Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Enter St. Paul's: BSP LIS 2010

Today (well technically yesterday by about 90 minutes) we had our first official site visit for the course at London's St. Paul's Cathedral Library.

I have to admit that in all the years I've visited London I've never been to St. Paul's. I'd heard of the excellent views but, like many, was unaware that the cathedral is still a working church with a library.

We arrived at St. Paul's by bus, which was a little slower than I expected due to the traffic light that seemed to only allow one car at a time around Ludgate Circle. We were greeted at Queen Anne's statue by Joseph Wisdom, St. Paul's librarian. I was very interested to see where they had stashed the library since the building looks completely open up to the rafters.

The library is located about halfway up to the Whispering Gallery. And of course, it was my favorite type of staircase (read sarcastically): spiral and yes it is the same one you can take all the way to the top.

We walked up stairs and Mr. Wisdom stopped us before the entrance to the library. The doors looked like what I imagine a secret door might look like--since so many British doors still require skeleton type keys. This door led into a series of high-ceilinged rooms about a quarter the width of a U.S. football field. Mr. Wisdom spent time taking us through the future museum areas, showed us a baptismal font and the lapidary collection before taking us to the library.

He opened the door
and out wafted this aroma--all of a sudden the whole group took a breath, sensing the age of the books inside--a combination of leather, paper, dust, and a little damp. It was the unmistakable odor that old books emit--yes a sign of decay but also a sign of age and hopefully knowledge to be imparted. That moment of pause, of appreciation and reflection, gave way to excitement to see how the room was organized and what it might contain.

According to the St. Paul's library website, most of the collection was destroyed by fire in the Great Fire of London: all pre-1666 materials, therefore, were collected later as the library staff have worked to replicate the original catalogue from lists begun in 1313 that were saved from the fire. The collection was given a boost from Henry Compton, bishop of London, who bequeathed his 2000 volume collection to the library. The collection is currently 30,000 volumes housed mostly in two rooms in the attics of St. Paul's. The St. Paul's library's subject strengths are in theology, church history and the lives of saints and religiously significant individuals. With so little space the library has a very strict acquisitions policy. They restrict new acquisitions to a few topics: major works on the history of the Church in England, on Wren and the building of the Cathedral, the Church in the City, and 'alumni' material.

While the age of some of the collection, the effort necessary to recreate the collection after the 1666 fire, and the current conservation efforts are all important and impressive aspects of the St' Paul's library I was most surprised by the fact that 85% of this library's catalogue is currently online. Mr. Wisdom indicated that the library had no formal catalog system before they decided to go online. The process was done from scratch with shelf lists matched against a flawed card catalog (a card catalog with many errors that could not, therefore, be the basis of any online records.) Using the MARC standard St. Paul's library created new records and imported through OCLC for their online catalog. Click on these links for more information on MARC or on how to import catalog records from OCLC.

And I hope this image, taken by my own shaking hand, is proof that I climbed all the way to the top of St. Paul's--in spite of those see through stairs--and with no little thanks to Gillian, Daniel and Susan.

Photograph of St. Paul's Library courtesy of St. Paul's Library website.


  1. Kudos to them for putting their catalog online! I love seeing improved access to collections, in every library and repository.