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

British Museum too

After the tour of the British Museum Archives, we were let loose among the collections. After some debate a few of us, myself, Traci, Andrew, Gillian and Daniel, decided to wander together. A schedule was set and off we went--first to view the Rosetta stone, and then to the Elgin marbles--and I must remember that proper pronunciation (yes, Andrew) is el-JIN marbles. The room had been rearranged since I last visited but as always it is the bas-relief sculptures rather than the full life statues that draw my attention. This time it was a set of battles with centaurs that I spent the most time examining--the light and shading, the workmanship, the detail--all skills that are pretty much lost now.

The other exhibit that I enjoyed was the gold and treasure. We wanted to see the Staffordshire hoard (which was in conservation) so we looked at the Sutton Hoo treasure and the rooms leading too it. These pictures should speak for themselves:

Gold G-d why can I never remember this word???

The laws governing the British Museum link directly to the British Treasure Act--a fascinating bit of law I learned while in Folkestone with Andy and Lynn where I watched a TV program about the Staffordshire Hoard. The formal Act can be found at The Office of Public Sector Information and a nice explanation is found in a 2009 Telegraph article on the hoard. The Treasure Act, passed in 1996, regulates all archaeological finds in the UK--and was passed to deal with the questions of who owns it--the Crown if it is large enough and composed of the right materials--and who gains rewards--the finder as well as the owner of the property upon which it was found. The regulations can be quite detailed but they are set up to assure, hopefully, that discoverers contact their local coroner quickly after discovery to allow the professionals to oversee the site and preserve historical and archaeological significance of the site as well as the materials that are found within the dig. The number of hoards/treasures located in the UK is amazing--as is the variety--gold from Vikings, Roman coins, weapons, stolen or looted goods, and most end up at a museum in the UK--and the best and the most significant usually at the British Museum.

British Museum Archives

July 7: British Museum Entrance

In the ongoing bus versus Underground battle: bus won (by about 5 minutes today)

Honestly, after Vicky introduced me to the buses I prefer them as a mode of transportation. Most of the time they are less crowded and you can really see the city, rather than moving underneath it. While the Underground has historical importance (as a bomb shelter during the Battle of Britain, 1940) the lack of any air conditioning at stations or on the train can make it a wilting experience in any temperature over 70 degrees. The bus does have drawbacks: there is a distinct danger of dying by falling down the stairs from the upper deck as drivers stop suddenly, motion sickness, and of course--traffic, but it is the preferred mode of transportation among a select number of BSP LIS students.

Today's site visit was to the British Museum and the British Museum Archives. We arrived at 10am to meet Stephanie Clarke, lone arranger (head and only permanent staff member) for the British Museum archives. (I cannot use the abbreviation BM for impolite reasons so I will be using BritM.) We walked from the main entrance gallery, back into the staff only section of the museum and then came to the door below:

There is something magical/special/appealing about the idea of a door: in literature it leads to so many wonderful or scary things--it is a metaphor for life, change, thought, education, enlightenment, closure--and physically is the difference between here and a potentially unknown there. Who knows what it might lead to? OK, enough metaphysical musing...

This door opened into the British Museum Archives where Stephanie showed us part of the collection and explained how their records are organized. This was our first truly behind-the-scenes tour. By that I mean a tour that would not be part of a regular tourist group's itinerary.

The archive began in 1753 (when the Museum was founded) and includes permanent records related to the museum's functions. The British Museum Archives is truly an institutional archive and it's records include "minutes of meetings of the Museum’s Trustees, departmental reports on acquisitions and administration, policy and financial records." Most records related to museum objects are held with the various curatorial departments. ( They also have some collections, library reader cards and applications for entry, related to the British Library (which was established as an independent institution in 1973). The records are not available online: researcher access is by appointment through the Paul Hamlyn Library.

I think I most appreciated the visit because Stephanie's description of her work when she arrived at the archive provided a real world example for why archival principles are necessary. She took a collection that 117 records series and distilled it down to six (6). Yes, that was 117--a new series added every time a new box of materials would arrive. Without strong training in these principles and practices it would have been nearly impossible to make sense of the vast array of material.

In addition, the archivist has been instrumental in creating a records management and retention schedule for new materials ensuring that the BritM Archives collection best represents the history, working life, and collections of the British Museum. For more on their holdings there is portal through the British Museum. Of course the idea of deaccessioning is controversial, and often considered heretical--no one wants to throw away anything that might be useful later, but this collection illustrates how important it is to consider archival principles when collecting and arranging material, especially when laws are written that prevent anything that is accessioned to the collection (1753-present) from being disposed of in the future.

In terms of materials themselves, I was astonished by the bound volumes of correspondence--not only that the BritM had their own bindery that did the work, but thinking as a historian, what a treasure to find all of the materials together--as an archivist I could not help but shudder at the potential preservation issues created by the diversity of materials, the paste and glue used on the letters, and the original original order disruptions. As if I need more evidence that the fields are diametrically opposed despite working with the same documentation. And of course, my eye was drawn to the volume "Acts Relating to the British Museum"--photographs of collections, T.S. Eliot's and Karl Marx's signatures, exploded WWII ordnance and I want to thumb through a list of Parliamentary Acts--I really do need to work with political sources in some form or fashion.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Barbican Centre Library

I wasn't certain what to expect of the Barbican Centre Library. Located in the Barbican Centre Theatre complex the library is not, as one might expect, a subject specific art and music library but rather an impressive public library serving the City of London and the men and women who commute to work there.

We were greeted by Head Librarian John Lake who gave an overview of the library: the collections, patrons, and space. He was incredibly informative and enthusiastic about his library's role in the community and the services they provide. They serve 9,000 City of London residents and 330,000 commuters. Mr. Lake pointed out that they have an unusual demographic: 60% of members are male v. 40% male for most other London libraries. Further information can be located either the City of London/Barbican Library website or through the Barbican Centre's webpage. The library is the largest lending library in the City of London's library system.

The library's connection to the Barbican Center led to a specialization in art and music with a truly impressive collection of sheet music:

sheet music collection

In the fall semester I wrote a paper, with my management class, about the bookstore model in libraries in the U.S.--the layout of the Barbican library seemed to fit with this profile--though the model was never referred to explicitly. The library has shorter bookcases, clear signage, divisions between different sections of the library, best seller and recommended displays, and a selection of CDs to rent almost identical to what might be found in a Borders.

As I think about the visit I realize that it was the whole picture the Barbican library presented rather than one element or one collection that impressed me. They incorporated, pretty seamlessly, what could be very disparate elements: a music library with pianos, listening stations and over 16,000 CDs, a fine arts library, a children's library and an adult library that catered, to a degree, a commuter population. They have created space for the London Collection--1000 volumes on open shelves related to life and history in London.

The library presents an interesting mix of new technology--RFID and self-checkout, both of which are less prevalent in the US--and old standards--they have been able to increase circulation without the introduction of e-books. Their adult lending collection consists of paperback books, magazines (and a magazine exchange), newspapers, and graphic novels. Mr. Lake indicated that they resisted e-books not because of any objection to the medium but rather because they had yet to find a vendor who would meet their needs: a single vendor for all media types that would provide multi-point/user access.

I was left with an overwhelmingly positive impression of the Barbican and the staff there--and of course an abundance of information about events in London--both at the Barbican and London in general. Anyone for Klezmer music? There's a festival in early August...

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.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The National Archives (conference post 3)

One of the main reasons for attending I-CHORA 5 was the chance to visit the U.K.'s The National Archives (TNA) which I was able to do on July 2, 2010.

I wanted to see if TNA was similar to different to NARA: I wasn't sure what kind of tour we would be given: I do want to know more about how TNA organizes their records, which records are most requested, whether they have the papers of Parliamentarians as well as the official functions of the UK government. At the Center for Legislative Archives the papers of Senators and Congressmen are not part of their mandate so I wondered how personal papers of politicians were treated in the UK?

The National Archives is the "UK government's official archive, from Domesday to websites." Their collections contain over 1,000 years of British (English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and imperial) history. TNA "give[s] detailed guidance to government departments and the public sector on information management and advise others about the care of historical archives." (TNA "About us") Their collection includes over 11 million records from vellum, parchment and paper to electronic records and websites as well as photographs, posters, maps, drawings and paintings. One interesting point: The National Archives has developed a system to take users from defunct government websites (dead links) to a site that includes an archived version of that site. Users are informed that they are not on an active site, but they are able to view any information that was available on the original website (as it was at the time of the site's preservation.) They currently have over 1,000,000,000 online documents available through their Government Web Archive and the staff is working to create best practices for website and email archiving within the UK government.

The bus ride to TNA was much longer than I thought--originally housed on Chancery Lane in what is now the King's College's Maughan Library the archives moved to West London in 1977 when the Public Records Office was combined with the Historic Manuscripts Commission. While the new location is larger and geared toward storage of the vast and varied records held by TNA, the building, as you will see below, is less than inspiring (at least when compared to the Maugham). Note: this is an opinion given by a 19th century political historian/archivist who loves modern sculpture but takes issue with the minimalist nature of modern architecture.

New The National Archives:

Old Public Records Office Building at Chancery Lane (current King's College Maughan Library, which we will be visiting later this month)

As you can see, the original building had a very different architectural feel. The current TNA was built to connect two existing buildings with a central entry and courtyard. It fulfills the purpose but is less aesthetically pleasing than the British Museum's main gallery.

But, as we know, other than the protection and environmental controls, archives are about what is on the inside, not the outside and TNA has an amazing collection. All the records of Parliament, of the UK governmental and associated organizations, maps, birth, marriage and death records, house history, are housed at TNA. On the tour we viewed a map of London from before the Great Fire with illustrations of the original London Bridge. Other exhibits we were shown were Exchequer rolls, maps of South Africa--there are rows of map drawers divided by continent, region and country. Most of this information you can find at the National Archives website.
TNA has an excellent homepage that provides information about their holdings, their research protocols, and frequently asked questions.

There were two things that I found most interesting--and both related to the use of space. Unlike the behind the scenes at Archives I in D.C.(I have not seen Archives II's stacks), TNA had enough space between most shelving units for at least two men to walk through side-by-side and enough room for golf carts between aisles and sections. At NARA I usually can't walk up the aisle without bumping an elbow or a hip into something. Second: they have these ingenious reader's desks--eight people can sit where 4 do in most U.S. reading rooms. They are a triumph of geometry and creativity for space saving, though they are an unfortunate 70s avocado green color.

One other surprise--and suggestion that perhaps the Brits trust their researchers more than Americans--is the fact that readers retrieve their own records when they are brought up by the pages--they are placed in plexiglass lockers with the reader's number and they pick them up. I could not imagine that in the U.S. Researchers are often barely trusted to carry the books from cart to table depending on the archive.

Overall, I was impressed by TNA, and our guide, was diligent, informed and excited to show us his institution, I only wish we had more time. What better way than to spend a day opening map drawers or searching through manuscripts? Ok, there are a few better ways, but this would definitely be in my top three.

The National Archives photograph:
Maugham Library Photograph and text by Jacqueline Banerjee

At I-CHORA 5 (conference post 2)

The conference on Friday was divided into two parts: morning and early afternoon sessions at the University College London(UCL) auditorium and then lunch and afternoon sessions at either The British Library or The National Archives. Since BSP has arranged for us to visit the British Library I was able to add myself to the list for The National Archives tour.

If you are interested you can review the conference program for Friday morning or Friday afternoon that I attended.

The morning sessions were focused on the technology and bureaucracy behind documentation, the early afternoon sessions on government archives and their response to new technology. I walked in to the first session and saw a very animated speaker, King's College Professor Paul Luff, waxing eloquent about new innovations in digital record keeping--digital pens, digital paper, technologies about which I only have a peripheral awareness. The idea of paper you could write on that would automatically transfer to a digital version is exciting--and a bit unnerving--we now might have to worry about penmanship all over again.

I found it hard to imagine what digital or electronic paper might look like so I found this image on Bing Images:

While all of the papers were interesting I found the presentation on email archiving by Jason Baron (NARA) and Simon Attfield (UCL) the most compelling: we all use email but do we really think about why and how it is kept? Now that email has been declared part of the "record" through legal decisions what is the best way to preserve and make accessible the millions of emails sent every day. Should we try to keep all emails? Should it be similar to the Library of Congress' Twitter project--or should rote office emails, forwards, and duplicate emails be deleted? Does the entire system need to be preserved or just the content of the email? All questions that the digital preservation community is only starting to unravel.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

International Archival Connections (conference post 1)

A few days ago, on July 2, I attended the second day of the I-CHORA 5 (International Conference on the History of Records and Archives) at University College London.

I had a busy morning since this was also the first official day of my month-long Library Science program through the University of Southern Mississippi at King's College London--and that meant packing up and moving into the dorm at 127 Stamford Street. Here is the link to view the campus and dorms I arrived at the dorm a little before 9am, hopped a bus and arrived at the conference site at 9:22am. Whew, I was so certain I was going to miss at least the first two presentations.

And now, here is where those of you with little patience must just relax, I know that I can be quite verbose, and maybe you do not need to come on a step by step journey of my day...but that's how I write.

First of all, attendance at the conference was different than I expected: there were approximately 90-120 registered participants, most attendees were currently employed as archivists, records managers or IT professionals. There were a number of speakers who emphasized "I am not an archivist," which surprised and frustrated me a little--one of the issues I have with the current literature in the profession is the constant need to ask: why are we here? what is an archivist? How do we explain to resource allocators who we are and why we are needed? But as I discussed with Else Hansen of the Denmark National Archives and Susanne Neugebauer of the Hogeshool van Amsterdam (how cool is that) it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy--if we, as archivists, cannot explain why we matter, if we constantly pose the question then what prevents the powers that be from saying: yes, why do we need you? Wouldn't it be better to assert our importance and the critical nature of our profession rather than constantly undermine it?

What struck me as most different from US conferences was the truly international nature of the conference presenters and delegates: 18 countries were represented, most from Western Europe but also Estonia, Romania, Korea and mainland China. Nearly all of the English-speaking world was present: U.S., each country of the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. There were comparative projects bringing together archivists from New Zealand and Estonia, in a presentation which addressed archival traditions (Estonia has a strong one and New Zealand's is virtually extinct) and joint research between colleagues as the same institution (University of Glasgow HATII, Stasi Records Office, and the Institute for the History of Medicine in Berlin).

Similar to the work that we have done in our classes at the University of Maryland, College Park most of these presentations were case studies of work done at individual archives. The German Stasi papers archivists discussed their efforts to deal with the incredible amount of material they hold including hand-shredded records. There were presentations on new technology, on the impulse behind the creation of electronic registers in Denmark, and on the need for more emphasis on the creation of email archiving. Talks were mostly powerpoint based, though some of the speakers, bravely, used powerpoint only as support and for visual illustration.

I will post more tomorrow about the content of the talks and our visit to The National Archives, or TNA--such an unfortunate abbreviation for those of us who remember...