Friday, August 28, 2009

"No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow."

Tower Bridge, London

Cardiff, Wales

Hamish, the Highland Cow, Scotland

London Eye

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness, Scotland

British Library, London

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” - Miriam Beard

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” - Pat Conroy

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” - G. K. Chesterton

Yes, I love quotations. They come the closest to articulating feelings I cannot translate into words. I can throw around the words "amazing, wonderful, awesome" etc. all day long, but I cannot effectively demonstrate how I have been permanently altered. Before this trip, I longed to travel; now, I know I must never stop.

I have also cemented my love for librarianship/information science. I know I have chosen the right profession, and I cannot wait to have a job in this field. I'm interested in federal and international librarianship, when before I had never really even considered them. I'm still interested in academic and public libraries, of course. But my options seem absolutely endless now. If you're a potential British Studies student, or even just a potential traveler, my advice is this - do it. Go. THIS opportunity, the one you're considering right now. If you don't have one, make one. If you don't have the money (I didn't), get a loan. I have experienced so many things in one month that I never thought I would do in a lifetime, and the stories are too many for this blog. So I would encourage you to go have your own adventures, and maybe I'll see you there.

"The fact is, that to do anything in the world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can." - Robert Cushing

"Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with experimenting with his own life." - Herbert Otto

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Women's Library, London: "Celebrating and Recording Women's Lives"

I got very lost trying to find the Women's Library, and in the time I spent wandering around I could see that I was in a more impoverished neighbourhood than any other I'd seen in London. When I finally found the the library, it was down a street, just far away enough that I didn't see the sign until I got much closer. The inside of the library changed my initial impression; I thought it might be in a situation similar to the Feminist Library's (I hoped not, but women still get marginalized even today), but instead I found myself in a pretty nice space.Through later research, I found that the library was not always in a great space. The library began as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service, established in 1926, and its first building was a renovated pub. Its first librarian, Vera Douie, managed the library from 1926 to 1967. In 1953, the library was renamed Fawcett Library after Millicent Fawcett, a women's suffragist who led the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (formerly the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, the origin of the library) for 20 years. Like the Feminist Library, the Fawcett Library was in danger of closing in the 1970s, but was rescued by the City of London Polytechnic (London Metropolitian University) in 1977, and is still a part of the university today. Until 2002, the library lived in a basement that was prone to flooding, and received the new building from a grant of £4.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The library also changed its name to the Women's Library after the move.

The Women's Library claims to be the number one resource for women's history in the UK, and anyone can come visit the library to see exhibitions or events. Anyone can access the reading room for free as well, but one must join the library in order to do so, bringing ID and pencils only (rules very similar to the other libraries I've visited in the UK, such as the British Library), with other belongings stored in a locker. Readers can access materials printed after 1920 on the shelves, but older published materials and other special collections must fill out a retrieval slip. It is suggested that one look up materials in the catalogue and request them early, since some materials can take days to retrieve.

The collections cover many topics dealing with women (primarily women in Britain), such as suffrage, health, employment, reproductive rights, education, and sexuality. The library does not cover material before the year 1800, and focuses on the nineteenth century to the present. There are over 60,000 books and pamphlets and 3,000 periodical titles, and there is a museum collection of 5,000 objects such as photographs, posters, and badges. They do not weed anything once it is cataloged, but they do not acquire material they cannot properly store and preserve, catalog and provide access to.

The GENESIS catalogue is also a fantastic resource for women's history resources in the British isles and some global sources; it lets people know where in the world they can find the information they need.

One thing I truly love is that the library has a zine collection, and as a person only recently introduced to zines by a feminist friend (I grew up in an incredibly patriarchal atmosphere, long story), I think it is amazing that they have so many titles cataloged there. Print zine-making still occurs worldwide, on every topic imaginable (the Women's Library even recently hosted a zine workshop), but the need for feminist zines has somewhat decreased with the advent of the internet - marginalized people can reach each other incredibly easily now. I think, though, there is still something beautiful and special about the creation and craft of zines, and that amazing messages and information can still be spread through them. I highly recommend checking out zine collections if you ever have a chance.

The library constantly hosts events; their big exhibition when I visited was "Between the Covers - Women Magazines and their Readers," which takes a look into the history of magazine publishing as it related to women, and how it has evolved. They also host performance events, comedy writing workshops and comedy nights, a "women and the archive" panel discussion, creative writing workshops, a children's art day, and women-themed guided walks around London. There is truly an event for every interest, and I am so impressed with the event offerings from libraries in London - I could spend all of my free time going to library events alone!

I talked to one of the library's archivists, Teresa, and asked her about the differences between the Women's Library and the Feminist Library. Essentially, there is a bit of tension, as the Women's Library has funding and the Feminist Library doesn't, and Teresa said the FL has some resources that neither the WL or the British Library has. It's complicated, and I, an American library school student, do not want to attempt to hash it out here, but I came out still feeling that the Feminist Library has to be preserved somehow, even if their collection has to be split up (worst case). If the Women's Library received it, I know they would treat it with the care it deserves, and that makes me feel better. Both have amazing collections and important missions.

For more information, visit:
Photo of the interior from The Women's Library website - photography was not permitted

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh: "Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance"

The Scottish Poetry Library is just a twenty-minute walk down the street from the other libraries/archives we visited in Edinburgh (Edinburgh feels so small compared to London!), and I am so glad that a few of us decided to check it out. Even though I've written poetry, I do not consider myself a poet like quite a few of my friends in creative writing. I knew that they would absolutely love to have a resource (and beautiful space) like this nearby. I definitely appreciated seeing the space, and knowing what a wonderful resource it must be for poets and poetry lovers.

Unfortunately, my camera died just as I managed to snap this lone picture, but I wanted to make sure I captured the natural light that cascades through the entire library, as well as show the bits of poetry that are written on the walls in a red font.
The library was founded in 1984, with the building financed by the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund. However, the library is a registered charity, and welcomes support from Friends. It is free for anyone to use. The collection's focus is contemporary Scottish poetry (written in English, Scots, and Gaelic); however, the collection also contains historic Scottish poetry, contemporary international poetry, poetry for children, audio and video, magazines, and collections for the visually impaired. The library also houses a wealth of published works by Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, who was the first poet laureate of Glasgow.

The Scottish Poetry Library is a lending library, and I was surprised to learn that you can also have materials mailed to you for 50p each. You can even borrow materials through interlibrary loan. I doubt they ship or send materials ILL to America, but the Scottish people are so nice, I wouldn't be surprised if they did!

I noticed that there in addition to services for poets and readers, there is a "for librarians" page on the website. One of the more exciting opportunities is a "Poetry in the Branches" class that librarians can take to promote poetry in their libraries. They also go into detail about their catalogue, indexing, and collection policy, and offer an e-newsletter specifically for librarians. This library seems to understand the importance of collaboration with other libraries, even though it is not a traditional public library. It also seems to know exactly what its poets and other readers need in a collection and a space, as poets have a number of resources available to help them flourish (and even publish), including a School of Poets group that meets monthly in the library. They also hosts all kinds of reading events and reading groups every month, each of which is completely unique, and therefore appeal to a wider audience. My favourite part is the poetry artwork all over the building - it is beautiful, inviting, and thought-provoking. If I lived in Edinburgh (it's still possible!), I would definitely take advantage of all the resources this library has to offer its community.

For more information about the Scottish Poetry Library, visit:

First photo courtesy of Dr. Teresa Welsh

National Archives of Scotland: Where lineage comes to life

The NAS has been around in some form since the 13th century, but it became a government agency in 1993. Before 1999, NAS was known as the Scottish Record Office. I think the new name is more descriptive and accurate, as the NAS is far more than just records - it is a Scottish historical goldmine. Anyone who knows something about their Scottish ancestry can come in and do further research, utilizing the 70 kilometres worth of records available--materials which date from the 12th century onward. There are three buildings, 160 staff members, and eight websites. I think it is amazing that the Scottish recognize this as important enough to be a government-funded government agency; as a result, the space, the materials, the staff, and the websites are phenomenal.
We began our tour overlooking the research room, the main area where patrons can conduct their research. Margaret McBride, Education Officer, pointed out the lovely Adam Dome to us, then led us to a conference room, where she delivered an incredibly informative presentation, and then allowed us to view some of the NAS's fascinating materials.

Some of the highlights of Margaret's presentation:
--The NAS's mission is to preserve, protect, and promote the nation's records, and to provide the best possible inclusive and accessible archive that educates, informs, and engages the people of Scotland and the world

--They do not do research for people, but guide them in finding what they are interested in. Readers should have some idea of what they want to research because otherwise it is too difficult to know where to begin.

--The types of records they have include church, taxation, family and estate, government, and business records, wills and testaments, deeds and sasines, and so many more. Essentially, they have any kind of record of Scottish history you can think of.

--They have digital data, but they need to make sure it can't be tampered with, and they don't know how long it will last due to the rapidly changing nature of technology. Margaret stressed that this is a big issue for archivists.

--Space is also always an issue - they have to have conservation boxes of archival quality.

--They have a lot of major developments in the works, including an online catalogue, 'virtual volumes' in-house, digitization of Church of Scotland records, and a Scotlands People Centre

--One of their eight websites (you should check them all out - they're unique and informative) is, where you can learn to read old Scottish manuscripts by improving your knowledge of old Scottish website. I love this! It's very helpful in addition to being fun. is also wonderful.

--If interested potential readers are located outside of Edinburgh, they can call, e-mail, or write NAS, giving details of what they wish to see; it is important to plan ahead before visiting.

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to view some of their records, especially when they hit close to home. My favourites included personal letters (1836-1853) from Dr. Roderick Morison, who moved to Hinds County, Mississippi (where one of my friends lives!) and wrote back to his sister in Scotland; prison records and correspondence regarding Fanny Parker, a 1914 suffragette who starved herself and was forcefed; and a crisscross letter from another Scot who had gone to America and wrote home when paper was scarce, so that his letter was on the same paper time after time, eventually becoming almost a puzzle to read when he wrote diagonally in the white spaces left on the page.

NAS was my first visit to a large archive, and even though I didn't have any of my Scottish ancestry information with me, I definitely will when I return to Edinburgh. Seeing lineage come to life is truly special.

For more information, visit the NAS website:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Central Library, Edinburgh: "Tecvm Habita"

After a break wandering around Edinburgh that included lunch at the Elephant House (the coffee-house where J.K. Rowling wrote tons of Harry Potter) shopping for fabulous old books, and eating crepes in front of Edinburgh Castle, our group met up at the Central Library. I was very interested to see a public lending library in Scotland, and Central did not disappoint me.Central was founded in 1890, and it has the distinction of being a Carnegie Library; there is a bust of Andrew Carnegie inside to commemorate his generous endowment (£50,000!) for the building. The motto on the outside of the library, "Let There Be Light," is a Carnegie Library characteristic. The library is now funded by the local authority, although they receive grant funding for special projects. Central is quite large, and is comprised of the Edinburgh Room, a unique local history/archive for Edinburgh with 100,000 books, maps, photographs, parish registers, newspapers, and more; the Learning Centre, a place for free internet and Office applications; the Resource Centre, similar to the Learning Centre, but for people with certain disabilities; the Fine Art Library; Children's Library; Music Library (the largest in Scotland); Central Lending Library; and the Reference Library. Central is one of the largest public lending libraries I've ever been to, and I was impressed by their array of buildings and services. Ian Wright, Development Officer for the library, gave my half of the group a tour around the non-public stacks, as well as all of the rooms I listed about. The children's library is a great space; the music library was very similar to the Barbican's in sections and material, but I'm sure it had more of a Scottish focus. I absolutely loved the reference library - the ceiling is high and domed, there are chairs and tables everywhere just to sit and read. The space in every section is beautiful - the Art library had lots of natural light, and the stacks in the other shelf areas were beautiful wooden bookcases. However, as I've seen in other libraries in the UK, beautiful, fixed bookshelves often create space issues, so many books have to be retrieved from storage in employee-only stacks. In almost every library I've been in, both in the US and UK, there are problems with aesthetics versus practicality in the design of buildings, and space is usually a problem no matter what. Central Library has barely had any renovation since it was built, and it does not have a lot of wheelchair access. This is disappointing, but they are aware of it and working on it.After the tour, Ian and the other group guide, Fiona, took us to a huge conference room and offered us tea, coffee, and biscuits (cookies), as well as free "Edinburgh Public Libraries" cloth bags. Their hospitality was absolutely incredible - they, and every other Scottish person I met, were so helpful and nice.

While we had tea, resident Reading Champion Colm Linnane talked to us about some of the projects he's been involved with regarding reader development. He has primarily worked with young people in children's homes and group homes, trying to get them interested in reading by making reading fun, not something they just associate with school. He discussed how he and his team do not impose taste on what people read; they just want young people to want to read, whatever that might be. He tries to match a person's interests with books they may be interested in, and often finds that particular "in" to get them reading. Colm also arranges book groups that have become very popular. It was very easy to see that Colm is incredibly passionate about his work, and he stated that he just wants to show others how important libraries can be. It is no shock that his program was nominated for a national award.A moment that stuck with me - on the tour, Ian pointed out a door near the reference library with the Latin inscription "Tecvm Habita," which he said loosely translates to "Be comfortable with who you are." This is a wonderful message for a public lending library, I think. No matter who you are, you belong here. Be comfortable in your own skin. The Scottish people I met certain seem to have that concept down, and the Central Lending Library is a wonderful place to be who you are.

For more information about Central:
Central Library
For more information about the first Carnegie Libraries in Scotland:

--Outside building photo from Flickr page of Liz McGettigan, Library and Information Services manager at Edinburgh city libraries (scaffolding is currently on the building, so I didn't get an exterior shot)
--Reference room dome photo courtesy of Dr. Teresa Welsh (my camera died)

National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh: "Scots Wha Hae"

The National Library of Scotland is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the UK, and the only one located in Scotland. It is a wonderful resource for all things Scottish, and for innumerable other subjects as well. Like many of the other libraries we've visited, the NLS is a reference, non-lending library, but there are so many incredible resources available for readers. They have over 14 million items, 100,000 manuscripts, 25,000 newspaper (every Scottish newspaper!) and magazine titles, and their materials contain almost 500 languages. The collection is now funded by the Scottish government (with some additional funds from fundraising and the Heritage Lottery fund), but the library was originally established as the Library of the Faculty of Advocates by Scottish lawyers in the 1680s. In 1710, under the Copyright Act, the library was named as a legal deposit library. The library did not become the National Library of Scotland, however, until 1925.

While the library has always attracted academics, students, and local researchers, there is a movement to attract readers outside of the traditional user base - the general population. Increasing access is one of the main goals of librarianship, and I was both impressed and inspired by the NLS's approach. Our guide, Emma Faragher, an Education Officer for the library, works with a team of six people to increase library exposure and perform outreach services. The Education Officers create library education programs, develop and design exhibitions, and travel around Scotland to demonstrate what the library has to offer.

Some of the unique strengths of the collection:
--manuscripts from Scottish authors like Robert Louis Stevenson
--rare books, including the only known copies of nine of the earliest printed books in Scotland
--the John Murray archive
--a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (which has been digitized and is available online)
--last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, six days before her execution
--a wealth of Gaelic material, and works in Scots and Gaelic, ancient and modern

I enjoyed their interactive learning format and their current affairs exhibition space. While we were there, they had an exhibit (of which we could unfortunately not photograph) called "The Original Export: Stories of Scottish Emigration." It was filled with Scottish emigrants' correspondence, journals, and artifacts, and it was truly touching to observe. I loved my NLS experience: I love the preservation of Scottish heritage, the push for increased access, and the beautiful space in general. The visit was simply not long enough. I would love to pay another visit to the NLS (especially in the form of an internship) and experience new exhibits, and obtain a reader's ticket to explore the wealth of the collection.

For more more information about the National Library of Scotland, visit:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Feminist Library: "Women Are Revolting"

When I found the Feminist Library of London on the directory website London Libraries, I immediately knew that I wanted to visit it on my own. I didn't really know what to expect; I knew that it was only open on Saturdays from 11 pm - 5 pm or by appointment, but I hadn't surmised how dire their financial situation was. Located at the end of Waterloo Rd., not that far from our flat, was a treasure trove hidden in a dilapidated building.

The sign itself indicated that the groups housed in this building were mostly historically marginalized groups (not sure what the London School of Law was doing there - the building isn't huge). I pressed the button labeled Feminist Library on the side of the door, and Jenn, Kendra and I waited a moment to be buzzed in. Natasha, a volunteer, met us at the front and led us upstairs. The library consisted of about four rooms, total, but the collection is far from small: there are about 7,500 nonfiction books and 2,500 fiction books, 1,500 periodical titles, and 500 poetry publications, not to mention zines and thousands of pamphlets. The collection is archival in nature--it is not a lending library--and the dates range from 1900-present day; the collection's strength lies in the Women's Liberation Movement and women's history, but there is an incredible amount of variety in subject matter. Their main subjects include: History, Education, Politics, Health, Crimes Against Women (includes violence against women), Sexuality, Lifestyles, Work, Law and Rights, Communications and Mass Media, Arts, Leisure, Sport, Women Travellers, and Society, Customs, and Beliefs.

They do not have an online catalogue (although according to their March 2009 newsletter, they are working on it), but a card catalogue, and the cataloging system it is a non-patriarchal system of their own creation. In the past couple of years they been holding cataloging sessions for volunteers. Speaking of volunteers, the entire staff is voluntary; there are a few librarians and library students within the volunteers. They are primarily funded by personal donations. For the past 2 1/2 years, the focus of the library has been on keeping the collection alive, and finding a more suitable place for all of the irreplaceable materials, even if it means splitting the collection (a last resort).
One of my favourite periodical titles was "Bitches, Witches, and Dykes," a publication from New Zealand. I also enjoyed the following book:
I know they have so many treasures worth exploring; I wish I could've spent more time there. I absolutely loved the posters they had hanging on the walls, and know that there are many more amazing posters in the collection.
The Feminist Library is an incredible resource, an irreplaceable historical gem; even if the future of the collection means separation, I hope each piece is adequately preserved and cared for.

For more information, and to make a donation to this incredible resource:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bodleian Library, Oxford: "Silence, Please"

The city of Oxford, like Stratford-upon-Avon, is such a change from the sheer chaos that is London. Don't get me wrong, though - I love the sheer chaos. The city life is definitely for me. Oxford is still quite populated, and there were a lot of tourists there (although I'm not sure if that's mainly a summer thing), but it was actually smaller than I expected. Oxford's beauty is full of history - I could see it in the architecture, and in imagining some of the great, classic authors strolling about the streets.

I was incredibly excited to see the Bodleian Library, but I didn't know much about its history. My group's tour guide was Rita from Rome, Italy. She was a very thorough guide, and quite informative, particularly about the architecture of the buildings, but I felt that I didn't get a real "librarian" spin from the tour (I think I've just been spoiled by the special librarian tours). Nevertheless, the Bodleian is steeped in history, and is very impressive.
Today, the Bodleian is one of six copyright libraries in the UK, which means, of course, that the library receives a copy of everything that is printed in the UK. It is also the biggest university library in Europe, and hosts over 8 million books. The Bodleian is also the second largest library in the UK, falling only behind the British Library.

However, the library actually dates back to c. 1320 as a small chained library funded by Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester. When Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated many rare manuscripts in 1435, a new building was erected to house them (finished in 1488), and this building above today's Divinity School is still known as Duke Humphrey's library (and is the oldest building at the Bodleian). The library did not fare so well throughout the years, however, and much of the collection had to be sold.

The Bodleian as we know it began in 1602 when Thomas Bodley saved the library from its perilous lack of funding by donating funds and several of his own books, stating that he wanted the library to be open for the students' use. He had quite diverse tastes and did not simply want books in only European languages and Latin; he also wanted books in languages such as Chinese. Bodley went on to devote even more time and money to the library; he built new buildings throughout the years, and hosted parties in the hopes of getting people to donate funds. The Bodelian was truly Thomas Bodley's.

"I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library." This is the Bodelian Oath translated from Latin to English, which is traditionally oral; it is now given in letter form, but ceremonies performing the oath still occur.

Instead of having a chained library, a student or researcher must now request a book, and have someone retrieve it for them; they can peruse it in the reading rooms, but not check it out. They have an underground conveyor system, similar to the British Library, which we actually got to see, but I do not think it is currently in use. The system in place at the Bodleian is much like the other reference libraries we've visited; however, I'm not sure I've ever visited an academic reference library. I've taken it for granted how I can browse the majority of the stacks at the academic libraries I've used (the majority of the Bodleian's collections are closed access), and how I can take books off of the shelf and take them home with me to do my research. Of course, the students at Oxford has access to several other libraries, a list of which blew my mind, and hopefully some of these have lending access.
In addition to its copyright depository and academic collections, the Bodelian has extensive special collections, which are divided into five main groups (information here). The rare works that I most want to see, in the category of Literary Manuscripts (next time, perhaps!) include:
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley's manuscripts!
  • Lovelace-Byron papers
  • W.B. Yeats letters
  • the only complete surviving autograph of John Donne
The Bodleian also has a place in current pop culture which has nothing to do with its amazing collection; the room we began our tour in, the Divinity School (seen above, taken by yours truly), plays the infirmary in Harry Potter movies.

There are, I'm certain, a million more things to know about the Bodleian, so I may have to read a book to learn them all. It is always fascinating to learn how such important libraries came to be.

Bodleian website:
Top picture: Radcliffe Camera (by me)
Second picture from Time/Oxford Picture Library
Third picture from Libgig


After the Bodleian, I perused "An Artful Craft," an exhibit which featured masterful bookbindings of the 20th century.

Next, Cassie, Jenn, and I wanted to see some of Oxford's sights, so we walked and took the Hop On Hop Off bus around town. We saw Alice's Shop, where Alice Liddell, the "real" Alice in Wonderland, used to buy candy (it is now a touristy Alice in Wonderland merchandise shop). We also stopped off for a drink at the Eagle and Child Pub, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met for years as part of the Inklings, an Oxford writers' group. We walked around Christ Church, but didn't want to pay to get in. Finally, we met up with my friend M.B., who was doing a summer program at Oxford, and she took us to the indoor market, where we got the best milkshakes in town. All in all, a lovely, literary day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

National Art Library at Victoria and Albert Museum: "The object of art is to give life a shape"

The Victoria and Albert Museum is by far the quirkiest, most entertaining museum I've been to so far in London, so it wasn't a shock that I found the National Art Library housed within to be quite impressive. The main room itself is very aesthetically pleasing; there are high ceilings, floods of natural light, and clear windows overlooking a lovely courtyard with a fountain. The walls of the reading rooms are lined with rows of books with perfect spines. The atmosphere is very soothing.

The library was founded in 1837, even though the V & A museum was founded in 1852. They were separate entities, and the National Art Library began as the Art and Design academic library at Somerset House. However, the library and museum joined in 1857, and the library receives its funding from the museum's budget.

Jennifer Reeves, my group's tour guide, was very incredibly informative and helpful. She gave us a tour of the entire library, including the stacks and staff offices. Upon first glance, the library looks a lot smaller than it actually is; the part the public sees consists of two reading rooms, aptly named the silent room, and the centre room, respectively. The centre room has computers for readers to use. There is an invigilation desk at which to request special collections material; the rest of the material can be requested in the centre room. Like many of the libraries we've visited thus far, the library is a reference, non-lending institution, so readers must search the catalogue and fill out a slip about the items they wish to view; the librarians have a system in place to organize the requests and fetch the items.

The library has a very large collection, and Jennifer mentioned having space issues, in spite of the many huge stack rooms we were allowed to view. The collection itself has a broad, yet still narrow focus: the subject is art, in any form, from many different countries and time periods. The National Art Library website gives a comprehensive overview of the collection: "[materials] central to the work of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and its collections, including: prints, drawings and paintings; furniture and woodwork; textiles, dress and fashion; ceramics and glass; metalwork; sculpture; art and design of the Far East, India and South East Asia; history of the art, craft and design of the book. The Library is also an excellent source for information about artists." They estimate their overall collection to be over 2 million items (which grows day by day); their periodical collection alone consists of 8,000 individual titles, 2,000 of which are current! They do not weed their collection, except for out-of-date reference materials. Furthermore, the library subscribes to several art databases, a few of which can only be accessed on site, but anyone can become a reader, and it is free. Because space is such an issue in the library, only their reference books are classified in Dewey - the books in the stacks are actually classified by size (which I've actually never seen before, but I understand why it is necessary!).

Learning about the library and seeing the wealth of material in the collections was wonderful, but some of my happiest geeky moments from the entire trip so far occurred when Bernadette Archer (and Francis Warrell, who chose the material) allowed us to view and touch some of their rare, special collections material. Ms. Archer first gave us the history of the materials, and then we were free to peruse it ourselves. She explained that many of their rare books consist of books that are art in and of themselves, where the content did not necessarily matter to them. However, they also had some rare gems from famous Brits.The highlights of these books, for me personally:
--a 1623 first folio of Shakespeare (that I touched!)
--a Keats poem written in his own hand (that I touched!)
--a Dickens manuscript that he made marks and comments on (that I touched!)I also enjoyed the books where artists toyed with the expectations of a book as physical object, thus making the book itself an art piece. I didn't get the artist's name, but I loved the piece that looked like a book on the outside, but inside was a piece of plastic which made the book "sigh" as you closed it.The National Art Library is amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to receive the tour and to view and touch the rare books (which I suspect very few people will be able to do in the future). There are so many treasures in libraries and museums worldwide that I had absolutely no knowledge of, and every day here my eyes are opened to something spectacular.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

British Museum: Journey into the Centre of History

The British Museum is an absolute marvel and a treasure, but it is also an incredibly overwhelming place to visit. There is, amazingly, no admission fee, so over six million people visit each year. One should probably prepare by reading books about the collections beforehand, and mapping out where one wants to visit in a certain amount of time. Even then, the massive crowds will probably thwart any set plans. Our group did not have any formal tour, so we were left to our own perusal of the place. I knew I could spend weeks in there and not see everything, so I tried to find my primary areas of interest and spend the most time there.

A little background: the British Museum's founding collection was formed by Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, who by his death in 1753 had collected almost 80,000 objects, which ended up in the hands of Parliament after the museum was established by a public lottery fund. The museum was placed in a mansion called Montagu House, and opened its doors to the public in 1759. The Museum has a lot of history, so I cannot possibly write the whole story here (I recommend purchasing The British Museum Souvenir Guide for £6, or reading a book such as this), but I will say that the Museum has had lots of problems with space throughout the years, and built a new building in 1850. The Museum's library actually became the British Library after it moved out to create space in 1973. The British Museum is currently funded by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, although it also has the support of private donations, Heritage Lottery, National Art Collections fund, and British Museum friends. Certain exhibitions do charge a fee (none of the permanent collection, though). It has never been a museum concerned with only British objects; thus, in the museum, one can see collections about: The Ancient Near East, the Islamic World, Africa, Egypt, China, South & South-East Asia, Japan, Korea, The Pacific and Australia, Mesoamerica, Central, & South America, North America, Prehistoric Europe, The Greek World, The Roman Empire, Roman Britain, Medieval Europe, Renaissance & Later Europe, and Modern Europe & America (from the Table of Contents in the British Museum Souvenir Guide).

Yes. Overwhelming.

I was a little disappointed that a fee-charging exhibition was on in the Reading Room, an incredibly beautiful space that normally houses the Paul Hamlyn Library (which is currently in another space). Alas, one day I will come back and view it for myself.

As for the exhibits, I probably spent the most time in the Egyptian section. The ancients Egyptians had such a distinct style for everything they created, so I loved seeing their sculptures and day-to-day accessories. And then there were the mummy-related items. There were sarcophagi, mummified feet of children, and mummified cats!I made sure that I fought the crowds to find the Rosetta Stone, as I'm fascinated by linguistics and languages in general. I thought it was quite an amazing sight, even if I almost couldn't get near it.
Finally, I spent some time in the Ancient Greece section, which is always classic and wonderful, but I somehow wandered into the Parthenon sculpture exhibit, and I'm so glad I did. I remember studying the Parthenon in my Art 101 class, and even writing a short humorous play about it, so it was amazing to see the reliefs and picturesque scenes up close.
However, I had a question that many people must have had - why are the Parthenon ruins in the British Museum, and not in Athens? The British Museum had a pamphlet for just such questions, and mentioned that Greek Government has asked for the permanent removal of the sculptures to Athens ( It offered several "explanations": that Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, gifted the sculptures to the British Museum in 1816; that the sculptures are in several different museums, not just the British Museum; that the Museum publishes results of its research extensively; that six million people a year see the sculptures here. The pamphlet is very interesting, and recounts the debate more eloquently than I.

This debate truly made me think about which artifacts might "transcend" culture, and at which location artifacts "should" be housed. Should artifacts (any artifacts in ANY museum) be housed in a place where they will be seen by the most people, or in their original home? Who gets to decide, and who gets to claim ownership of these artifacts? It is a truly fascinating, thought-provoking dilemma indeed. I only know that I am grateful that the British Museum is free for all, and that for now, they provide an incredibly culturally-enriching service for everyone.

For more information about the Parthenon debate, or any other aspect of the British Museum, visit the website:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich: Navies and Shipwrecks and Pirates, Oh My!

This trip has made me more and more aware of "special" libraries; I knew they existed, obviously, but as I've only had one semester of library school, I hadn't seen the plethora of special library possibilities yet (although I'm hoping to take the Special Libraries course in the spring). Even if they're not in my area of expertise, I find them incredibly fascinating! I honestly never thought about the existence of a maritime library before; however, I'm so glad I not only got to visit one, but one of the largest and most prestigious in existence.

To get to Greenwich, we took a lovely boat ride on the Thames, although it was fairly fast because it was a commuter boat, not a tourist boat (which is what we took for the London Alive event "A River Runs Through It.")

The National Maritime Museum has a joint library and archive called Caird Library, and it is one of the largest reference (not lending) maritime libraries in the world. The library/archive is funded by the DCMS - Department for Culture, Media, and Sport for day-to-day operations, but the library does undertake fundraising for special projects. Caird contains manuscripts, books, periodicals and maps on maritime related topics such as immigration, piracy, astronomy, voyages and exploration, naval architecture. There are over 100,000 modern books, 20,000 pamphlets, 20,000 periodicals, and 8 km worth of manuscripts. Caird also has an extensive rare book collection (about 8,000) and rare manuscripts, examples of which Head Archivist Hannah Dunmow, and librarians Renee Orr and Mike Beren, demonstrated in their presentations to our group.

Our big group split into two smaller ones, and for my group, Renee showed us some of the rare books housed at Caird. We got to touch tiny books that were supposedly bound with the wood of the Royal George ship wreck in August 1782 (possibly meant to be "souvenirs"), and see other interesting materials, such the first book published in Antarctica, Aurora Australis (1908). My personal favourite of the bunch was The Principles of Mr. Harrison's Time-Keeper, with plates of the same, which was published in 1767 by the Commissioners of Longitude. I loved this because I had read Longitude by Dava Sobel in preparation for this trip, and seeing this book (which John Harrison, who solved the Longitude Problem, was forced to publish in order to get his £20,000 reward) really brought history to life for me.

Next, Mike showed us some rare manuscripts, which consisted of journals of ship captains, signal books, and "victualling accounts." The manuscripts ranged in age from 1558-1845. An item I found particularly interesting was the 1800 signal book that was taken from USS Chesapeake by the Royal Navy, who captured the ship. This is the equivalent of a sports team finding their rival's playbook, so the US Navy had to issue a book new signals. The book itself was weighted with musket shots so that it could be thrown overboard in case of capture, but as the battle only lasted 15 minutes, there was no time. I also enjoyed the journal of Dr. Edward Hodges Cree, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, who kept journals during his time of service. He drew panarama illustrations of places he visited, such as Hong Kong, that were absolutely beautiful. There were also "pirate diaries" with maps - accounts written by actual pirates on how they did their pirating business!

Essentially, if you can make it to Greenwich, the Caird Library is a real treasure. I didn't even know I was interested in maritime matters until I visited! Caird is normally open 6 days a week, seeing about 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a year (with 15,000-18,000 e-library visitors - use of the e-library is open to anyone, but you must come to Caird to access it). However, they are currently only open 3 days a week now due to preparation for a new reading room, scheduled for completion in 2012. Readers (anyone over 16 with a research enquiry can join the library for free) currently must make an appointment to order manuscripts or offsite material in advance, since there is a temporary offsite storage facility housing collections. However, in 2012, the library and its services should be whole and better than ever.

For more information about the library, visit:

Caird Library Blog:

Caird Library site:

Interior library photo courtesy of the NMM website


After the library visit, I perused the National Maritime Museum for a bit, then headed up to the Royal Observatory to straddle the Prime Meridian (with class, of course). First, Megan, Brittany and I went to the Flamsteed House (designed by Sir Christopher Wren - what didn't that man design? he's amazing!). I was anxious to see John Harrison's clocks and watches (especially H4), and the displays didn't disappoint. I'm so glad I read Longitude and can appreciate the work that went in to solving such a momentous problem. It's also really inspiring to see people with no political clout or financial means help change the world.

Finally, the view from the Royal Observatory was absolutely beautiful, and standing at 0 degrees longitude felt like a big deal. Greenwich holds a lot of history and special incentive to visit, and I loved being part of that for a day.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, Stratford: "Fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world"

Today our class ventured away from the city to Stratford-upon-Avon, which is a very lovely little place (albeit quite touristy - which is to be expected). As an English major, I couldn't help but feel some sort of reverence for Shakespeare's Town. We were allowed to wander around a bit when we initially got there, so Jenn, Megan, Cassie, Brittany, Chaitra and I walked around, bought souvenir or two, ducked into shops, and had a great lunch at The Falcon.
Around 2:30, we met the rest of the class at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, and were given a tour by Madeleine. The SCLA (as I will now call it to avoid typing the name each time) is the premier source in the UK for anything Shakespeare related. It was formed in the late 1800s; the collection received its first librarian in 1873. Last year, SCLA merged with the local records office. The library is open access, with the exception of rare books, but is not a lending library. It receives about 3,000 readers (and about 10,000 inquiries), a year. Much like the British Library (with the exception of the awesome mechanical system at BL), one can fill out a slip of paper requesting an item, and someone will fetch the item in a timely manner.

The SCLA's catalogue is actually a card catalogue for items before 2001; it reminded me of elementary school, searching for the book I wanted, and it was great to see one again. After 2001, new entries into the collection appears in an online catalogue, which includes the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) image database.

The collection houses modern books of criticism and commentaries, but not every new book about Shakespeare makes it into the collection; there is a selection process of key books. There are books from the 1700s in the collection that are not open access - one must have a specific research need to see them. With the addition of the local records department, the collection grows substantially each day; the SCLA does not track the growth. Surprisingly, there is no government funding for the library. It is considered a charity as a part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and 75% of its income is derived from visitors. The library also employs fundraising.

After Madeleine's tour, we were introduced to Jo Wilding, who provided us with the opportunity to see some of the library's rare books and talked a bit about each of them. I love rare books, and these were are wonderful; she showed us books such as the 1642 edition of Rosalinde, the source for Shakespeare's As You Like It. I was most interested in the copy of Shakespeare's first folio, which is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays - if it hadn't been published, we may have never known of some of Shakespeare's most famous works, as some had not been previously published or fully attributed to him. I also enjoyed seeing a copy of Edmund Spenser's 1611 Shepheard's Calender, since I read it when I took a class on Spenser in my undergrad.

After the library tour, we had a little more time to explore Stratford before seeing the play As You Like It, so a few of us wandered down to the river Avon to take pictures and to visit the church where Shakespeare is entombed.Finally, we wandered to the Courtyard Theatre for the production of As You Like It by the Royal Shakespeare company. The play was absolutely wonderful; I had read it, but never seen it before, and I thought everything was fantastic. Touchstone was my favourite character, but all of the actors were spot on. I enjoyed the functional "trap door" set, and it worked really well for their purposes. I also liked the transition from the traditional costumes to modern day clothing. The plot was over the top, of course, but the play really came to life for me. I really appreciated being able to see a British play with British actors.

Overall, Stratford-upon-Avon is absolutely lovely, and contains a wealth of information and history. If I ever go back, I'd love to explore the Shakespeare collection further. I also believe that seeing an RSC play in Stratford is a must, and I hope to see another one day.

For more information about the SCLA, go here.
For more information on the Royal Shakespeare Company collection, go here.