Tuesday, 14 August 2007

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.

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