Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Library

Today's site visit was to the British Library where I joined the group guided by Kevin Mehmet, Front-of-House Manager at the British Library. Mr. Mehmet provided an entertaining tour of the Library's best attractions and internal workings. His discussions of the library organization, the process of becoming a chartered librarian, and the future of libraries and archives (digitization) were insightful--if not upbeat. I appreciate the reminder that the archivist job is not all old documents and grateful researchers--this is a tough time to be in a library/archives setting--competing with IT for staff, with all departments for resources, and with a world that seems to always be in search of the easy answer--we are needed now more than ever, given the amount of information that is produced every day, but, as we know, our status and our presence is constantly questioned.

On to a more positive track: The British Library is always a joy to walk into: well lit, with people walking around looking studious and often a little awed. The ubiquitous sound of computer keyboards, intent faces magnified by the frames of their glasses, the glare of reading room desk lamps, and the stark simplicity of the King's Library in the middle of it all. The exhibit rooms, Magnificent Maps and Treasures of the British Library, grant access to amazing resources, and include impressive interactive experiences: magnifying glass that enlarges part of a digital map, online display that shows detailed scans of six rare books including the Sherborne Missal in exquisite detail:

The British Library website provides links to their permanent collections including Treasures of the British Library. As part of our tour Mr. Mehmet pointed out the Philatelic collection (stamps) which is one of the largest in the world and available just up the stairs from the entrance. We were taken to a viewing station over the Humanities Reading Room, and through one of the staff areas. The Humanities Reading Room , where I often find myself when at loose ends in London, houses reference works on Information and Library Sciences (some of which I read last year in the reading room) as well as History of Science as well as general reference works arranged in the Dewey decimal system. The reading room has over 100 desks where readers wait for books to be delivered. To request a book, a reader must not only have a reader card, he or she must have a desk number...if in doubt, make one up. Admittedly, the staff needs the numbers to know where to deliver books once they arrive (since there is "desk-service") but it can be frustrating for the novice. When the reader enter the room the first impulse is to hand over requests to the circulation desk--but that must wait until a seat is located and the seat number entered into the request form.

With over 14 million books in their catalogue, 30,000 digitized images and 9 million journal articles from 20,000 journals available online, the British Library has one of the most comprehensive digital collections. At the library, one finds not only access to all the digitized material and the online catalogue, the researcher will be able to access an additional 140 million records including a copy of every work published in the UK and Ireland. To house all of this material (and the 625 km (388 miles) of shelving that supports it) they constructed the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century. The library adds over 3 million items to its collection each year including books, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, visual media and still images, newspapers, and patents.

While the public galleries provided insight into the best elements of the British Library I know that I, and my fellow students, were really hoping for a tour behind the scenes. Due to health and safety regulations--and security--visitors, as a general rule, are not allowed in the stack area (such a disappointment and such a sure sign that we are library nerds) thought we were able to see the Automated Book Retrieval System that BL developed in the 1970s to order, select, retrieve and deliver the millions of books in their collection. When the British Library became a distinct institution in 1973 (before that the Library was part of the British Museum), they designed a new library building and included the automated system at part of the design. With miles of metal tracks running through every area of the library and into the reading rooms, the system has become a model for other libraries.

Another interesting bit of information Mr. Mehmet passed on related to my particular interest: the comparison between archives and archivist training in the U.S. and UK. He mentioned the status of "Chartered Librarian": which some librarians choose to pursue. Unlike the U.S. where completion of an ALA-accredited Master of Library Science degree is enough to endow the status of librarian (or archivist) in the U.K. one must gain qualification from the Library Association before being able to state that he or she is a librarian.

In the U.S. the closest equivalent to Chartered Membership we have is the Certified Archivists exam which is administered every August as the SAA meeting. Due to the increased number of MLS/Archives graduates more and more job ads state that certification (CA) is preferable. In the UK, similar benefits are said to accrue to Chartered Librarians, depending upon their career path. It is not an easy goal, there are at least ten steps to Chartership according to the CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) website. It includes a project as part of your work, reviews by staff and CILIP auditors and a portfolio presented to the Chartership Board. The amount of specialization, the professionalization of the field, per se, is so much higher here in the UK than in the US. This is something I think our field, in the interest of professionalization and our reputation should consider aspiring to--something similar to CPA exams to show that we are experienced and qualified professionals, especially as we seek to compete with IT professionals for our role in archiving the digital record.

To follow the last post:

Bus versus Underground: Bus wins by a mile--those of use who took the bus arrived at least ten minutes ahead--had time to walk over to King's Cross for pictures at Platform 9 3/4 before the rest of the class arrived. And then we walked back to the British Library.

British Library gate image from Wikipedia

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