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.