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.

Monday, 23 July 2007

National Archives of Scotland

This afternoon we visited the National Archives of Scotland, where we were given a lecture about the Archives' work and history, and then given a chance to see some of the treasures of the archive. The archives are housed in three buildings, with the main site being General Register House on Princes Street. General Register House was built in 1774 by Robert Adam, and is currently undergoing renovation to link it to the General Registers nearby. This will allow researchers to better use both collections. The National Archives' collection dates from the 12th century, and provides access to many official documents, including legal papers, church records, and government papers. The Archives allow free access to materials, although digital images or copies may be presented instead of originals for many of the more delicate items. Patrons are allowed to make copies of the materials, although there is a charge for this service. The General Registers, on the other hand, provides access to documents regarding births, deaths and marriages, so the refurbishment will allow researchers to continue their research in the National Archives after completing initial searches in the General Registers. Both institutions will be required to make some minor changes in their practice when this project is completed. The National Archives has traditionally provided service to the public for free, while the General Registers has charged. To provide equity in service, the new practice will be to provide a certain amount of research time for free, with a charge for additional time. The second site of the National Archives is known as West Register House, and was opened in the 1970's. It is located in what was St. George's Church in Charlotte Square. The third site, Thomas Thomson House, allows no public access but is large enough to accommodate expansion. The expansion would, our lecturer explained, hopefully allow room for a research room at the site. Currently, Thomas Thomson House is the location for the Archives' conservation projects. Expansion may be necessary very soon, as our lecturer informed us that the collection is always growing, and space is at a premium.

Our speaker explained to us that Scotland has the happy distinction of possessing some of the best-kept official records in the world. The Archives have been preserving official documents for centuries, and genealogists worldwide have a much easier time of finding information in Scotland than in many other places throughout the world. To assist these researchers, the National Archives makes its catalog and many additional resources available on its website. Additional resources include links to the Scottish Records Advisory Council, the Scottish Archives Network, Scottish Archives for Schools, Scotland's People, and Scottish Handwriting. The link to Scottish Archives for Schools is particularly interesting, as it shows both the educational possibilities of the Archives' collection and the Archives' willingness to work with all areas of the public. Scottish Handwriting is also a unique link; it educates users about how to decode handwriting, and provides a series of tutorials for visitors. This service undoubtedly enriches the quality of information gleaned from the collections.

One of the interesting issues raised by our visit to General Register House was the question of what should be preserved in the archive. Our lecturer explained to us that government offices are instructed to save important papers for eventual placement in the archive. Problems have arisen with too many items saved for preservation, and the National Archive has provided training to government offices about what qualifies for placement in the archive. Additionally, the development of certain technologies, specifically photocopying, has made the work of the archivists more difficult. The Archives always aims to preserve the initial document, and this document has become more difficult to identify, in many cases, because of the widespread practice of photocopying.

Our visit was ended in glorious fashion by the presentation of some of the Archives' treasures. These included a letter written by Mary Queen of Scots in 1550, a cookery book written in 1727, Journals of the Commissioner for the Union of the Kingdoms from 1706, and criminal case files for Janet Arthur (a.k.a. Fanny Parker), a suffragette prisoner. Additionally, a scroll of the Record of the Exchequer from 1495 was shown to us, as well as the passage marking the earliest reference to Aquae Vitae, or whisky, known to the Archive. Seeing these items makes it patently clear how important the act of preservation and conservation can be for an informed society. If organizations like the National Archives had not endeavored to collect and preserve items such as these amazing treasures, we would now be unable to see and learn from them.

National Library of Scotland

This morning we visited the National Library of Scotland, and attended lectures focusing on the John Murray Archive. The Senior Curator of the archive, David McClay, and another librarian whose name I sadly missed, were kind enough to describe the archive and the process of bringing it to exhibition. The Murray family has long been involved with publishing, and over the years has amassed a large collection of manuscripts, letters, and other items relating to publishing. The National Library of Scotland acquired the Murray Archive in 2005, paying £31.2 million. Funds were gathered from the Heritage Lottery Fund in the amount of £17.7 million, which was matched by the Scottish Executive in the amount of £8.6 million, and the remainder from a fund-raising effort by the library. The archive, which has been valued at £45 million and consists of 200,000 items, was purchased directly from the Murray family, who then generously placed the purchase price into a trust fund for the administration and exhibition of the archive, as well as the development of similar projects in the future. The family retains a portion of the collection, which will be given to the library at a future date.

The Murray Archive consists of many letters, manuscripts, and books from authors such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Darwin, and Charles Babbage. In addition, the archive consists of one of the largest collections of Lord Byron's letters, manuscripts and papers. The letter pictured here can be found in the archive, and the image was found on the Archive's website. Currently, the largest portion of the archive's staff are catalogers. The library is and will continue to be greatly concerned with identifying exactly what is held in the archive, and making it available to the public through the catalog. The library is also undertaking a digitization project, however. The initial intention is to digitize 15,000 images, making them available on the internet for study. The library's goal is, by the year 2015, to have digitized 2.5 million images and made them available online. Incidentally, David McClay explained to us that only 15% of the cost of digitization results from taking the image. It gives me an idea of the vast amount of work that goes into a project of this size.

Perhaps the most interesting section of our visit to the archive was the information about designing and executing the exhibit. An exhibition of archival material can be challenging, as our hosts explained and many of us have, as museum and library patrons, experienced. The materials are heavily text-based, requiring a great deal of reading, and the value and interest of an item may not be immediately recognizable. The staff of the archive spent three years designing an exhibition to overcome these challenges, and I thought they met and exceeded the challenge admirably. I have never seen an exhibition of textual materials as innovative and entertaining as the exhibition for the John Murray Archive. The above image shows a view of the exhibition, and was taken from the archive's website. As shown, each featured character is placed in a "pod," simultaneously giving the viewer a tangible idea of what he or she might have been like while providing a format which can be easily altered by the archive staff. The archive utilizes touch-screen technology to lead the visitor through an explanation of the writer's life, world, and work. Thus, each item from the archive is given a context through which visitors may better appreciate and understand them. The touch-screens are great fun, usable by both adults and children, and I believe all of us spent a great deal of time learning more about some of the impressive items held by the archive. The initial eleven subjects highlighted by the exhibition were Isabella Bird Bishop, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Disraeli, James Hogg, Austen Henry Layard, David Livingstone, Robert Peel, Maria Rundell, Sir Walter Scott, and Mary Somerville. I left this visit feeling inspired to think outside the box, following the example of the National Library of Scotland to find new ways to reach a community and make library holdings interesting, educational, and accessible all at once.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Bodleian Library

The Bodleian Library at Oxford was founded in 1602 by Thomas Bodley and housed in the Divinity School, which was built in 1488. This building, the oldest at the Bodleian Library, is where we began our tour. The Divinity School has a distinctive ceiling carved with family crests and hanging pendants. Some of the carving throughout the hall shows some damage dating back to the Reformation, with one statue entirely missing. The Divinity School may also look familiar to Harry Potter fans, because it was the filming location for Hogwart's infirmary and Professor McGonagall's dancing lessons. (Although it seems that those affiliated with the library would rather not have Harry Potter as the Divinity School's primary point of interest.)

From the Divinity School, our tour guide brought us across the street to the library's most modern building, the New Bodleian Library, which was built in 1938. It's composed mainly of stacks, eight floors total, with a few reading rooms as well. The Bodleian Library is a reference library, and no books ever officially leave the building. As we entered the four floors of subterranean stacks, it was impossible not to notice the signs of warning posted on and near the door. They read something like this: "Entering the stacks at night? Have you told someone where you're going?" and "Lost? Follow the stripe on the floor to the exit." I think it must be every librarian's secret nightmare, to be lost in the labyrinthine stacks, forever searching for the way out.

The stacks in the Bodleian are on movable tracks to maximize space, and the books are organized by size for the same reason. Unlike the British Library, however, the Bodleian has incorporated some aspects of Dewey Decimal into the catalog. Our guide informed us that, although all the Bodleian catalogs are available on CD, there is no subject cataloging for the collection. I found it very interesting to hear that subject searches in the Bodleian are routed through other institutions, such as the Library of Congress, to identify items or authors. This information is then used to search the Bodleian catalog. It seems to me that a research library, especially one with the history and reputation of the Bodleian, could benefit from some subject indexing. I believe that the catalog might see an increase in use as a result.

Our guide, although not a librarian, was able to tell us that the Bodleian Library is struggling with many of the same issues as other libraries worldwide. Developments in technology are raising questions about acquisition. For instance, the library must decide whether to keep an individual, physical map, or the map on CD-ROM. As a library of deposit, entitled to a copy of every book published in Britain, the Bodleian also has special issues related to storage space versus acquisition. It's always a sensitive issue, deciding what should be preserved for the future, and our guide informed us that the library holds a collection of Mills & Boone, the British equivalent of Harlequin romances, in an off-site location. I was pleased to hear that this ancient, respected institution is so broad and democratic in its collection development, especially in light of its challenges in regards to space. It's impossible to predict what may be of interest to future generations, and it's libraries like the Bodleian which must preserve this material.

This visit to the Bodleian brought up many issues that I hadn't anticipated. For example, the Bodleian Library is continuing to use an antiquated system of conveyor belts to deliver books from the stacks. The system was designed and implemented in 1938, and although it still functions it could use some updating. In a modern American library, the system would undoubtedly be upgraded or completely replaced. The Bodleian, however, has many issues to consider before undertaking such an operation. Because the books that are housed are often very old, and in need of conservation and preservation, it is a much more complicated issue to undertake building renovation than to merely cover the stacks with a tarp and begin the work. On top of that, many of the buildings housing the collection are historic sites, worthy of their own preservation and conservation. The combination of these environmental factors and the nature of the library's collection results in a situation where major changes to the collection itself, or the buildings that house it, requires a great deal of thought and planning, and may not happen very often at all. As a result, the workers within the library require a special set of skills. Those who work regularly in the stacks, referred to by our guide with all due respect as "troglodytes," must have a unique knowledge of what is in the collection and where it is kept. All library employees must develop a particular kind of humor and flexibility that can allow them to adjust to the unique environment of the Bodleian Library. And, finally, all those associated with the library, staff and users alike, must act primarily from a position of respect for both the incredible collection and it's historical home.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Jane Austen Centre

Today I took a day trip to Bath to visit, among other things, the Jane Austen Centre. The Centre is located on Gay Street, one of the streets where Jane Austen lived during her six years in Bath, and is dedicated to maintaining an exhibition about Jane Austen's work, life, and her experiences in Bath and the city's effect on her writing. Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were strongly affected by her time in Bath. The Centre is also responsible for a regular walking tour of Jane Austen's Bath, and an annual nine-day Jane Austen Festival as well as a magazine titled Jane Austen's Regency World, which contains articles about Jane Austen's writing, family, and world.

Any visit to the museum begins with a short lecture outlining Jane Austen's life and work. She was a member of a large family with only one sister, to whom she was devoted. Two of her brothers had successful naval careers, which helps to explain the generally positive light Jane Austen cast on her naval characters, and one brother followed in his father's footsteps to join the church. Neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra ever married. Cassandra's fiancee died, after which she lived as though a widow, and Jane's only engagement lasted only one night. Jane Austen's life seems to have been dedicated to her family and to her writing.

After the introductory lecture, guests are led into the exhibition room to browse the museum's collection. At the time of my visit, they were showing a special collection of the costumes from ITV's television production of Persuasion. The costumes were designed by Andrea Galer, an award-winning film and television costume designer, and feature hand-made lace from The Power of Hands project, which Galer created to assist Sri-Lankan victims of the recent Tsunami. It includes a number of gowns designed for the character of Ann, one designed for the character of Lady Russell, and a short documentary film about the process of designing and crafting the production's gowns. The exhibition is expected to be the first in a continuing partnership between the Centre and Andrea Galer which will combine the museum's educational goals with fashion and film. This partnership seems promising to me, as a great many readers of Jane Austen are introduced to her, or develop their enjoyment of her work, through film adaptations.

The regular exhibition was somewhat overshadowed by this special collection, but included text-based displays about Jane Austen's life and work, as well as examples of fashion and furniture contemporary to her time in Bath. The atmosphere was enhanced by the Centre's building, which is very similar to what would have been Jane Austen's home in Bath. It is believed that the Austen family occupied two floors of number 25 Gay Street, just up the hill from the Centre. This is one of the family's four addresses during their six years in Bath, which ended with the death of Jane Austen's father in 1806.

Jane Austen has proven to be an enduring and beloved author. Indeed, her books have never been out of print since they were published, and fresh flowers had been placed on her grave at our previous journey to Winchester Cathedral. She is also the center of an active group of fans, popularly called the Janeites. The Centre itself seems to be very active with the lively Jane Austen fan culture, and achieves its educational goals through distribution of an email newsletter and the magazine in addition to its exhibitions and walks. I was happy to see that the museum had embraced all aspects of the fan culture for this beloved author. They encourage an active engagement with the world of Jane Austen through re-enactments, and facilitate fans and museum-goers in experiencing the world of Regency England in every way possible. The gift shop stocks information about how to have a Regency portrait taken, how to participate in the costumed promenade during the Jane Austen festival, as well as the traditional offerings of books, videos, and souvenirs. It seemed to me that this small museum has done an excellent job of reaching out to its audience, and I hope for continued expansion and improvement to its collection and services.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

St. Paul's Cathedral Library

Today we were given a special tour behind the scenes of St. Paul's Cathedral. The cathedral librarian, Joseph Wisdom, showed us the "BBC View" of the cathedral, the intended library chamber which now houses Wren's Great Model, and, of course, the cathedral library. The "BBC View" of the cathedral can be seen from the area just above the main entrance. It's a truly majestic view, and makes it easier to understand just how large the cathedral truly is. Since it's also the area from which televised events are filmed, it's much easier to envision notable events in the cathedral's past. Of course, the most obvious of these is Princess Diana's wedding to Prince Charles.

The first room we visited in St. Paul's Cathedral was, it is commonly believed, initially intended to be the library. It's not known why the library was placed elsewhere, but now the room holds Christopher Wren's Great Model of the cathedral. It's the inital model of what Christopher Wren wanted to build, although it was rejected due to its resemblance to St. Peter's in Rome. Wren was adamant that he wanted a dome, and the city was adamant that they wanted a spire. Therefore, Wren created a plan with a spire atop the dome, altered the floor plan slightly, and the plans were approved. It's easy to see, however, that Wren ended up much where he started. There is no spire, and the current cathedral is very much like the original plan. I suppose that, by the time it was built, it was too late to make changes. It's easier to apologize than to ask permission, I suppose. It's hard to complain, St. Paul's seems perfect to me!

The room that now houses the library in St. Paul's immediately struck me as the perfect embodiment of a library. It's old books on dark wood shelves, marble busts, and felt-covered tables in a dim, quiet room spoke to my book-loving soul. Mr. Wisdom was also able to point out some architectural details that I would have missed. In the past, people were able to read architecture much like we today read text. This room would have been readily identifiable as the library, not only by the presence of the books, but also by the nature of the wood carving around the shelves. There are representations of books and grapes beneath a skull flanked by wheat sheaves. This symbolizes learning and liturgy, communion, and Christ's triumph over death. These carvings would have told anyone who knew how to interpret them that they were standing in a cathedral library.

To respect the wishes of the cathedral, I did not take any photos of the library. Therefore, all library pictures on the blog have been taken directly from the library's website. Mr. Wisdom was a rich source of information about the library: what the collection is, how to care for it, and the day-to-day operation of a research library with archival responsibilities. The library's collection is made up of liturgy, bibles, theology, law, the Latin and Greek classics, travel, etc. It was built through bequests and the purchase of other library holdings. Mr. Wisdom explained to us that this method of building a collection has resulted in duplicate copies of early printed books. However, because of the unique and valuable nature of early printed books, they are considered multiple copies rather than duplicates. The collection was initially intended for sole use by the Dean of St. Paul's, although over the years it was opened up for the use of minor clergy. Today the library is available to the public for research purposes by appointment, although Mr. Wisdom informed us that members of the public will often be encouraged to use other institutions which can better serve their needs.

The library holds a great many volumes in need of conservation and preservation, and the room is kept at between 45-55% humidity (the recommended humidity for most library materials). Because of the nature of the library's collection, Mr. Wisdom explained that it is important for the librarian to be conscious of any events or changes that may affect the collection. He explained that drastic changes in weather, an open window, street repairs, and the presence of others in the library can all have negative effects on the collection. The librarian must be vigilant in spotting these changes and acting to protect the library. This visit was enlightening about the nature of librarianship in such a unique environment with such a unique collection.

Monday, 16 July 2007

The Museum of London

The Museum of London, which is distributed over three London locations, is the largest urban history museum in the world. This piece of information, given to us in a lecture by the Senior Curator of Prehistory, gives a glimpse into the importance of this museum's work. I found the lecture to be particularly rewarding because the curator was able to give us some insight into how to deliver a quality service to those who are looking for something else. He explained to us that the majority of the museum's visitors are interested in either the Victorians, the Tudors and Stuarts, or Roman London. As Curator of Prehistory, this left him with some interesting and unique challenges. These challenges were met head on when the new galleries were designed five years ago. The focus was shifted from objects to people, and this changed focus was at the center of the dialogue with the designers. The four messages that the prehistory gallery aims to communicate are climate, the river, people, and legacy. They attempt to do this through a variety of text-light displays anchored by what our lecturer called "The River Wall." This approach helps guide people through the prehistory of London, making them aware of what life was like for London's ancestors while keeping them constantly aware of the importance of the Thames.

The Thames is still vital today for understanding London. It is home to 122 specis of fish, and is the cleanest urban river in Europe. It has been considered a sacred river in the past; the prehistory displays show a great many items given to the river as offerings, and seems to still play a role in lives of faith today. Our lecturer explained to us that items found in the river are still brought to the museum for explanations or valuation. It seems that a Hindu group in London, without the knowledge or involvement of local temples, has been making offerings of small statues to the Thames. The museum has been given permission by the temples and Hindu community to continue investigating this phenomenon, and it helps to underscore the continuing importance of the river to the residents of London.

One of the most fascinating items on display in the gallery for prehistory is a plaster cast taken from a clay container. The cast shows, quite clearly, the impression of a fingertip pressed into wet clay while decorating the jug. It's a small, slender fingertip with a long, manicured nail. Nothing else in the collection brought home so clearly the fact that these artifacts were crafted and used by individuals with their own life stories. That one object was, I believe the most effective in communicating the message of the importance of people in prehistoric London. Very close to it in effectiveness, however, was the facial reconstruction of a woman who lived in London between 5100 to 5640 years ago. Having a science-based representation of an actual human being was very powerful. Another interesting item, pointed out by the prehistory curator, was a human skull of an individual who had undergone, and survived, trepanning. This was a medical procedure where a hole was cut into the skull to relieve pressure. It seems a very advanced procedure for a society without the benefits of modern medicine!

The Museum of London was undergoing renovations at the time of our visit, so we were unable to view all of the exhibits. Still, the exhibits for the Great Fire of London, Roman London, and Medieval London were quite interesting enough to make the visit more than worthwhile. The available exhibits, and the fact of the remodel, helps to underscore what the senior curator of prehistory called the purpose of the museum: providing access. Providing access to its collections, its information, and to the very history of London itself.

Friday, 13 July 2007


Today's visit was to a venerable British institution, the Houses of Parliament. It is also one of the most recognizable sights in London. Many tourists, myself included, wouldn't call a London vacation complete without catching a glimpse of its gothic towers and old Big Ben. Parliament is located in what used to be, until Henry VIII moved to Hampton Court, a royal palace. We were led into Winchester Palace, as it is still known, by the Sovereign's Route. This is the route taken by the monarch when she (or, in the past, he) visits Parliament for the annual speech. The Queen only visits Parliament once a year, and by law may never enter the House of Commons. This is a direct result of the reign of Charles I, who entered the House of Commons with an armed force and the intention to arrest his opponents. He remains the only British monarch to be executed, and his signed death warrant is still on display on the Sovereign's Route. It makes me wonder if the display is removed when the Queen arrives. Perhaps it is left out as a grisly reminder of what happens to monarchs who overstep their power. Frightening.

The palace was rebuilt in 1845 after a fire, and the current building reflects the power and influence of Victoria, who was queen at the time. Her initials, V.R., for Victoria Regina, can be seen everywhere in the carvings, and Prince Albert was in charge of selecting the artwork still on display in the palace. The art centers around two themes: King Arthur and royalty. There are several paintings promoting the virtues of the round table crew, and the remainder are of British royalty. The House of Lords is very impressive, all red leather and dark wood, with the unmistakable presence of the gilt throne at one end. The throne is blocked off by a gate at all times, except when the Queen arrives for the annual speech. At that time, the gates are removed and a second throne added for Prince Phillip. Our guide explained that, although there is space for Prince Charles and Princess Anne on the dais, neither has attended in recent years. Through the opposite end of the House of Lords is the small chamber that connects to the House of Commons. In it are several statues of the better-known prime ministers in Britain's past. My personal favorites were, of course, Winston Churchill and Britain's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The House of Commons is slightly less imposing than the House of Lords, due to the lack of the throne, but I gather it is a much livelier scene. There are two lines to either side of the chamber, separating the left benches from the right. These lines are called sword-lines, and are said to be exactly two sword-lengths apart. They were placed there to keep members of parliament from "having a go" at each other. Our guide also took us through the side chambers, where MP's line up to have their votes counted. It seems to me that they have an ingeniously simple process, here. In order to vote in the House of Commons, you must be physically present to be counted. It cuts out the worry about people placing votes for absent members, whether with or without permission. Perhaps Congress should consider this system!

After viewing the two primary sites for governing the United Kingdom, we were led into St. Stephen's Hall. It is now an entrance gallery, but it is also the site of the original House of Commons. This is the area where, according to our guide, Benjamin Franklin appealed to the British government for independence. The House of Commons as it exists today is an almost exact replica of the original, which was bombed in the blitz during World War II. It's a shame that it was damaged, but at the same time the new layout seems like it would be more convenient for running the government. The House of Commons now runs parallel to the House of Lords, rather than perpendicular to it. It has a certain symmetry, I think.

Our exit from Parliament was through Westminster Hall, which once housed the Courts of Justice. It was surreal to think that we were standing on the site where famous and infamous alike had stood to face their fates. William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, St. Thomas More and Charles I were all tried in this location. Interestingly enough, all were put to death. I'd hate to draw any conclusions about the British system of justice from this circumstance! It was a fascinating and new experience, to view the center of a foreign government. Although the two systems are quite different, there are some significant similarities as well.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

The British Library

Today we visited the British Library, and it was one of the coolest places I've ever been. The building is massive, and the stacks aren't even visible from outside! There are four floors of stacks housed beneath the piazza, holding over 35 million items. These are just the items housed at this location. The library hold more than 174 million items in its collection, and the shelving to hold them grows at a rate of approximately 8 miles per year, so much of the collection is housed off-site. Our guide, a librarian at the British Library, informed us that when the library was moved from the British Museum to its current location, it involved moving 140 million items over six years. He called it "the largest move in history." Certainly, moving this collection of ancient, precious, and one-of-a-kind holdings had to have been a labor-intensive, expensive and nerve-wracking undertaking. One of the most noticeable items in the entrance hall is the book bench, pictured above. Our guide explained to us that the book symbolizes learning and wisdom, while the ball and chain symbolizes the necessity of preservation. I like this thought very much, and have developed an attachment to the bench. I wonder if it's possible to have a copy made...?

In its new location, the British Library strives to meet the goals it has always held: 1. To acquire the national bibliographic archive, 2. To keep the national bibliographic record, and 3. To make the bibliographic record available. The first two goals are fairly standard for most libraries, although the scope of the British Library makes it unique. What I found most interesting was its third goal, the focus on access. The collections of the British Library can be traced back to 1753, to Sir Hans Sloane's collection in Montague House, the bequest of which formed the core collection of the British Library. Sir Hans Sloane believed that his collection should be accessible to any who sought knowledge, and allowed the public to consult his personal library. The British Library has continued the tradition without fail, and for a library this old to focus on free public access is, to me, very impressive and forward-thinking. To this day, any individual, eighteen years old or older, who wishes to consult an item is allowed to view it in one of the eleven reading rooms.

One of the most surprising revelations during this visit was that the British Library classifies its holdings by size. This flies against all of my experience and knowledge of classification, cataloging, and access. However, upon further examination it does seem to have many practical benefits. A library with hundreds of miles of shelving cannot afford to use time and resources to shift the collection each time new acquisitions are made. Classifying by size eliminates the need for shifting, as whenever new holdings arrive, they can be grouped in new shelving without disturbing the classification system. This would save a great deal of resources, and provided the collection is well-cataloged and shelved correctly, would not have any negative effect on access. This would not be the case in public, circulating libraries, however, where browsing is such an important activity.
After our tour, several of us took the opportunity to browse some of the library's treasures. It was a little bit overwhelming, entering a room filled with so many wonderful books! I felt like a kid in a candy store, wandering from Shakespeare's First Folio to Charlotte Bronte's manuscript of Jane Eyre, from Lady Jane Grey's prayer book to a child's greeting card with the hurriedly scrawled lyrics to a Beatle's song. They also have on display an original copy of the Magna Carta, and one of the Gutenberg Bibles. My only disappointment was that I had just missed Beowulf, which had been removed from the display only days before our tour. I will have to console myself that this requires another visit to London!

In short, this library is not only a treasure for Britain's people, but a world treasure. Every written language in the world is represented in the British Library's holdings, and every citizen with the desire and the means to travel to the British Library to consult the collection is not only allowed, but welcomed. I can think of no better example of classic library principles in action.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


Today, our group visited Stratford-upon-Avon and some of the Shakespeare-related sites there. The historic Shakespeare houses in Stratford-upon-Avon are owned and managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which is funded through ticket sales to the sites and donations. All three houses are furnished in what is believed to be a manner similar to what would be found in Shakespeare's age, which really helps create an atmosphere that brings Shakespeare closer. The Shakespeare Birthplace was owned by his father, John, and now contains Shakespeare-related exhibitions consisting of artifacts and recreations. Several of the rooms were overseen by guides, both in and out of costume, who provided additional information and managed crowds. The walls of the birthplace consist of painted linen cloths, which we were informed was consistent with the custom of Shakespeare's day. This small detail, just painted cloths on a wall, really helped me envision what it may have been like to live there in that age. The costumed guide explained that both the patterns and the quality of color were consistent with what might have been found in a home of John Shakespeare's stature in the mid-1500's. What I found most surprising was both the brightness and the size of the home. My imaginings of life in Shakespeare's day have often consisted of small, dark, cramped homes. My tour of the birthplace, as well as Hall's Croft and Nash's House, has helped me realize that, at least in this case, the home is relatively large and bright, although space may have indeed been limited as John Shakespeare would have housed his apprentices along with his family.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Stratford visit was the exhibition in Nash's House centering around the collected works of Shakespeare. It was fascinating to read about the development of the collected works from the First Folio all the way to the Oxford Shakespeare which we can buy in any bookstore today. I was unaware that many of the early printed versions were written almost entirely from playgoer's memories, and that there had been an entire movement to sanitize Shakespeare. Imagining Shakespeare without the bawdy references, both the subtle and the not-so-subtle, was an eye-opener. My anti-censorship sentiment was strengthened by it! While all these elements of the exhibition were fascinating, my most treasured experience at Stratford was discovering the collected works of Shakespeare owned by the poet John Keats on display in the exhibition. The book was opened to the first page of King Lear, and in Keats' own hand was written his poem "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again." As a fan of Keats, I was overwhelmed.

While walking around town Cortni, Stephanie, Erika, Carrie, Angie and I happened upon the local public library, and felt compelled to pay a visit. It's quaint, antiquated appearance from the street belies its contemporary interior. It was very similar to libraries back home: patrons swarming the computers, popular books on display near the entrance, and an entire room dedicated to multimedia materials. One of the immediately identifiable differences was that the library charges for its circulation of DVD's and CD's. I can see the usefulness of this practice; it probably helps a great deal in the budget department. Still, I can't help but feel that libraries are meant to serve that population who can't or won't frequent shops and rental stores. By charging for circulation, libraries aren't meeting that need.

The overwhelming effect this Stratford visit had on me was the importance of preservation. The ability to view places and items of historical and cultural importance has a greater effect on personal emotion and memory than reading and discussion ever will. Knowing that New Place, the home of Shakespeare in his adulthood, had been demolished and is now lost, had a remarkably strong effect on me. Knowing that it had been destroyed by the owner out of spite, because he would not be paid for the annoyance of Shakespeare pilgrims visiting his home, was even worse. The thought of this lost treasure, and others like it, underlines the importance of recognizing places and items of importance early, and securing them for future generations.