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.