Friday, 3 August 2007

Guildhall Library

Today's visit to the Guildhall Library featured a lecture by the printed books librarian, Mr. Harper. The Guildhall Library is one of five libraries located within the City of London, which is composed of the original square mile within the Roman walls. The other City libraries include the public lending libraries in the Barbican Centre, Shoe Lane, and Camomile Street, as well as a specialist business library. Mr. Harper informed us that the business library is facing some difficulties, specifically with proving the library's relevance in the face of the new technological environment. It's an issue we've faced at home and heard about on site visits, the library versus the internet, and I hope that the business library is able to show the local authority that neither one alone is as effective as both together.

The Guildhall Library currently occupies its fourth building, and its history highlights some rather turbulent events. The library's initial collection was made up mainly of theological manuscripts, and was established in the 1420's. Unfortunately, during the reign of Edward VI the Lord Protector, Lord Somerset, took the Guildhall's collection to fill the library in his new home. The library remained empty until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was reestablished with materials primarily concerned with the City and its immediate surroundings. During this period, only corporation members and their guests were allowed to use the library's collections, but the overwhelming popularity of the library ensured that plans were made for a new library. The new building was opened in 1875, and the general public was welcomed in its reading rooms. This is the policy which remains today, as the library places no restrictions on membership. The 1875 building was used until 1940, when it was burned out during the blitz. Happily, much of the library's most valuable material had been moved to a safe location before the fire, but a great deal was still lost. Mr. Harper explained to us that the library is still involved with trying to rebuild the collection to the best of their ability, and he had made a purchase to that end just before our talk. After the damage to the library building, a new Guildhall was planned with dedicated space for a library included. The structure was built during the 1970's and opened in 1974, and is the current location of the Guildhall Library. I can only hope that the library has seen the end of its troubles!

One of the most exciting features of the library, COLLAGE, was explained to us during our short tour of the library itself. COLLAGE is an online, searchable catalog of the library's prints and drawings. It allows remote access to view digitized images of the holdings, and also allows visitors to purchase reproductions of these works in either digital or paper formats. I found this service offered by Guildhall to be not only of great use to researchers and art lovers, but also great fun to use. I've taken the opportunity to search COLLAGE remotely, and have found an engraving from 1830 of Stamford Street. It's been an informative glimpse into the history of my temporary home, and I hope to place an order for a frameable print in the not-too-distant future. Of all the details given to us during our visit to the Guildhall Library, the innovative COLLAGE program and the sheer stubborn perseverance of the library were the most resonant for me. The visit helped me realize that libraries can best serve their patrons first of all by making sure they're around, and secondly by thinking of innovative ways to deliver new services. For these reasons, I really enjoyed this visit.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Barbican Library

The Barbican Library has the distinction of being the only public lending library we visited as a group during our time in the U.K. For that reason alone, I was very excited for the visit. Happily, the fine staff at the Barbican Library did not let me down in my high expectations. We were split into two separate groups and shown the music library, the general adult collection, and the children's library. We were also treated to a very nice tea break in the library's break room, where the staff gathered to speak with us on a more personal basis. The welcoming and enthusiastic atmosphere generated by the librarians at the Barbican Library resulted in this visit being my personal favorite site visit throughout the program. This preference was strengthened by my desire to work in public libraries in the U.S., and a genuine interest in how services in the two countries compare.

My group began our tour in the music library, which is the second largest public music library in London. The library aims to collect all types of music in an attempt to serve a wider range of customers. Library patrons must pay a small fee for CD's, 30p for one week or 90p for 3 weeks, a circumstance which I had noticed in the other public libraries I've seen during the trip. It was an interesting concept, to charge patrons for multimedia materials, and while I can understand the lure of increased library funding, in the end my belief in free access leads me to the conclusion that libraries shouldn't charge for these materials. Nevertheless, it's a system that seems to be working in Britain, at least for the present. It should be noted, however, that libraries are experiencing a decrease in issues for CD's and DVD's. The drop in CD issues has been attributed to new technology and online downloads, a familiar problem in the United States as well, while the drop in DVD issues may be due to overcharging. The rate of 2.75 pounds per week for DVD's has resulted in some customer complaints. The music library features many innovative services for their patrons, several of which I would be excited to implement similar projects in a future position. The most ambitious was the in-house development of a song index, which is now used by many other libraries in addition to the staff at the Barbican. The most fun addition to the library, however, was the electronic piano. The piano was brought into the library to allow patrons to try out sheet music, although it has brought in a new group of patrons interested in completing piano practice during lunch breaks. The library also houses, although it doesn't own, a collection of recordings called "Music Preserved." This collection is made up of live recordings of musical performances, in the interests of providing an alternate perspective from studio-recorded music.

After our visit to the music library and our tea break, we proceeded on to the general adult collection. In the interests of partnership, libraries in the City divide collection development strategies among themselves. The libraries then cooperate in providing access to these materials to users of all the libraries. The Barbican's interest in collection development is finance, Marxism, and classic crime materials. The comprehensive collection in these subjects then benefits all the libraries, as the Barbican benefits from theirs. The Barbican's patrons are more often male than female, a circumstance which is unusual in London, and is served by a staff of 44 spread through all the library's departments. The library has no regular volunteers, although volunteers may be called upon for special projects. The Barbican offers a great many services for its community, and most of them were very similar to those offered by my local library. Internet access is provided to library card holders, a van is used to deliver materials to the homebound, and ESL classes are held in the library regularly. These are all essential programs which have parallels in the United States. One of the most impressive aspects of the library was its RFID system. My local library at home also uses RFID, although its system is far less sophisticated than that of the Barbican, which sees 12% of its circulation through self-issue. The system can read multiple items at once, simultaneously deactivating the security tags, and can also be accessed from outside the library's entrance when it is closed.

Our visit to the Barbican's children's library was the least applicable to my own professional interests, as I don't want to work with children, but I was still very interested to hear about their programs for developing literacy in children. The Bookstart program, which seemed to be similar to the U.S.'s Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library, provides literacy information and books to the families of newborns, and is distributed by health visitors. Even more encouraging was the existence of two additional early literacy programs, called Bookstart + and Treasure Chest. These programs will follow the changing literacy needs of children through the first three years of life, and will provide a firm foundation in developing a new population of literate library users.

To make a long story short, I greatly enjoyed our visit to the Barbican Library, and I feel that I learned a great deal. Many of the services offered by the library have their parallels in the United States, but it is always useful to get a new perspective on how to implement and run them. Apart from the sheer interest factor of the visit, I also felt very welcome by the warm and friendly staff at the Barbican, who seemed truly excited to share their practices with a group of American library students. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my education.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Caird Library and the Royal Observatory

Today's site visit was to the Caird Library, which is located in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I have to admit that, before we visited this library, it was one that I believed would be uninteresting and with very little relevance to what I want to do as a librarian. I'm happy to say that I was wrong! The library itself is housed in a beautiful building, although the information specialist, Eliza Verity, who showed us around told us that it's an inconvenient space for housing a library. Nevertheless, the library manages to house 25,000 volumes in the reading room, and there are plans in place to develop a naval archive. The only restriction mentioned to us on entrance to the reading room is that children under age 16 are not allowed to enter the library. The library has done a magnificent job, however, in ensuring that this user group does not go unserved. A separate area near the enquiry desk, called the e-library, has been set up for underage users and those who don't need or wish to enter the reading room. The e-library provides access to all of the library's online resources, including the full catalog. Finally, the last tidbit we were given before the exhibition of the treasures was that the library is classified using what, for me, was a completely new classification system. The Universal Decimal System essentially follows the principles of Dewey, but also incorporates punctuation for greater flexibility. I have been consistently fascinated throughout the site visits by the different ways that libraries have developed and altered classification systems to serve specific and unique needs. It's a good reminder about the value of flexibility and open-mindedness.

After our brief tour of the Caird Library, we were led into a small meeting room to view some of its treasures. I was amazed at both the quantity and quality of items that we were invited to view and, in most cases, handle. It would take pages of space and hours of writing to describe the amazing items that we were shown by Kate Jarvis, the curator of manuscripts, and Tanya Kirk, the reader services librarian, so I'll endeavor to mention just a few of the most exciting. From the manuscripts collection, of which there are 4 1/2 miles worth, I was most excited to see the letters from Admiral Lord Nelson to his wife and to Emma Hamilton, his pregnant mistress. Ms. Jarvis explained to us that Lord Nelson was a prolific letter writer, and so it isn't unusual for a library to own several of his letters. These particular examples, however, are unique to most library collections. Both were highly personal in nature, and the love letter to Emma Hamilton was extremely sentimental. Lord Nelson was a very private man, and as a result few personal letters remain. It made me feel all the more privileged that I was able to see these two. Another personal favorite was the spy book, dated around 1582, which is filled with information about the Spanish Armada for Elizabeth I. I have always been interested in espionage, and so this item was a particular thrill! As far as the printed books were concerned, there were two items that stand out most strongly in my memory. The first was the medicine book from the H.M.S. Bounty. The book itself was a normal book of medicine, which exhibited no serious differences from other books of its kind save one: it was bound in the sailcloth from the Bounty. I was overwhelmed that we were allowed to touch what amounts to a direct piece of history. I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that I was, however indirectly, connected to one of the most famous, or infamous, ships of the British fleet. The second item affected me for similar reasons. It was a book which was "printed at the sign of the penguins" in Antarctica during one of Shackleton's expeditions. Even more exciting for me, though, was that the book had originally been bound in packing crate material from the ship. For preservation purposes the book itself had been removed from its wooden binding, but the wood was still available to be seen and touched. Again, it was like holding a piece of history. The entire experience was overwhelming, and I was honored that the library took so much effort in creating such an amazing experience.

After leaving the Caird Library, I felt a distinct need to get some fresh air and take some time to really come to terms with the magnitude of our experience there. My head was swimming with it! There turned out to be no better place to come back to earth than the Royal Observatory. After climbing the incredibly steep hill, I took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a picture of myself in two hemispheres at once. I was also just in time to see the ball drop, signifying the exact moment of 1:00 pm. It was a fantastic way to end what had been an amazing day.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

National Art Library at the V&A

Today's site visit was to the National Art Library, which is housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The library's enquiry desk is currently reached by passing through the silent reading room, a circumstance which the library hopes to remedy in the future. The plans include moving the entrance to the opposite end of the suite, making the silent reading room the furthest space from the entrance. I hope the library is able to move forward with these plans, as it would result in a much quieter environment for readers and researchers. Our guides through the library itself and through its collections were two of the librarians, Jen and Jenny. They were kind enough to give us enough time to both see a great deal of the library's working space and stacks, as well as an introduction to the collection and access to some examples of fine bindings and artists' books held by the National Art Library.

Unlike the British Library, the National Art Library is not restricted to collecting only British publications, and as a result covers some areas missed in the British Library's collections. The National Art Library is therefore a very important resource for researchers interested in art in all its various forms. The library holds approximately 8,000 periodicals, 2,500 of which are current, and a large collection of exhibition and sales catalogs. The sales catalogs, collected from various auction houses, are invaluable resources for determining the provenance of a work of art, and the annotated catalogs can be even more useful as they provide information about the paintings' past market value. In addition, the library attempts to collect three copies of each item published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of which is kept pristine for archive purposes only. The collection dates back, in some cases, to the 1700's, and the library is continuously working on collection development and acquisition. Space has been a severe limiter to acquisition, and we were shown the cataloging backlog for the library, which extended along the whole of the communal office space's wall. Apparently, the uncataloged items are still available for use by the public, although their uncataloged status can only be an irritation for the librarians. There is a hope for some off-site, underground storage in Salisbury, which would help alleviate some of the problems related to space.

After our tour of the library's working spaces, we were shown some of the library's special collections. These included examples of fine binding and several artists' books. These items, as opposed to being books of artwork or books about art, are examples of art in and of themselves. The library is as devoted to collecting narrative works made as art as they are to collecting informative works about the subject. The artists' books included many surprising and unusual pieces, including the binding from some Islamic books which had been separated from the book's contents. Sadly, the books had originally been purchased for the binding alone, and the books themselves had not been seen as valuable. As a result, it is only the binding that remains. The rest of the items were more fortunate, however, and remain whole. We were privileged to see an example of a tunneling book, which opens into a tunnel framing the text. Another personal favorite was the English teacher's diary. It is a daily calendar from 1997, and is full of personal notes, drawings, and doodles. I really enjoyed the idea that a woman, focused on teaching English in Japan, could have unknowingly created a work of art so interesting that it was purchased by the National Art Library. It's kind of inspiring, really.

Another interesting aspect of the items brought out for us was the preservation angle. We were told that items were more often preserved than conserved. The only conservation done in the library is for items that are scheduled for display or loan to another institution, and this process is carried out by a specialized group of conservators. The rest of the items have to make do with preservation, in the interests that the book's condition doesn't worsen. Books in need of preservation are often placed into specially-made containers of archival-grade material, which is wrapped or tied to ensure that it keeps its shape without causing additional damage to the item. Sadly, the lack of space in the library is having its effect on preserved items as well. Many items which should be stored flat are being stored on end due to a lack of space, which may be solved by the proposed off-site storage. I was very grateful to have been given such an in-depth look into the daily workings and the collections of this fine library. The librarians were very knowledgeable and welcoming, and I feel that I've gained a greater understanding of how a specialized library operates.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Keats' House

Today I visited Keats' House in Hampstead as one of my independent site visits. The house is the site of the original duplex where John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820, and now houses a museum in the poet's honor. The home was converted to a single home in 1838 by Eliza Chester, and this is how the house now appears. Nevertheless, much of the atmosphere that must have existed during John Keats' stay in the house remains. Many of the original fixtures in the home still exist, including the oven and wine cellar that would have belonged to Keats and his friend Charles Brown. The house was nearly demolished in the early 1900's, but was saved by public funding from both Britain and America. It was opened in 1925 as a public museum, although the interior remains greatly changed by the renovations performed by Eliza Chester. It is not the interior of the house, however, that currently provides the most insight into John Keats' stay there.

The home's large and beautiful garden, as well as its proximity to Hampstead Heath, help visitors to understand why Keats' years in Hampstead were among his most productive as a poet. Indeed, the garden features a plum tree planted in the spot where Keats composed one of his most well-known pieces, "Ode to a Nightingale." Keats was a prominent member of the Romantic movement in literature, which is characterized by attention to and praise of nature. The grounds at Keats' House and the beautiful environment of Hampstead, which seem worlds away from the noise and pollution of central London, help visitors to understand Keats' work by better understanding his inspiration. Additionally, the garden acts as a public space for the appreciation of both nature and poetry. The museum hosts family events in the garden, including singing and poetry readings as well as a "teddy bear's picnic," and welcomes artists to the garden to paint.

The Keats' House Museum currently holds a relatively small collection of items, partially due to the renovation work being undertaken, although many of items still on display are highly personal and therefore of great interest to Keats enthusiasts. Among the more fascinating objects in the Keats' House Museum are locks of Keats' and Fanny Brawne's hair, Keats' writing desk, and both a life mask and a death mask, displayed side by side in a room where Keats often spent time writing and reading. The museum also displays the engagement ring given by John Keats to his neighbor and fiancee, Fanny Brawne. While these items are powerful relics of the poet's life, the museum's main attraction for visitors lies in its gardens, activities, and its plans for renovation.

The Keats' House Museum has recently become the recipient of 424,000 pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be used to recreate the building's interior to reflect its appearance during Keats' time there. The plans, as laid out in a series of display boards in the museum's basement, include a recreation of the decorative elements of the home. Various samples of paint and wallpaper have been taken throughout the house, and by dating the layers the renovators hope to identify which would have been used during Keats' time in the house. After identification, the various colors and designs used for decoration will be recreated as far as possible, and used to renovate the museum to more closely resemble the home where Keats and Fanny Brawne lived. The work began in April of this year, and should be finished by November of 2009. At the culmination of the renovation work, many of the letters and manuscripts owned by the Keats' House Museum will be place back on display in the house, and the combination of the new environment and robust exhibitions should create a museum much better and more informative for generations of poetry-lovers to come.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

National Portrait Gallery

Today I visited the National Portrait Gallery as one of my independent site visits. I chose this museum, not only because of my personal interest in British history, but because I was excited to see the portraits of my two paper subjects: Jane Austen and John Keats. Actually, to be completely honest I was not aware that Cassandra's portrait of Jane Austen was in the National Portrait Gallery's collections. I knew that it was the only portrait painted of her from life, and it never occurred to me that it might be on display in this national museum. Instead, I had come to the National Portrait Gallery to see an image of John Keats and the other historical and literary figures who had fascinated me for most of my life.

The museum was founded by the British government during the reign of Queen Victoria, and its policy is to admit works according to historical, rather than artistic, merit. I found this to be a particularly fascinating policy, especially for a museum filled to capacity with works of art. Upon further reflection, though, it's a policy that makes sense. If the museum determined to purchase or accept donations of only artistically important portraits, many of the featured portraits would never have been acquired. A good example is my favorite find, Cassandra's portrait of her sister Jane Austen. The portrait is amateurish at best, even family members admitted it was not a good likeness, and any museum purchasing artistically important works would have been forced to pass it over. However, the portrait is the only one painted of Jane Austen from life, and her importance to British literature and history is undeniable. The peculiar acquisition policy of the National Portrait Gallery ensures that small treasures such as these are not lost. Another interesting point in the acquisition policy was changed during the 1960's. Before that time, no portrait of a living sitter was admitted to the collection, excepting British monarchs. This policy has now been changed, and portraits of famous Brits such as J.K. Rowling and David Beckham are displayed along with Queen Elizabeth II.

Upon arriving at the museum, I followed the natural flow up the escalator to the Tudor room. This room not only introduced me to the museum's collections, but also to the way the collection is organized. The portraits are hung primarily by historical time period, and within that time frame by type of sitter. Visitors are led to the Tudors, where most of the paintings are of royalty and nobility. The high points of this room were portraits of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and further on, Shakespeare himself. The visitor is then led through conveniently numbered rooms which provide a fascinating tour through the history of England. Many of the portraits are of recognizable names and faces, but a great many were of people I didn't have previous knowledge of. Each portrait is accompanied by a small plaque listing not only the name of the artist and sitter, but also a short history of the sitter's importance to the nation. The nature of the displays, and the museum as a whole, made for a very interesting visit. It is possible, with very little effort, to learn a great deal about the history of Britain.

By far my favorite room in the National Portrait Gallery was the Romantics. This room immediately struck me as a gold mine, because when I entered I saw the recognizable faces of Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. I was very excited to examine the portraits in the room, and my happy mood was cemented when I happened across what, to me, was an unimaginable treasure: Jane Austen's portrait. It is very small and unassuming, but had a remarkable effect on me. I was thrilled to be able to look upon the portrait of a favorite author, especially as it had been drawn by her most beloved sister. By a strange, serendipitous circumstance, John Keats' portrait had been hung directly behind Jane Austen's, so I was able to view both of my paper subjects in one spot!

In short, I found my visit to the National Portrait Gallery to be both informative and very entertaining. Apart from the portraits of my subject authors, I was able to see the portraits of many other favorite writers and historical figures. My favorites included Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, William Blake, and, interestingly, George Washington. I was also able to make a passing acquaintance with new and interesting people about whom I hadn't known much. For instance, I was drawn to a portrait of a fresh-faced, flirtatious young woman who turned out to be Nell Gwynn, an actress and the mistress of King Charles II. I think that this demonstrates the particular effectiveness of the gallery. Visitors are encouraged, and would be hard-pressed to resist the urge, to wander the gallery, stopping at interesting and familiar faces. The portraits make it easier to connect to these important people, and therefore make it much easier to connect to history and heritage.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Writer's Museum

This morning we visited the Writer's Museum, which is located in a historic house in Lady Stair's Close. Just outside the museum is Makar's Court, which features paving stones inscribed with quotes from notable Scottish writers. My favorite quotes in Makar's Court include one by Sir Walter Scott, "This is my own, my native land," and another by Neil Munro, "And yet - and yet, this New Road will some day be the Old Road, too." These quotes embodied, for me, the intense national pride and pragmatism of the Scots. There are ongoing plans to add paving stones to the court, which will continue to enhance the atmosphere of the museum. The house itself was built in 1622 as a home, and was given to the City of Edinburgh in 1907 for the purposes of housing a museum. The age of the building, as well as its original function as a home, result in some interesting idiosyncrasies in the architecture. For example, a sign posted by a staircase warned visitors of differing stair depths. Apparently, staircases in homes were often built like this to encourage uninvited guests, those unfamiliar with the home, to stumble and betray their presence. What an interesting glimpse into history!

The museum's purpose is to highlight the lives of Scottish writers, although the exhibition is devoted most largely to Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The museum's collections were small and included several reproductions, although there were a handful of items that caught and held my attention. My favorite piece in the museum was a large cabinet owned by Robert Louis Stevenson and built by Deacon Brodie. Deacon Brodie was a notorious criminal and the inspiration for Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also fascinating were the many photographs of Stevenson, accompanied by text including quotes from those who knew him. The insights offered by his sister allow us to know that a photograph of a long-haired Robert Louis Stevenson indicates a serious illness, as his doctor refused to allow him to cut his hair unless he was well. This pairing of text and image demonstrates how new depth of understanding can be gained from an effective exhibition.

Another of the items displayed in the museum that I found effective in humanizing a great writer was the rocking horse used by Sir Walter Scott when he was a boy. Scott suffered from polio when he was young, and as a result one leg was shorter than the other for the rest of his life. His childhood rocking horse, with one footrest significantly higher than the other, reflects this. It's a powerful way to personalize a writer of such reputation, well-respected and unapproachable. The most interesting item, to me, in the Robert Burns room was his writing desk. When I first entered the room, a CD of his recited work was playing, and hearing the words while looking on the desk upon which they were likely written was an exciting and slightly surreal experience. The visit to the museum was topped off by a temporary display centered around Ian Rankin, a contemporary mystery writer and the creator of the popular Inspector Rebus. I was pleased to see that the Writer's Museum wasn't anchored solely in the past, and was both willing and enthusiastic in celebrating a wider world of Scottish work.

In short, I found this museum to be on the small and sparse side, but I was impressed with what they had accomplished with limited resources. For a small museum with limited scope, it was remarkably successful in communicating the importance of Scottish writers not only to Scotland, but to the wider world and humanity in general. I hope that the museum will continue to expand its holdings and experiment in its presentation of them to museum visitors. If the Writer's Museum focuses on continuously improving service to the public, I believe it is possible for it to become a hidden gem in a city of great museums and historical attractions.