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.