Monday, July 19, 2010

National Library of Scotland: Golf and Beards

Our first full morning in Edinburgh, Monday, July 19, the British Studies Program Library Science students arrived for a visit at the National Library of Scotland.

Unlike our other site visits we had no tour scheduled so we were set lose to investigate the Library's exhibits: one on the history of golf, the other related to the John Murray collection.

Thankfully I had followed Prof. Welsh's advice and looked up the John Murray Archive before arriving at the National Library so I at least had some idea of what the exhibits related to. The exhibits themselves were interesting but awkwardly organized--both had entrances off the main hall--but no information leading from one exhibition (golf) to the other (Murray archive) meaning that viewers had to exit one exhibition and re-enter from the main hall to really understand what they were looking at. I personally found the golf exhibit more appealing--it was interactive--with a small putting green, informative, and had a great mix of media--videos, museum artifacts and printed and manuscript material. There were also great quotations related to golf, one from A Grieg spoke to me "Who but the Scots," Grieg said, "could evolve a game that offers such opportunities for humiliation and failure, and no one but oneself to blame for it." Substitute "life" for "game" and you sum up my existence pretty well.

The John Murray Archive exhibit underwhelmed. The website included a wealth of material absent from the exhibit. Clearly designed for children based on the choice of font, style, coverage, and brevity, the displays were designed, at maximum, for two people at time. The exhibit space was crowded and dark--It would protect the documents but made the space feel more like a disco than an archive. This was an exhibit for a popular audience whereas the Archive website is designed for scholarly research. The exhibit did a superficial job of explaining that the John Murray archive is an extensive collection of papers related to the publishing empire built by the Murray family. They published some of the English language's most famous works: Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species, Jane Austen's Emma, and Lord Byron's Childe Harold. The Murray Archive contains the correspondence of Byron and his mistress, Caroline Lamb, as well as the business papers for the two hundred years of the Murray publishers' existence.

The strangest exhibit was that related to Darwin: a glass enclosure, like a snow globe, encased a suit of clothes and a fake beard--but no head, like a scene from Bedknobs and Broomsticks--in the case were a few letters and a bassoon. My first reaction--boy that's creepy. My second thought: I didn't know Darwin played bassoon. On further investigation it became apparent that the bassoon was a bit of a stretch to fulfill the desire to have material objects as well as documents in the exhibit cases: Darwin once asked his son to play bassoon to earthworms to see what happened. These red herrings indicate that some elements of the exhibits could be rethought--viewers who do not stop and investigate all the documents in the podiums may be left with erroneous impressions of the persons and events involved. On the other hand, the interactive nature of the exhibits will likely lead to greater interest and retention of the information presented.

The Murray Archive's purchase was facilitated through grants and partnerships including grants from the Scottish Executive and the Heritage Lottery Fund. A trust, the John R Murray Charitable Trust, was established by the Murray family from the proceeds of the sale. The trust's aim is to assist the library in the promotion and preservation of the John Murray Archive helping to defray the costs involved with the collection.

I do wish the opportunity to tour the library had materialized. As the largest library in Scotland, the National Library of Scotland houses over 14 million volumes and is one of Scotland's deposit libraries. These are libraries that are entitled to request a copy of all printed materials to be added to the collection. (This is different from the British Library, which is required to accept a copy of all publications printed in the UK). As a deposit library the National Library of Scotland can choose what books to add to its' collection. The library was officially founded in 1688 and opened in 1689. By the 1920s the collection was too large to remain private (due to costs) and was presented to the nation with official recognition by Act of Parliament in 1925. With a reading room, extensive stack areas (neither of which I was able to see) and a complement of staff, they address the reference and research needs of Edinburgh and Scotland. Since the re-establishment of an independent government of Scotland in 1999, the National Library of Scotland operates under Scottish government authority. For more information on the Library and it's organization see

The library clearly takes pains to involve the community and encourage both scholars and the general public to explore their collections. I only wish we'd had a chance to speak to the librarians about their take on the exhibitions and the relationship of the Murray Archive to the larger collection.

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