Sunday, July 12, 2015

The British Library

British Library, London
From the outside, the structure of the British Library resembles a ship, and indeed that was the aim of the architect in rendering a national library. Much like a ship, the British Library promises passage, through time and through knowledge, to anyone with the proper ID, address, and reason for study. 

The British Library is the largest public building in the United Kingdom, and took 36 years to complete. Prior to the construction of their current residence, the library was spread throughout 19 buildings, with a reading room and primary holdings at the British Museum. 

As far as collections go, the British Library collects and keeps everything published in the United Kingdom. They have an estimated 200 billion items and acquire around 3 million items each year. These items are stored mostly underground in four basement levels beneath the library. The basements go down 25 meters, which qualify as the largest hole in the U.K. While we did not tour the underground storage facilities, I have no doubt they are impressive, and impressively built, considering the existing Tube lines running under the British Library. 

Despite its appearance, the British Library was never completed to the architect's final specifications. In fact, only the first phase of building was finished, leaving the library with 1000 fewer reader's desks and a smaller conservation center. 

The Kings Library, British Library, London
The gem, and the most recognizable trait of the British Library aesthetic is the King's Library. This free-standing six story tower holds 100,000 volumes, the manuscripts gifted by King George III at the library's inception. The King's only stipulation was that the books would always be held on shelves people could see. The tower is lit sparingly with LEDs, and is placed strategically to keep direct sunlight from ever shining on the manuscripts within. Within the King's Library, the stacks are moveable to make retrieval easier. 

The British Library hosts 11 reading rooms, one for each subject area, and all written languages are represented  in the collections. Any book can be called up for study, provided the researcher has significant reason in some cases. The only book restricted from study is the Klencke Atlas, a collection of maps presented to the English monarchy as a gift. The book is large enough to require three casters, and was possibly used as a coffee table at one time--evidenced by what looks like a coffee ring on the cover. 

The retrieval system at the British Library involves a mile of conveyor tracks. All items are scanned, placed in boxes, and sent to the appropriate room. No rare books or manuscripts are transported this way, but the British Library processes an average of 2500 to 3000 boxes a day. 

The classification system used is in-house, and esoteric for older volumes. Those volumes held during the period the library was housed in the British Museum, and various other places, still carry the location reference marks as a call number. This means some marks are rather bizarre. 

All in all, the British Library is much as I expected it to be: huge and packed with cultural treasures. Selections from the collections are displayed in the Treasures room, but I suspect that is only the barest tip of the iceberg when it comes to the entire holdings. Our tour guide gave us an insight to some of the stranger things found in the collections, like a lock of Shelley's hair and a petri dish from Alexander Fleming, which supposedly contains a culture of penicillin. 

The British Library holds more than one can reasonably imagine, which is the reason I find it most enchanting. 

British Library gate, London
Wikipedia Commons
Visit the British Library online to see virtual books, online exhibitions, and create a personal gallery!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Bodleian Library, Oxford 
By coach, we voyaged to Oxford in order to see heaven, otherwise called the Bodleian Library. Oxford is a wonderfully quaint town, slower than the London pace, but still vibrant--and bestowed with more than a few good pubs. 

First order before the tour was coffee, which was found and much appreciated at the Turl Street Kitchen, not far from the front steps of the Bodleian. 

Then, to the heart of the matter: books. 

The Heritage Tour of the Bodleian was conducted by a marvelously knowledgeable guide. As usual with most large institutions, especially the ones accustomed to tourists, we did not actually speak to a librarian, but our guide was more than qualified. The tour, of course, began in the most iconic area of Oxford, the Divinity School, with its vaulted ceiling and heavy doors. (Like a few of the places we tour, this site was included in the Harry Potter films.) Before we actually reached the library, we toured the Divinity School, Convocation House, and Chancellor's court, which were all gorgeously detailed with heavy oak and intricate stonework. 

Divinity School, Bodleian Library
The Divinity School was originally a lecture room, finished in 1488, after 65 years of construction. The process was delayed by lack of funds. Its style is the late English Gothic perpendicular, the ceiling adorned with 455 bosses and amazing detail. 

In similar style, the Convocation House had a false-Gothic ceiling, and oak benches. The room was in democratic purposes and was completed as an addition in 1640 by William Laud. The room is still used in the election of a new University Chancellor and the hiring of poetry professors. Poetry, one must think, is serious business at Oxford. Likewise, the Chancellor's court was a part of the same addition. It was utilized as an extension of the courts in order to deal with the shenanigans of Oxford students, which were boys, typically in their teens. As teenage boys tend to do away from home, they got in trouble, mostly for debt. The court surrendered its powers in the 1970s. 

Currently, Oxford University has 22,000 students and 1.5 billion pounds in expenditures and revenues. The actual University of Oxford is an administrative host to 38 federated colleges. Oxford confers degrees and hosts the departments. Each college has a library, and each academic department has a library, but the Bodleian unites all these. All books are in the Bodleian online catalog, and can be retrieved for study, but it is a centuries old rule that the Bodleian Library is read-only, and no book may leave the library. 

Arts End, Bodleian Library.
Google Images
Arts End, 1610-1612, hosts floor to ceiling shelves, the first in England, and features a gallery where the smaller books were kept. Larger tomes were stored under the gallery, and all were chained and shelved with spines facing in. 

The heart and origin of the Bodleian rests atop the Divinity School, and was built to house the donations of Humphrey Plantagenet. The youngest son of Henry IV was an avid collector and gave part of his collection to the Bodleian. Manuscripts were chained to reading carrels and were not allowed to be removed from the library. Within a century, mass printing had taken hold, and the library was not as heavily used. After that, the Reformation led to the destruction of old manuscripts. Reformers believed them to be of the old Roman order, and superstitious. Although 280 manuscripts were destroyed, 47 still survive, and 12 are back in Oxford. 

Thomas Bodley was the founder of the current library and refurbished it at his own expense in 1602. He added 2500 printed books and a full-time librarian.

After the tour, a suitable pub was found and enjoyed. Other sites visited include Alice's Shop and the Eagle and Child, the pub where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien discussed their works.

For information, and perhaps a bit of online shopping, visit The Bodleian.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

London Archaeological Archives and Research Centre

On the first real class visit, we journeyed to the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC), which houses the archaeological artifacts found in London dig sites. A fraction of these artifacts are on display at the Museum of London, where we toured in the afternoon. 

Set up in a nondescript wear house, a storage building converted and opened in 2002, LAARC is the largest archeological archive in the world. Of the 8,500 archeological dig sites in London, LAARC has collected artifacts from about half. The oldest artifacts are nearly 250,000 years old, but most are from the period after the ice age, when Britain was more hospitable, and less covered in ice. The earliest records go back to the 1700s, but most artifacts were collected after the London bombings in WWII, while the city was reconstructing. 

Over the centuries, the ground level in London rose, burying artifacts under the streets of London. Because of this, building projects often unearth sites and new artifacts. Current planning laws include archeological assessment measures, but many artifacts remain preserved under current structures, i.e. Shakespeare's theater, the Rose. 

The artifacts in LAARC are ordered not by type or category, but according to dig site. This preserves a sense of context and provenance when reconstructing the past. Although they are intellectually lumped together, metals and other objects are stored separately for preservation. 

Among the 200,000 cardboard boxes are general and registered artifacts. General artifacts are prevalent items without unique properties. They are integral to building context, but can be extremely tedious. Registered artifacts are of more interest, having unique characteristics which help specify context further in terms of date and story. Most museum displays comprise registered finds. 

As with many archives, the LAARC has run out of space and are currently repackaging in order to create space. Much of the older artifacts were not uniformly packaged; boxes were half-filled and containers were not necessarily archival. 

This was an interesting visit, in terms of understanding the similar limitations of archives in the UK, as well as the unfamiliar issues associated with archeological collecting. However, the most memorable aspects were the artifacts. We were allowed to handle a brick from the Great London Fire, which was entirely blackened and quite sooty. Flint tools used by early men were also among the loot. Roman tablets with precise lettering and a tiny glass vial were present. And best of all, a leather shoe preserved by the thick Thames mud. The shoe was from the medieval period, and the formerly long toe had been severed. The prevailing hypothesis is that the shoe was confiscated because the wearer was not of a high enough class to warrant a long-toed shoe. The toe was then cut and the shoe was stashed. Surprisingly, this was a men's shoe. Most of us ladies agreed that we were quite envious of the style.