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.