Sunday, September 15, 2013

sidebar: "You alone have brought me to Bath"

Friday, 7/26: Bath

The end is fast approaching...

I took the last free day to travel to Bath to do some research for my paper.  Jane Austen lived in Bath for several years, much to her dismay, before relocating to Chawton for the remainder of her life.  The Jane Austen Center is located in Bath, as well as many locations from some of her novels.  It was like the Disneyland for Jane Austen lovers!

The first stop was the Jane Austen Center (of course), and I took a tour of the museum.  A small museum, it is focused on the time that Jane was in Bath, as well as some of the similarities between her life and that of some of the characters of her work, especially those who lived in, and visited, this location.  I spoke with a staff member who informed me that their annual festival would focus on Pride and Prejudice, as this is the 200th anniversary of the publishing of the novel.  Oh, if only I could attend!  We visited the Regency Tea Room located above the museum, for a Jane Austen tea time.. it was heavenly.  If you've never tried clotted cream, it's a must.

The next visit was to the Roman Baths, a must-see stop when visiting Bath.  Though I won't say much - it is really just a hot spring with buildings around it - I will say that it was really cool to walk around a place that has played such a huge part in the history of England.  And no, I didn't try to drink the water, though it is offered...

We walked around a bit, exploring the small town, and walking up to the Circus - no, not a circus with a tent and animals, a circus that is an open area where people congregate.  We did attempt to go to the Assembly Rooms, but they were closed by the time we got there.  Our last stop was Sally Luns; and if you have never heard of that, you are sorely missing out.  It is an institution in Bath as the oldest house in town.  The food was delicious, and we each stowed away a Sally Lun bun for later.  Now I have to figure out how to make them.

It's all about the connections

Thursday, 7/25: Blythe House

There is a little-known outpost that belongs to the V&A, located near Kensington Palace.  This building is actually shared by three organization: the V&A, the British Museum, and the Science Museum, but this satellite office contains one of the most interesting collections we have seen this entire trip: the Beatrix Potter archive.

Everyone knows who Beatrix Potter is, so I don't need to explain all of that.  But what I will say is that most people don't know how much of an artist she really was, even as a child.  This collection contains some of her earliest work, as well as some of her most well-known; the first drawings of Peter Cottontail, for example.  It is a unique, and invaluable collection of one of the greatest children's authors in literary history.

The story of the collection is an interesting one.  The bulk of the materials were collected by the Linder family, primarily Leslie Linder.  Fifteen years after Potter's death, Linder was the one who broke the code on her diaries, allowing researchers to gain an inside look into the author's life.  One such researcher is Andrew Wiltshire, a family friend of the Linders, who has established a series of connections between both the Linder and Potter families, as well as his own.  His fascinating work is an excellent example of how one can utilize archival collections to show relationships and tell a story.

I've got gold stuck to my thumb... how do I get it off?

Tuesday, 7/23: British Library Conservation Studio

A little seen place inside the British Library is the Conservation Studio, where they perform a series of repairs and renovations to items in need.  It was really interesting to see the "behind the scenes" work that goes on at one of the largest libraries in the world.

When items are sent to the Conservation Studio, it's not as easy as slapping on some duct tape and calling it a day.. there is serious work, sometimes delicate and intricate, to get the items back to usable condition.  Hours are a form of currency, and therefore the jobs are billed by the hour, and it is rather impressive to find out how many hours may go into a job.  Departments work closely to determine the best, and most cost efficient way of proceeding with a certain job, possibly varying techniques and materials to allow for the best possible result for a specific item.  One of the most common materials used is Japanese tissue, a fibrous paper-like material with varying thicknesses that can repair tears in the pages of a book.

We had the unique opportunity to see the Finishing Room... and it's not what you think.  It's all about the gold!  Finishing is the art of gold, and gold leaf application to books and other items.  It is a skill that requires a lot of training and even more experience, and only the brave of heart make a name for themselves at this delicate procedure.  The small, gold sheets are so thin and fragile, and it only takes the slightest pressure for it to rub off, though it takes immense pressure and rubbing to make it stick to the covers of books.  Gold leaf is even more so, requiring a suede-covered block and special knife for application.  Very little finishing is done anymore, and I think that that is such a shame.  It is a dying art that is losing ground quickly due not only to costs, but also the ever-increasing amount of non-physical items in a library (i.e., digital books and journals).  Additionally, the average item will not need to have gold finishing applied to its binding.

This was one of my favorites, not only because it's super interesting, but also because it really shows the book as an object itself, rather than just a source of textual information.  The physical aspects are sometimes forgotten, and can be taken for granted as we think we can just replace an item if it gets worn out.  But books are not indestructible, nor are they cheap, and some are even irreplaceable.  It is organizations such as this conservation studio that allows institutions to maintain their collections for longer period of time, thus allowing users to have more complete and better access to information.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

sidebar: Russ travels to London!

7/18-7/22: Mini-break

7/18:  I headed back to London for our mini-break, to the beautiful neighborhood of Notting Hill (and let's just establish now that I did not see Hugh Grant).  Russ was coming for a visit, and we were going to spend a few days exploring, and doing all touristy things I had saved to do with him.  After we had both arrived, we ventured out around the area to find dinner, and Russ had his first experience with pubs (we had fish & chips, of course), and with British money.

7/19:  The next day we traveled to Greenwich, via the water taxi, to visit the National Maritime Musuem.  You may remember that I have already been there, as it was our first class trip... but Russ really, really wanted to go (since he's all about maps, and such), and who was I to disappoint?  Since it was getting hotter by the minute, we first walked - or should I say climbed - up to the Royal Observatory.  There is a small museum on time up there, as well as the Prime Meridian.  Just a sidebar: you don't have to wait in the obnoxiously long line to take a picutre of the PM, because there's a metal line that goes through the whole area to tell you where it is - so we have lots of pictures of us standing on the line.  We made our way down, past the Elizabeth Oak, and back to the main museum, where we went through the different exhibits.  And as we walked out, Russ said (very matter-of-fact) "this was the best day ever.'

7/20:  We walked down to Portobello Road in the morning - it was so close to our B&B - and did a little shopping.   Thank goodness I had not yet made my way down here until the near-end of my trip because I would have needed 4 suitcases instead of the 3 I had.  It was so much fun to see all the old shops and antique displays.  And of course I bought a book!  Our next stop was Westminster Abbey.  It was amazing, and so beautiful, and I am so happy I waited to see it with Russ.  We both absolutely loved it.  The tourist day continued as we headed for the London Eye.  Our tickets were for one of the last time slots, and it was definitely a good choice to do a dusk ride because we could see all of the city as it prepared for night.

7/21:  A somewhat lazy day.  We headed to Camden in the morning, and walked around a little bit.  And then we headed to Leiscester Square to see about getting some matinee show tickets.  Though we struck out, we did end up experiencing a London movie theatre.  It was kind of weird to be picking my seat when I bought the ticket, but I think that it works much better and they should do that in the US.  Oh, and the concessions were much better; the popcorn was like kettle corn (my favorite), and they had Cadbury (which was mostly melted due to the heat in the lobby).  The end of the day brought our 'fancy' dinner at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, Maze Grill.  It was very romantic, and the food was so delicious - I could have cut my steak with a butterknife - making it the perfect 'last night' date.

7/22:  Boo to the last day!  Seriously, the hottest day of the year... and keeping with the theme of torture we visited the Tower of London.  Seeing the Crown Jewels was a treat, though I'm not quite sure it was worth the sweltering in the hot sun to wait in line for an hour, but at least the inside was airconditioned.  We were on a time constraint so we didn't get to see everything, but we did get to see some of the most interesting parts of the Tower.  Did you know that people still live there? 

It was a whirlwind couple of days, but it was so much fun... and I had an amazing time exploring London with Russ.  I headed back to my dorm after seeing him off at the train station (and visiting the Paddington Bear store), to prepare for my last week in London.  A sad thought, but deep down I was ready to go home.

I am ready to move in to this basement

7/16 Part 2: University of Edinburgh, New College Library

So.. the word "new" is a relative term here meaning 'less than 400 years' ... and New College is approximately 150 years old, so it fits.  It is a very small divinity school located at the top of a hill (the view is amazing), and is one of the most world renowned schools of its kind.  The library, founded in the mid-19th century, contains over 250,000 items spread over 5 floors.  Upon entering the library, we walked into Library Hall,the main part which contains the reference/circulation areas, plenty of desks, and a smalle, glass-walled special collections room.

We separated into two groups - I was in the group that went on the tour first - and we made our way through the entire building.  There is an area upstairs where the staff have offices and work on special projects.   During our visit, school was not in session and the staff were working on cleaning out their storerooms, as well as a cataloging project for their older rare books (Can I have that job?).

and then it was down to the stacks...

Some of the lower stacks are open to users, allowing them to retrieve their own items.  The lowest of the low are not, and contain some of the oldest, rarest books I have ever seen.  And the smell, oh the smell.  I really want to live in this basement with all these old, rotting, smelly books.  And they have a Bible room.. guess what's inside?  I could go on and on about how much I loved the lowest stacks of this place, but then I wouldn't get to tell you about the second part of our visit!

The second half was a very informative presentation about New College Library, its history, and what it is today.  One intresting thing the librarian brought up was the philosophy of library fines.  At New College Library they like to think of fines as preventative rather than punishment.  In other words, you want the patron to return the item, so you don't incur fines unless it's really late, and those fines are very large.  I think it works so well because this is such a small library.  It would probably not work for a large library, especially in the US.

After the librarian had finished, it was on to the special collections reading 'room' to see some amazing items (the trend continues).  Since this is a divinity school the collection consists mainly of such items, and the librarian had brought in some real treasures from this amazing, specialized collection.  It never ceases to amaze me that books from the 1600's can still be in excellent condition if they are cared for properly.. take that Double Fold!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The services that never stop

Tuesday 7/16 Part 1: Central Library of Edinburgh

What a library!  Not only is this library huge, it also offers an amazing array of services for its patrons and the community across all of its branches.  And the accolades reflect this... they have won, or been a finalist, for the "Best Library Service in the UK" award, and they have a 97% customer satisfaction rate.

The library's focus centers on 3 aspects: social, digital, and physical, and using this, they have branded themselves in a way that attracts users of all ages through special programs.  Reading groups, special events, and age-specific publications/newsletters are just a few examples of the social gatherings the library offers to bring together it patrons with common interests.  Their digital initiates include increasing electronic resources and access, and they are heavily invested in social media.  The suite of online services is staggering, and includes the website, eventbrite for social events, the "Your Edinburgh" site which uses crowdsourcing to gather its info, and Special Collections online exhibits, to name a few.  One could spend hours exploring all the cool things they have on their website.

Two of their largest programs are the partnership with Dyslexia Scotland, and the Reading Champion Project.  Both utilize special programs to encourage library use and reading, as well as awareness and support for issues of literacy.  They are both great programs which do a lot of good for the local community.

My favorite part of this visit was when our tour took us into the Reference Library.  This part was built in 1890, and has not changed much since its founding.  The original space consisted of two parts, one for men and one for women.  It is a beautiful room, but unfortunately the collection has outgrown the space and the library is struggling to find adequate room for its physical collection... as is the case with most libraries today.

What's in a name?

Monday 7/15 Part 2: National Records of Scotland

Ahh, archives... my favorite

The National Records of Scotland, as it is now, is a result of a recent merger between the National Archives of Scotland and the General Register Office for Scotland.  This huge institution serves as both the records management functions, for things like the census, and the archival functions which maintain the heritage collections.  It is such a large, well-oiled machine, and it represents everything that a national archival organization should be.

One of the biggest tasks that this organization handles is the multiple websites for all of the different collections.  For example, the ScotlandsPeople website is the access point for one of the largest genealogical resources in the world, and the Scottish Register of Tartans allows users to search the tartan database, compare different tartans, or even register a new one.  Some sites are now only partial, but it is a major priority of the NRS to get these sites up and fully functional to provide as much access as possible to their holdings.

We went on a brief tour of the main building - there are 3 buildings in total - and it was really interesting to see all of the different departments of a large, working, archival environment.  The building itself was purposefully built to hold an archive, with multiple storage rooms all labeled by what they hold.  And the entire place is built from stone to minimize the fire risk to such valuable collections.  Their reading room is outfitted with multiple computers, which provide access to the digital catalogs, and large tables, where patrons may view the materials they have requested.  Though they have digitized a large portion of their collection, like most archives they still have quite a large amount of paper records, and the digitization efforts have slowed due to funding cuts.

The last part of our visit gave us an opportunity to look at some examples of items that the archives has.  Margaret, our visit guide, pulled items that related to our home states, which was a really fascinating thing to see since we were in Scotland.  But yes, there were items related to New York, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and even Colorado.  It was a nice, personal way to end what was another amazing visit to a great institution.