Saturday, August 15, 2015

Research: The British Library

British Library Gate, London
My last day in London, I made it back to the British Library to investigate their use of digitization and online collections. 

The British Library (BL) engages in large-scale digitization projects, ranging from photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, journals, and books, and all digitization is in-house. 

Unsurprisingly, they encounter a problem common to all libraries: funding. The British Library does not set aside funds for digitizing collections. Instead, they find a sponsor, a party interested in the records for their own use or for public use, to fund the undertaking. A team is then assembled for a specific project, spanning from conservators checking the state of the documents to quality assurance personnel testing the end product. Separate departments handle each step of the process: selection, conservation, cataloging, imaging, quality assurance, and data packaging. 

In the end, the digitized manuscripts become available according to the agreement with the sponsor. Because the sponsor funded the project, they determine when the records can be released to the public. For example, companies digitizing ancestry records for a subscription-based site may not allow the records to be free online for a set amount of time. 

One of the BL's greatest assets is their online collections. More than simply images, the BL includes scholarship, long descriptions, and occasionally plain-text transcriptions and/or audio of their online works. 

Jamie's Name Badge
British Library Courtyard, London
The Discovery portion of their site is dedicated to scholarship and research. In addition to the digitized images and manuscripts available, there are articles referencing these works as primary sources and curated collections, grouping related items together. The Discovery site is utilized as a teaching and research tool which engages high school and university age children with primary source documents. 

Another resource, the Online Gallery displays collections from exhibits--such as the gorgeously detailed and interactive Magnificent Maps exhibit--as well as the bulk of their digitized material. One can search or take a stab at popularly searched terms.

By far the most remarkable bit of technology available online is Turning the Pages, a software which recreates the feel of turning the pages of a manuscript. When the technology was first launched, before the popularization of eReaders, it was revolutionary. However, it's still a fascinating experience.

The British Library's online resources are massive, more than I can possibly do justice to here, so I'll leave all the best tidbits for the research paper!

Barbican Library

Barbican Centre, London
Situated inside the square mile of City of London, the Barbican Library is the largest of three lending libraries in London.

Built in 1982, the Barbican Centre is the largest venue of its kind in Europe. The Barbican Library takes up a small portion, neighboring a large hall, a cinema, a gallery, two theaters, two exhibition halls, three restaurants, and seven conference halls (and a bit of informal performance space). Needless to say, it is a busy venue, and was not at all built with a library in mind. Nevertheless, the Barbican Library has adapted to be quite at home in the bustling Centre.

The most ancient quarter of London, City of London has a fluctuating population, with 10,000 residents and 360,000 commuters. The Barbican Library is open to both parties, and anyone else who can visit regularly.

Dames Don't Care, Peter Cheyney
Barbican Library, London
One of the unique aspects of the Barbican collections is that all books are available for lending, including those which may be considered too fragile or too old in other institutions. The oldest item is dated 1739, and with the proper library card, one can borrow and read it at home. Other aged collections include pulp crime novels from the 1920s and 30s. The Librarians at the Barbican believe a book's value is in its ability to be used and read. I think all information professionals would agree with that sentiment.

The Music Library is another strong point in the collections at the Barbican. With 9,000 books in all areas of music, 16,000 CDs, bound periodicals and music, the Barbican tries to reflect the rich cultural life of City of London, and the Barbican Centre's own ties to music in it's collections.

There are two pianos in the library, equipped with headphones for private playing and practicing. These are frequented by students from the nearby Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as community outreach. In the People's Piano Project, retired library patrons are paired up with music students for free lessons, which encourage social and educational opportunities.

Barbican Library
Barbican Centre, London
Other programs at the Barbican are aimed at children. Reading programs and after school clubs reward children for reading and using the library. One of the more intriguing outreach programs we discovered here was Book Start. Book Trust provides libraries all over the UK with packets of books for children, and all children are entitled to a packet when they are born, and another when they turn 3 years-old. The packets include activities which encourage parent to read to and interact with their children. There is definitely a place for a program like this in the States to be incorporated at a national level in order to encourage reading and library use in children.

The Barbican was one of my favorite visits. Unlike most libraries (on either side of the Atlantic), the Barbican is bright and noisy and welcoming. Maybe that's due to its location in the bustling and artistic Barbican Centre, but the library has embraced its surroundings, and it was a truly refreshing glimpse into London libraries.

Check out Barbican Library online. 

Kew Gardens

Waterlily House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Founded in 1840, Kew Gardens holds a vast collection of plant species from around the globe. Botanical research and planting flourished in the era of British Imperialism, and the gardens at Kew became were dedicated to the study and cultivation of flora. 

Around 1852, the library at Kew was founded, and it now holds 300,000 books, 5,000 periodicals, and 200,000 pieces of art, all resources in research regarding botanics, plant species, and the history of Kew Gardens.

The oldest item in the Kew Library is dated 1370, but the 18th century was the golden age of botanical illustration, and the bulk of the collections fall into the 1700s.

Botanical illustrations are among the most gorgeous and detailed I've glimpsed, and Kew has massive collections from Botanical Magazine, which centered around depictions of rare and non-native plants for enthusiasts and scholars. Illustrations are typically made on white paper, and the specimen rendered tends to hold all characteristics of the plant. Although every trait represented is not likely to be found in a small sample, the details help with identifying the less than perfect specimens in the wild.

Rhododendron Botanical Illustration, Kew Library 
The library and archives tend not to weed any volumes, as the information is apt to be contextual, if not still pertinent. The plant features in botanical illustrations remain accurate, typically. Although old herbals might bend toward superstition, they are fascinating resources for historical study.

The archives at Kew retains the records of Kew's creation, as well as collections acquired and purchased, such as letter between botanists Asa Gray and Joseph Hooker. Correspondence between plant hunters, people sent abroad to search for specimens to bring back to England, also enriches the collections.

The archives are just beginning to be cataloged, which will increase the ease of finding specific items for researchers.

The library and archives at Kew were established for the specialized purpose of botanical research, but also to assist those to identify specimens collected in the Herbarium.

Herbariums are not exactly commonplace institutions, but Kew's use to researchers and botanists hinges on this. Seven million specimens, stored in bespoke boxes and envelopes, are stored in the Herbarium at Kew. The process of plant preservation has undergone several overhauls in the past centuries. Pests are a perennial problem when storing flora, and the practice was once to coat the specimens in poison upon their arrival. But mercury is not kind to people, either. The current practice involves freezing the specimens before bringing them into the Herbarium for storage.

This is one of the few cases where we can see an entire information ecosystem interacting: library, archives, gardens, and herbarium. Every entity was established for the study of plants and to increase knowledge, and each entity is entwined with the others, strengthening the meaning and context of the collections at Kew.

Spiral stairs, Kew Herbarium
Find Kew Library online.

St. Paul's Cathedral Library and Archive

St. Paul's Cathedral, London
Inside the iconic British cathedral, there is a cafe. Of course, above that lies the sanctuary, gilded, embossed, and brimming with ornate marble sculptures. And above that, one can find an even more spectacular feature: the library and archives.

Time constraints abbreviated our tour, but the highlights of the library and archives stood out nonetheless.

In the room intended by the architect to be the library, there are no books. Stonework embellishments of books clearly depict the envisaged use of the room, but instead of volumes, the room is dominated by a 1:24 scale model of the original planned architecture of St. Paul's. Made of wax and plaster, the 1673 model is reminiscent of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, and bears little resemblance to the famous London cathedral. 

Although St. Paul's is not a museum, they have designed and maintain some of their spaces as exhibition. The Model Room is arranged as a permanent exhibit, containing the history of the model and St. Paul's architecture. Similarly, The upper halls are crowded with stone, some dating back to viking era London, and pulpits used in St. Paul's. 

The gem, of course, would be the library at St. Paul's. Straight out of every bibliophile's dream, the library is crowded with leather-bound volumes, marble busts, statuettes, and the lovely, hushed aura which accompanies centuries old words. Cataloging, as with many UK institutions, is a bespoke affair which takes into account the sizes of the books when shelving. These are sturdy tomes, handcrafted, and as long as they are treated with care, they can survive indefinitely. And, stored in an attic 500 yards from the Thames, the collection is very well cared for.

Like much of Britain's cultural artifacts, the collections at St. Paul's were transferred off-site during WWII. In this case, lorries transported the library and archives to caves in Wales. The cathedral itself was targeted during the London Blitz and survived thanks to the work of vigilant soldiers. When the books returned to London, all were accounted for, and business carried on as usual.

Both cathedral and collections are gorgeous historical, visual, and cultural landmarks of London, and one cannot call a second of time wasted when in St. Paul's.

St. Paul's Survives, St. Pauls, London, 1940
National Archives,
Visit St. Paul's Cathedral Library online.

Bletchley Park

Thermionic Valves, Bletchley Park National Museum of Computing
Bletchley Park was the site of the infamous Government Code and Cypher School, responsible for decoding German messages during WWII. Today, Bletchley Park is dedicated to memorializing and celebrating the accomplishments of the men and women who aided the war effort as well as the machines which made it all possible. 

The National Museum of Computing hosts historical computers, such as the Colossus and bombe machines which were integral in cracking the German Lorenz and Enigma messages. Both machines on display are in working order, and both are remakes, the originals having been dismantled after the war.
The Mansion, Bletchley Park

Aside from the machines dedicated to the war effort, the entire history of computing is represented, including the oldest continuously working computer, WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell). This is a dekatron computer, able to make accurate calculations, after programming, of course. Many of the more recent machines are foreign and a bit comical to the modern computer user. Among them, massive information storage disks which fit into washing machine style computers and hold what we might consider a pitifully small amount of information by today's standards. Technologies from punch cards and valves to modern flight traffic control modules span the museum, including obscure PCs and forgotten Apple products. It was the history of computing like I've never seen it, and our guide was an extremely knowledgeable tech enthusiast himself.

The grounds at Bletchley Park are gorgeous and somewhat haunting. Hidden speakers in hedges and bike stands pipe in the sounds of activity, as Bletchley would have sounded at the height of the war. Manicured lawns, huts, and the Mansion are bursting with history and the eerie memory of the war, or perhaps our tour guide was simply that good. Either way, Bletchley has a fascinating history which   was kept quiet for some time, and it was only in the 90s that the Park opened for visitors. The work done at Bletchley, and those responsible for the efforts made there are an integral part of our history. This was one of my personal favorite sites, not only for its beauty, but for its aura of history and invention in the face of a war.

Check out Bletchley Park online!

National Maritime Museum Library and Archive

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Just a short water taxi ride from London, Greenwich hosts the National Maritime Museum, the world's largest maritime museum. The museum itself is also host to the Caird Library and archive devoted to maritime history. 

Trade, exploration, and war sent men to the seas, and the library and archives at the National Maritime Museum hold the records of certification for master mariners, crew lists, handwritten journals, atlases, rare books, and reference materials. 

National Maritime Museum
Surprisingly, the archives at the museum are an excellent resource for genealogists searching for ancestors. Certificates for master mariners, which detail a captain's vessel(s), physical description, address, and contain a signature from the mariner in question, can give a lot of information. Additionally, crew lists for the British Merchant Navy from 1915 to 2015 are available online.

Aside from family history and ancestry, the Caird Library's collections serve to expand the context of the museum holdings and to aid researchers and historians. Particular items in the collections, such as a handwritten account of a trip by sea from Plymouth to London, detail the technologies and methods of the period in question. Another item, a children's book containing illustrations of Eskimos, demonstrates Britain's impressions of the native people in newly explored lands.

With 100,000 printed books, 12,000 rare books, and 80,000 maps and charts, the library and archives at the National Maritime Museum are a major resource for maritime research. The reading room of the Caird Library sports reference materials in abundance, as well as microfilm machines, scanners, computers, and a quiet area for research.

Britain has a long and vast maritime history, and the records held here reflect this seafaring heritage.

For more information and access to the online catalog, visit The National Maritime Museum online.

Heinz Archive and Library--National Portrait Gallery

Heinz Library and Archive Reading Room
The Heinz Archive and Library may literally be in the shadow of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), but the research value of its collections is inestimable. The Heinz is the library and archives for the NPG, and the collections within are centered around the decisions, activities, and events of the Gallery, as well as the material used for authenticating the Gallery's holdings. Additionally, they have a wealth of portraits and photographs not on display at the Gallery.

All papers and photographs are kept onsite, and there are around 250,000 photos, comprising loose prints, albums, and negatives. Because of their relationship with the NPG, photographs in the collection were centered around the subject of the portraiture, rather than the photographer. In recent years, interest and research has shifted to include the photographer. The photo collections are exclusively portraits and serve to demonstrate the history of portraiture. However, the collections can also be helpful to genealogists, and those looking for portraits of their relatives. A collection of albums from a commercial photographer, for example, includes prominent Hyde Park families sitting for portraits in the 19th century.

List of 'rats trapped and killed in the Gallery'
While the photographs display the history and evolution of portraiture, the archives hold the records of the NPG itself, which are quite interesting in their own right. Among these records are the photos and papers produced during the war years, while the collections were evacuated to a country estate. Photos of the staff feeding the chickens on the estate and records detailing rat kills in the London premises are a comical juxtaposition to the war.

Other gems include postcards, the first commercial attempts of the Gallery, which were commissioned to contemporary writers and written about famous figures. Some of the resulting postcards were a bit rude, wordy, or impersonal, and were more telling of the writer than the figure in question.

Finally, the archive digitizes on demand and by need, or with an external funding project. Their online catalog and digitized collections can be found at the link below.

Although this was an optional visit, I enjoyed it immensely. The archivist, Bryony, spoke about what it means to be an archivist, and her own career. As a student about to embark on similar career, I found it helpful and interesting to hear her explain things in her own terms.

I would suggest this as a must visit!

Check out the Heinz Archive online!