Friday, July 16, 2010

Oxford's Bodleian Library

Today was our trip to Oxford! We caught a train at 9.30 this morning from Paddington Station and what confusion! There were so many people on the train, we ended up standing most of the way to Oxford – about an hour and a half away. I was lucky and got to sit down the last half hour (which was good for my leg as it was hurting SO much by then) but a number of the others had to stand the whole way.

Once we got there, our instructor, Dr Welsh passed out tickets to the local tour bus that you can hop on and off of all day as it tours the town. The audio commentary given at the same time via a closed radio system, was rather interesting, too.

Bodleian Library:
The bus dropped us off fairly close to the Bodleian library where our tour was set for the day. Bodleian libraries actually refers to a collection of all the libraries in the Oxford University system – over 40 of them while the singular Bodleian Library refers to the main research branch which is the one we visited.

The first incarnation of the library began in 1320 with 20 books in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It wasn’t until Duke Humfrey, the younger brother of King Henry V, donated 281 manuscripts that the need for a larger facility was needed. The new building over the Divinity School was started in 1424 but because of chronic shortages of funds, the building was not completed until 1488 – over 64 years later. Unfortunately in 1550, in a purge of all things Roman Catholic, all the books were destroyed – many by burning. It wasn’t until Sir Thomas Bodley, in 1598, offered money to refurnish the old library for 2,500 books donated by himself and a variety of other donors. This was the first use of chairs – in the previous library, all books had been on tilted tables and men had to stand to read them. Until that time, the books had all been in book presses or chained to the tilted tables and this was the first use of shelves. In 1610, Bodley arranged with the Stationers’ Company of London to receive a copy of every book published in England and registered with them at Stationers’ Hall. Of course, receiving a copy of every book meant the collection was growing fast and they quickly ran out of room. To Bodley, the only solution was to donate more money and finance the first extension to the building.

From then on, the library’s history has really been a story of growth – every few years absorbing more space or building more buildings to store its ever increasing collection. They currently house more than 11 million printed items and it is the second largest library and the largest university library in the UK.

Our tour was quite interesting, starting with a visit to the oldest part still called Duke Humfrey’s library. Sadly we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but the ceiling was painted beautifully, the colors still vibrant after several hundred years. Here we were shown a couple of things that surprised me.

First, their original security system had been to chain the books to the shelves and tables. There had been one example kept to show visitors and because the chain was to the front of the book at the top furthest away from the spine, (chaining the spine would have caused damage every time the book was opened) the books had to be put on the shelf with their spines against the back of the shelves so the chains wouldn’t cause damage to other books. With the spine hidden, each book had a number written on the fore edge and there was a list on each shelf with each number and the title of the book. Essentially, it was the first form of a catalog!

Second, for conservation/preservation, they had wrapped three sides of the books in acid-free board with a cloth tie over the spine to leave it visible. I had never seen anything like this as all boxed books I’d seen have been completely boxed, not just on three sides with the fourth open for view. I have to admit, it looks nicer seeing all the real spines rather than a bunch of gray boxes with typed or handwritten labels.

We also got to see the conveyor system in the basement that carries books between the Radcliffe Camera (another building of the library) and the main library building across the street and back. It’s rather old and looks like the whole thing is wrought iron with a light coating of rust from the last century. It carries small tubs containing books and dangles them as it carries them along on hooks. Really, it’s rather interesting, but we were told there are plans to replace it before too long.

After the actual library, we toured some of the rooms that are below Duke Humfrey’s library – the Divinity School, the Convocation House and the Chancellor’s Court – all of which had some very impressive wood work and stone craft for the walls and ceilings.

The Rest of the Day:
After our visit to the Library and a bit of lunch, Susan and I took the tour bus around Oxford where I promptly fell asleep. Apparently I enjoyed lunch more than I thought. Susan was kind enough to wake me up when we got to Oxford Castle or I probably would have spent a good hour or two riding the bus around, snoring my head off.

I have to say, I kind of enjoyed the castle more than I enjoyed the library. That’s probably because it’s only my second castle but my nth library over here. And people usually weren’t imprisoned in libraries after which they were taken out into the courtyard where they were later hung. At least not to my knowledge. Very few historic battles (okay, so Oxford Castle didn’t have that many historic battles but it *could* have), storming the gates or cruel gaolmen (unless you count some of the really grumpy librarians) really happen inside libraries. Those reach out to the geeky side of me while the castle reaches out to the slightly gory side of me.

It turns out the castle was more of a tower and a local jail turned prison. And it had been used as a prison up until 1996. The tower was one of the oldest, and pre-Saxon, dating it to before the 1066 invasion. It had been rebuilt, of course, by the Saxons. The view from the top was great – even though the hike up the tiny and steep spiral stone staircase was really unnerving. And the visit to the crypt (called a crypt even though no one is buried there) was unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m much too sensitive to smells, and the dank wet smell of the stone crypt bothered my allergies. I was glad to get out of there. After the tower and the crypt, we got to see the cells which they had turned into a museum on the history of the prison. It had just started out as a local jail, but had quickly progressed into a larger prison that was actually in use until 1996 when the cells were ruled as being in violation of basic human rights. They didn’t have toilets or sinks for running water. The inmates only got one shower a week and once change of clothes given to them after their shower. Because of overcrowding, they had 3 inmates in a very small room – about 5 feet wide by 10 feet long. There was only one small window about 6 inches by 10 inches that was the only air supply for the room. I could really see how it would violate human rights.

Not only did they keep prisoners, they also carried out executions in their courtyard up until 1863. The whole story of the prison is rather interesting as part of it has now been turned into Malmaison, a luxury hotel. Rates start at £220 /night (about $350). While it would be interesting to see, I don’t think I’d want to stay there. Who knows if they’d let me out again.

Friday July 16, 2010

Thursday July 15, 2010

Wednesday July 14, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wednesday July 7, 2010

Barbican's Library

This library was really fascinating because it was the first library we went to that circulated books. It’s also located in the Barbican Centre which is another fascinating place.

The Barbican Library opened in 1982 and is open for everyone. In the Centre itself, there are 9,000 residents and approximately 330,000 city workers. The library has 24,601 active members, of which 50% are city workers. Their collection is primarily fine arts centered, but contains popular reading as well and contains just over 186,000 books and other materials to lend. They also have a music collection and a lovely children’s collection. The music collection contains the largest collection of CDs for loan in the public library system in London and they also have music books and music scores as well. With the music collection, there are two electric pianos that I saw where, with headphones, people can try out the musical scores.

The children’s collection has over 23,000 items and has fiction categorized into several separate age levels; under 5, 5-10 year olds, 10-12 year olds and young teens.

My personal impression of the library was that of a pleasant facility. They offered numerous resources for researching fine arts while continuing to serve the public with a good range of fiction resources. The library also checks out DVDs as well as the sound recordings.

In 2004, the library, which had been 100% bypass (check out the books, have the patron walk through the gates then hand them the materials), jumped to RFID. This enabled them to put terminals out in the hall where they could check in the books before having the patron drop them in the drop box. Its only as I’m typing this up that I wonder if they have any problems about people checking in their books and not putting them in the drop box. Perhaps they don’t have a problem with this like I think my public library might.

Another interesting thing I noticed was their use of an information desk as people walked into the library. The information desk is for basic reference questions – where is the fiction section, where are your bathrooms as opposed to can you help me find books on the life of Mozart during his years of travel. The reference desk is further into the library. The information desk is also staffed by those who are not librarians.

They also don’t check out materials to children under 14 without a parent and 15-18 have a limited check out. I really like this policy as it ensures children have a parent with them and the child can’t check out something without the parent’s knowledge. The library also has recently returned shelves. Susan mentioned one of the libraries in Omaha has shelves for this and I really wish our branch at South did too. So many people just come behind the desk to check the cart of recently returned items that it is sort of my pet peeve now. Just one of many, I’m afraid.

That evening we went to see the musical Nevermore, rather obviously about Edgar Allen Poe. It’s been performed in Canada and now in the UK, but has yet to be seen in the United States. We saw it on opening night and it was quite a performance. The entire thing was done in verse, partially sung and the staging was quite good. Both the costuming and the scenery was very reminiscent of Tim Burton. Being a rather odd play, most of our group either really liked it or really hated it. Myself, well, I rather enjoyed it.

The Library of St. Paul's Cathedral

Monday July 5, 2010


The cathedral of St. Paul’s, in one form or another, has existed since 604 AD. The current building, designed and built by Christopher Wren, was constructed throughout the years of 1675 to 1710, the earlier church having burned to the ground in the 1666 fire of London. The library has had a librarian since the Master of the Schools stepped into the position sometime in the 11th century. Master Durand first served as the librarian, a post that later passed to the treasurer. Until recently, the librarians were minor cannons of the church and only the last few librarians have been professionally trained non-clerics. Currently, in addition to the Librarian Joseph Wisdom, there is a Senior Conservationist, a Collection Manager and an Architectural Archivist.

The library now contains around 30,000 items including their oldest, a 13th century pre-reformation psalm book called a Psalter, of which Mr. Wisdom informed us before kindly let us inspect it. They have been cataloging their items, retrieving approximately 85% of the MARC records from OCLC leaving 15% to have original catalog records created. The records pulled in from OCLC must be edited for their specific library, of course. The acquisition rule followed is that any books that are accepted or received are about the life of the church in London or biographies of those who are buried in their crypt.

Personal impression:

This church was amazing! Being able to go up and see the library, the model of the cathedra, two of the older pulpits and an overview of the entire cathedral Mr. Wisdom calls “The BBC view” for somewhat self-explanatory reasons was absolutely incredible! Being able to see the length of the church form above really impressed me with the sheer size of the cathedral. And to think, it was all built three hundred years ago! I really wish I had been able to take pictures of the place to post here and show people what I’ve seen, but it wasn’t allowed. One doesn’t need to be Anglican to be appreciate the architecture or the beautiful artwork and orate carvings done in the marble. There must be several tons of gold leaf.

The library was amazing - for such a small room, it accommodated a surprising amount of materials. There was a gallery that circled the room allowing for another set of shelves higher up. Come to think of it, I didn’t see a way up to it, but there must have been, unless the librarian has taken up levitation (I know - it’s a church library, but I sincerely doubt that’s the solution.) I must have been listening to what Mr. Wisdom was saying rather than thinking up questions like this.

The room, as we walked in had that old library smell – the one that reminded me why I can’t go into archiving – I’m allergic to everything and whether it was psychological or not, I could feel my nose stuff up. Mr. Wisdom accredited the scent to off-gassing (link provided for Dad, who probably already knew was it was), meaning the books are old and some amount of decay is going on, no matter what kind of preservation work is done, and a chemical reaction is taking place. It’s a bit depressing in a way. I wonder what kind of digital preservation could be done. Leave it to me to drag a computer into such a lovely traditional library.

Sadly, the hike up all the steps to the library had practically killed me so by the time we had reached the bottom of the steps at the end of the tour and a number of the group were ready to go back up to see the whispering gallery, I was exhausted. As many times as I go up and down my stairs getting ready for work in the morning at home, it was nothing compared to the stairs to the top of the cathedral’s lovely dome. I sat and guarded the bags while a small group went up to the top. I bought a guidebook instead and will content myself with the pictures from that.

We couldn’t poke around there as long as we would have liked – we all like to read all the signs for every item in the place – because we had to go to a reception that evening and needed to get all dressed up for that. The reception was nice enough, we had to walk across Waterloo Bridge to Somerset House and I was stupid enough to wear heels. I should have just worn my ugly flip-flops and been comfortable. I ended up with a blister on both big toes as a result.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I made it to London!

For a little while there, I wasn’t sure I would. Toward the end, things got a little stressful, especially as we waited (and waited) for our tickets.

So, for those who don’t know, I’m here in London taking a course for my masters in library science. I’m touring numerous British libraries and museums and keeping a blog of my experiences. As I’ve been here for three days now, I figure I should really start my record of my experiences.

Surprisingly, I’ve adjusted fairly well to the time change but after walking around for three days my feet are absolutely killing me. Hopefully by the end of the month, I’ll have toughened up (and maybe lost a little weight).

The first day, after our 8 hour flight, preceded by another couple hours spent on a plane to get to our departure point of Chicago, we were told the best thing to do would be to stay awake so we could crash that night and adjust to the time change that much easier. As logical as that sounds, it was damn hard to keep going after that long of a flight. Leaving our stuff in our rooms, Susan and I headed out to explore London and purchase cell phones and broadband cards (known here as dongles). We wandered around and ended up in Trafalgar square, sitting by the fountain for a little bit. We had to be back by four pm for a walking tour of the city with our library science group.

As interesting as the walking tour was, I really have no idea where we went because my brain was fried. I’m fairly convinced it was just an attempt to keep us awake for a few more hours. After an interesting meal at a Tex-Mex place I crashed.

Day two was much more interesting as, even though we had a class in the morning and an introductory lecture for everyone in the British Studies Program, we spent the afternoon at the Imperial War Museum. We only had a few hours to spend there and only got through part of the basement and the first floor. Susan and I agreed, we would need to go back so we could spend more time on the exhibits.

Yesterday being Sunday (and the 4th of July), we went to John Wesley's church. John Wesley is credited with being the founder of the Methodist Church. The service was interesting as I'd never been to a Methodist service before and it was unbearably hot. Apparently the British have not heard of air conditioning or believe it to be unnecessary. A good number of people don't like to open their windows either so I was sweating like crazy.

The service was interesting as it was also the first Sunday of the month and communion was distributed. This turned the service into an hour and a half and it felt like it just got hotter and hotter. When you first came in, they gave you a Methodist book of prayer or responses for the service and a hymnal. Now I don’t know about other religions, but Lutherans hymnal gives you the musical score as well as the words so for those of us who read music, we can tell what note to sing next. This church’s book only had the words, and I suppose if you went to their church service often enough, you would just know what the melody was, but not being Methodist, I didn’t’ know all the songs and I’m afraid I sounded like a cat singing or screaming on the fence in the night.

After the service, the church offered a tour of John Wesley’s home, grave and off the small museum in the basement. The house was interesting, if nothing other than the reason of being well over a hundred years old and extremely creaky. I was amazed by the size of the house, everything seemed so very small – but I am on the large size, up as well as around.

Susan and I were the only ones who stayed for the tour and while interesting, it did get a little long. We didn’t get lunch until 2.30 at a little cafĂ© by St. Paul’s Cathedral. After that, we hopped on the underground and went to see the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

This museum was pure fun. We had to go into the gift shop to get our tickets (£6) and I considered getting my father a t-shirt. I decided against it, finding something else I liked better. Not going to tell you all what it is as he will probably read this. Just know it’s not a t-shirt. The townhouse was 5 or 6 stories tall, each floor with two rooms. My favorite item is pictured in this post. Anyone surprised?

That evening, we walked along the Queen’s walk by the Themes again. We decided to ride the London Eye in the evening, thinking we would get to take pictures of London at dusk when all the lights start to come on. Unfortunately, as we were walking from the dorm to the Eye, the clouds rolled in and everything was rather grey. We still got some good pictures and my favorite is next to this post.

After the Eye, we wanted to get something to eat. The night before while we had been out walking, on one of the bridges we crossed, there was a vendor selling hotdogs with grilled onions and they had smelled SOOOO good. Saturday, neither of us had been hungry but we both remembered the smell and went back for a couple of hotdogs. They tasted better than they smelled and I just had to take a picture.