rooms (for example, Indian Institute Library, Geography and Map Reading Room, etc.). The stacks are climate-controlled for preservation purposes, and they are designed in order to fit the items that are being stored. Our tour guide emphasized the idea that the library is made by its smaller collections, as evident when it was named after Thomas Bodley, whose collection was added in 1602. Some examples from the general collection include a high concentration of literature from the Far East and theses, which are popular and highly frequented.

The library currently holds 12 million items, yet it continues to grow since it is a deposit library. Therefore, it has record of the history of printing and publishing in England from 1610 until today. Because of the constantly increasing holdings, the curators face the challenge of deciding what to keep, sell, or exchange, when working on acquisition. The Bodleian Library has a similar conveyor system as the British Library, and it connects 15 reading rooms, one for each subject area. A few differences are that the Bodleian's system is not yet operated electronically, and the students are able to hold books in a reading room for as long as they need them. The task of locating books to retrieve them for readers seems like a daunting one, but there is a whole culture of people, endearingly called the Troglodites, who "live in the stacks" and know where everything is. How fascinating!

I was surprised by the organization of the Bodleian's collection. The books are partially organized by the Dewey Decimal System, but primarily according to size. As we wandered through the dimly-lit, musty stacks, I got the impression that I was walking through the old basement of an avid book collector. Our tour guide admitted to us that certain items are not easy to find unless a Troglodite happens to know where they are. Although the intrinsic historical value of the Bodleian collection is incomparable, I felt like the operation and organization are not up-to-date in the areas of technology and access. The catalog is now on CD, but students can only search by author, not by subject. This seems like it would make research very difficult, since students must consult a catalog elsewhere to find resources within a certain subject, then return to the Bodleian to search its catalog by the resulting authors.

The Jane Austen Centre ~ 18 July 2007

Visiting the Jane Austen Centre was a lifetime landmark for me and so much more than just an academic experience. The Centre is located in a house in Bath that is similar in style to the home in which Jane Austen and her family lived while in Bath from 1801 to 1806. The Centre's exhibitions focus on Jane Austen's life and works as well as historical information about Bath during the Georgian and Regency periods. Some of the Jane Austen Centre's features include: Regency tea rooms; a gift shop of Austen-related gifts and books; an annual Jane Austen Festival; and walking tours of Jane Austen's Bath. The Centre also produces a magazine entitled Jane Austen's Regency World.

We were welcomed into the Centre by a gentleman dressed in Regency clothing, and we were immediately transported back to the end of the 18th century. Our visit began with an introductory talk about Jane Austen's history, her family and her career, with a special emphasis on her time spent in Bath. The guide was very informative and gave me a deeper glimpse into Jane Austen's life than I had received from any other biographical source. I learned more about her personality and her relationships-- to see her as more than just a writer, she was a kind and clever young woman, beloved to many. An interesting fact I learned is that when she was originally published, she did not use her real name. Instead, her books were ambiguously authored "by a lady."

There was a temporary exhibition called The Costumes of ITV's Persuasion. It displayed costumes from the recent film productions of Persuasion and Mansfield Park. And, there was an accompanying short film on how the costume designer was inspired to produce the costumes, based on the historical context. In the permanent exhibition, some examples include: a few portraits of Jane Austen (all based on the original in the National Portrait Gallery); Regency artifacts, circa 1800-1820; a sample of a letter Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra; a representation of a Georgian garden; information on social life in Bath during Jane Austen's time period; and the influence of the Navy in her works. The artifacts and displays worked together to paint a picture of what life was like for Jane Austen while she lived in Bath, what inspired her and what was important to her, and how her experiences influenced her writing. I appreciated the design of the exhibit; it was small, pleasant and well-organized, with music from the time period in the background. The only aspect that I did not like as much was the abundance of pictures from the movie representations of her novels. I wanted to stay immersed in the year 1800, but those pictures distracted me and brought me back to the present day. I would rather have focused more on her books than on the movies that attempt to portray what she expressed so well in words.

The Jane Austen Centre seems to be a fairly small organization with a small staff (for example, our tour guide was also working in the gift shop). However, it is operated very efficiently, run by competent, knowledgeable staff members. And, it seems to have quite a far reach, as its Jane Austen Festival in September is an internationally popular event, and fans from all over the world make pilgrimages there year-round (myself included).

St. Paul's Cathedral Library ~ 17 July 2007

The St. Paul's Cathedral Library is a relatively small, but immeasurably valuable, institution. It has been the cathedral's library for nearly 300 years, and it holds 13,500 volumes. The librarian, Joe Wisdom, gave us some historical background before taking us to the library. They believe that originally, the library's collection may have been stored along the length of the triforium. Also, the library was in the west end of the cathedral, where it expanded vertically rather than horizontally so as to conserve space. The room where Christopher Wren's great model of the cathedral from the 1670's is displayed used to be a library chamber, based on the book-related objects carved in the room's columns.

Onwards and upwards, Mr. Wisdom brought us to the library, a single room filled with ancient manuscripts that are under constant conservation. After the Great Fire, the library lost most of its books, so they had to be replaced with other collections (for example, Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, donated his entire collection). The domed ceiling of the library, Mr. Wisdom explained, simulates the feeling of a tent, so the reader's thoughts can soar! Wow, the architecture of a library has a lot more depth and significance than I realized. He also pointed out the iconography of the carvings in the library's columns: a skull above a book, surrounded by wheat and grapes, symbolizes how the library supports the church's message of Christ's triumph over death. One part of the library's collection that was interesting to me was a large Bible from the 16th century that was laid out on a small table, rather than on the shelves. We learned that this is used as an object lesson, to show how some books have the potential to cause damage to other books, because of the large brass knobs and buckles that embellish the cover.

The cathedral library is a private library, but it is open to anyone who will make good use of it. The librarian must be cautious and find out why exactly the person needs to use particular documents, as library security is certainly a major issue with a collection of this age and value. Therefore, patrons may only look at three documents at a time. Another issue which Mr. Wisdom informed us about is conservation. While we visited the library, a conservation exercise was currently in progress, led by conservators and assisted by a team that performs cleaning and minor repairs. The conservation projects are typically funded by grants.
It is also important to preserve the environment in which the books are stored, in addition to conserving the books themselves. As part of the library environment issue, I learned that there are actually specific types of bugs that destroy books, depending on the climate and location. Mr. Wisdom emphasized to us that with early printed texts, having duplicates does not decrease the value of the copy (as it may seem with current texts). Each copy is just as significant; they wouldn't dare to dispose of one copy because they already have another! This makes perfect sense, but it is another area which I was not aware of before this tour. I also learned the difference between conservation and restoration: Restoration involves making a change to the document, while conservation simply maintains the document. Joe Wisdom spoke vehemently against restoration, as he stated that any alterations done to a document should always be reversible.
This is an inspiring library and our tour was incredibly informative. :)

Museum of London ~ 16 July 2007

The Museum of London was established in 1976, and it is considered to be the largest urban history museum in the world. Some of its funding comes from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the City of London, the Heritage Lottery, as well as donations from the Friends of the Museum community. There are about 150 staff members working at the main site and 150 staff members at the London Archaeological Archives Center. The Senior Curator of Prehistory, Jon Cotton, was our tour guide, and he explained to us how the design team and the curatorial staff work alongside each other to create new exhibits. They maintain a database as an internal record system in order to keep track of objects. There are computer terminals located throughout the museum which visitors may use to access the online catalog. They can search for items by keyword, time period, and subject. And the results indicate where the items are on display. I thought this was an extremely helpful feature!

The exhibits included: Pre-historical London; the Great Fire of London; Roman London (focusing on homes and life); Medieval London; and Tudor and Stuart London. I loved the models and dioramas that are frequently used in the exhibits. They provide visitors with a big-picture perspective while offering so many interesting, intricate details. I took note of the museum's vision as it made the museum come alive to me as more than just an institution; it is a moving force within the community: "Inspire a passion for London;" "London only has one museum." The goal is to create a dialogue with the visitors, instead of simply passing down facts. This is evident, for example, when the captions pose questions to the visitors, causing them to stop and think about the relevance of the item on display.
I became fascinated with learning about the issues and challenges that the museum staff faces. Our tour guide, Jon Cotton, let us into their world of decisions that I had no idea existed. One challenge is that England's National History Curriculum does not include pre-history (it begins with the Roman invasion). So, the pre-historical London exhibit carries a heavy responsibility to present new information in a way that provides sufficient context to an audience that is generally unfamiliar with the time period. Similarly, the staff must make sure to avoid the use of historical jargon when creating the labels and captions, keeping in mind what the audience will be familiar with. A related issue is the amount of text included in the displays; Jon Cotton believes that reading should not distract the visitor from the objects. I completely agree! It seems that the visitors' needs, knowledge, and interests must be central during the design process. One final aspect of design, which I'm sure leaves room for constant debate, involves the ethical issues surrounding the display of human remains. The human skulls that were part of the pre-historical exhibit were displayed because of their cultural context. But I understand the director's hesitancy to put everything on display without respect and some solemnity.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Houses of Parliament ~ 13 July 2007

Much of the Parliament building had been rebuilt in 1845 after a fire. It also suffered some damage during the air raids of World War II. The House of Commons, within Parliament, was rebuilt in 1950. Parliament is divided into two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is made up of 660 representatives, which are elected at least every 5 years. The House of Commons holds the power to create legislation, whereas the House of Lords only has the power to amend legislation. The House of Lords was established in 1996, and it contains 760 members. The Lords and Ladies are nominated by the Prime Minister and tend to be professionals who have been successful in their field. When a new Prime Minister is elected, it is not the individual whom the people are voting for; they are voting only for the political party in general (either Labor or Conservative).

Some examples in the collection that we viewed include: the death warrant for Charles I (1640), signed with seals; portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; the Royal Gallery with two large murals depicting the Napoleonic Wars; a series of volumes that hold the Congressional Records; and Westminster Hall (preserved from the 14th century) where William Wallace, among other criminals, was held on trial. Some of the personnel that make up Parliament's staff are: stenographers, clerks, messengers to go between Houses, security staff, tour guides, the members of the House of Commons (who are organized into committees with chairmen) and the House of Lords, the Cabinet members, the Sergeant-at-arms and his soldiers, as well as the officials who are senior civil servants.

I found it very interesting to uncover more of the history behind the Parliament building, which goes beyond its current function. It used to be a royal palace; in fact, the last monarch to live there was King Henry VIII. I appreciated learning about the political process in England. One fact of note is that a vote here is called a "division." :)
To examine the Houses of Parliament from a librarian's perspective gave me a deep appreciation for how much history is preserved within those walls and the artifacts they display, and for how the history still relates to the current political practices. I felt a tingle of awe as the tour guide pointed out the seat at the end of a first row in the House of Commons, against which I was standing, as the seat where Margaret Thatcher sat. We also saw a bronze statue of Thatcher, standing sure and strong. She was such an influential politician and a woman whom I admire. So, it was neat to see how Parliament still incorporates its history as it is constantly being created, to make it more than just a location to debate bills, but also a collection that enriches the public.

British Library ~ 12 July 2007

The British Library as we visit it today in its current facility was established in 1998; however, its collection began forming in 1753 with the private collection of Sir Hans Sloane. There are four storage facilities, three of which are separate sites and one of which is in the basement of the main building. Also, the main building has recently had the addition of a conservation center. The British Library is purely a reference library, so researchers who qualify for a reader's card, based on their research needs, are able to request specific books and use them in one of the many reading rooms within the library.
The library is heavily funded by the British government. In fact, it receives more government funding than any other institution. There is also a strong Friends of the Library volunteer program that assists in raising funds. The library seems to be quite successful, both in its funding but also in its frequency of use.

The library's collection is made up of around 200 million items, making it the second largest library in the world! (The largest is the Library of Congress.) It holds 11 reading rooms, 4.2 million stamps, and 80,000 volumes just within "The King's Library." The Treasures gallery is one of its most valuable exhibitions; some examples of manuscripts that are on display include: a handwritten letter by Jane Austen, Shakespeare's First Folio, Da Vinci's sketches, Lewis Carrol's handwritten version of Alice in Wonderland, a Gutenberg Bible, and the Magna Carta. Another exhibit within the library is the Sacred Manuscript Exhibit, which displays a section of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example.
The library is staffed with around 2,500 employees, divided between the three sites. However, the majority of the staff (2,100) works at the main library building. Some examples of the necessary personnel include the curators; staff to work with the public; tour guides; staff to operate book delivery, registration, conservation, exhibits, etc.

I was very impressed with the organization and magnitude of the British Library. How it can remain so efficient and yet reach such a broad scope of patrons is amazing to me. It is busy with readers and researchers from all over the world! It was clear that this library is very up-to-date with technology, facilities, and research. For example, I enjoyed the "Turning the Pages" interactive program; it really pulls the visitors in and encourages them to explore the manuscripts thoroughly and for themselves. Some aspects of the storage were completely new to me, and quite interesting to note. The basement storage is kept at a temperature of 16 degrees Celsius, which is recommended to be the ideal temperature for book preservation. And, many of the books are organized according to size, not subject, in order to maximize space. I was fascinated to learn about the whole behind-the-scenes process, as well: The reader must present a reading list, explaining his/her research needs, which may be done electronically since one can access the online catalog with a reader's card number. Then the librarian will gather the requested books and deliver them directly to the reading room where the reader is located, through a complex conveyor belt system.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Stratford-upon-Avon ~ 10 July 2007

The Shakespeare Houses in Stratford-upon-Avon:

1) Shakespeare's Birthplace--
The site consists of a museum and a tour of the Shakespeare family home. The museum provides historic information about Elizabethan England and displays documents and artifacts related to William Shakespeare's birth, childhood, family, education, marriage, career, and death. Some examples of materials in the collection include a model of The Globe Theatre and a 1576 Bible. In the Shakespeare home, historical interpreters are situated in every main room (total of four) to provide more detailed information.
I was not expecting the Shakespeare home to be as big as it was. I had been under the impression that Shakespeare came from a lower-class, poorly-educated home situation. But his father was actually a well-known leader in the town, and William did go to school until he was around 15 or 16.

2) New Place/Nash's House--
Nash's House is where Shakespeare's grand-daughter Elizabeth lived when she married John Nash. A portion of the home has been preserved, where authentic furniture and other artifacts are displayed, while the rest of the home is used as a museum to display historical information about book-printing, with an emphasis on Shakespeare's complete works. Nash's House also has significance in that it is a good example of what a wealthy home looked like in the 17th century. There was one guide to introduce the exhibit. New Place was the home in which Shakespeare lived when he returned from London and where he died; however all that remains today of the house are a few arches.
What I found interesting about this site was the video demonstration of book printing, and there was a feature that allowed visitors to electronically simulate turning pages of an old manuscript by touching a computer screen.

3) Hall's Croft--
Hall's Croft was the home of John Hall, a doctor who married Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna. We were able to tour the home and see artifacts of furniture and art from the 17th century. There was also an exhibit set up with artifacts and information about 17th century medicine. There were no guides throughout the exhibit.
It was neat to observe the progression from Shakespeare's birthplace to the Nash house to Hall's Croft. The homes got increasingly larger and more advanced in structure (for example, the kitchen in Hall's Croft contained a mechanism to lift food and turn it above the fireplace, showing more advanced technology than the manual spits in the previous homes).

All of these sites are operated and funded by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an educational charity that includes staff in Education, Estates, Library, and Museums departments. The Education department has three staff members, two lecturers and the Head of Education. The Trust is independent from any government funding, so its funding mainly comes from admission charges and from donations. The Friends of the Trust is an organization set up to help raise money for the Trust.

I enjoyed exploring a behind-the-scenes perspective of the Shakespeare House museums. Not only did I learn more about Shakespeare's life and works, but I now have a better idea of what goes into the process of preserving artifacts, displaying and organizing them for public appreciation, and promoting education.