Monday, January 11, 2010

Travels with Alex in British libraries, Part 2: London, Day 1

In which Alex re-unites with one of a total of, oh, maybe three, friends from library school, succumbs to her inner Woolf groupie, misses a library (whoops!) and is alternately annoyed and amazed at the British Museum.

It's all about context. "Old" means something totally different in Europe. I remember noticing when I came back from Rome the first time how new everything looks here. Regularly, I say, "I work at one of the oldest public libraries in Ottawa," dating from 1934. Kielan reminds me his flat was built around then. "Old," in England, means your library is housed in a building that also has a dining table donated by Queen Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen, that is.

My friend from library school, the lovely Renae, kindly invited Kris and I to visit her library while we were abroad. She is a rare books librarian at the Middle Temple Library. Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court which call men and women to the Bar; members and benchers include characters as diverse as Sir Walter Raleigh and Prince William, as well as five of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

The Middle Temple Hall, where Renae took us for lunch, is home to the giant dining table mentioned above (which was brought down the Thames by boat and into the Hall through a window, and is probably there for the duration now), and also features a double hammer beam roof carved from the oak of Windsor Forest and stained glass windows representing the coats of arms of illustrious members. The Hall also hosted the first performance of Twelfth Night, in 1602.

The library itself is no less impressive (I know, sorry, no photos - but there's one nice one on their website). It is open to all members of the Middle Temple, as well as to member of the other Inns at Court. The library was founded in 1641 by Robert Ashley, who bequeathed his books to the Inn. Some (unexpectedly) diverse material made it into the Library's holdings this way: Ashley bought up much of John Donne's library, interestingly. There are also excellent examples of incunabula in the library's rare books holdings, not to mention a Captain John Smith map of Virginia from 1612. Three years ago, when Renae first arrived, the Library received a massive renovation, which included a "conservation-level storage space for the Archives and Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection." With a much better home, climate control, and a caretaker like Renae, the collection is undoubtedly in wonderful hands. I must say Renae's mending shelf looks nothing like mine!

I can't talk about the Middle Temple Library, though, without mentioning the great mystery of the Molyneux Globes. A matching set of celestial and terrestrial globes (the former one of a kind), made in 1592, were made by Elizabethan globe-maker (my, that must have been quite the career - some context: when the globes were made, Guyana had just been "discovered") Emery Molyneux and are dedicated to Elizabeth I. The big question is, however, who donated them? Was it Ashley? Was it Francis Drake? Was it Elizabeth herself? There's a lovely poster display near the globes outlining the main suspects. Alas, at the moment, anyway, there is no documentary evidence of the globes before a passing mention of them being repaired in 1717.

After such a juicy tour (and a frankly delicious lunch), Kris and I wandered around a bit, killing time until meeting Kielan at the British Museum. Since it's somewhat close to there, I decided to make a pilgrimmage to (one of) Virginia Woolf's London homes, 46 Gordon Square. Side note: why can't they put a sign on each corner of these squares for stupid North Americans, so we don't have to walk aaaall the way around the perimeter to find #46?

On the bright side, the walk was calming. The square was quiet, and its small park at the centre was peaceful in the mid-afternoon misty rain. I actually had quite a moment of, I'm in England. I'm in the square where Virginia once walked. Then I stumbled upon another library. Indeed, little did I know, but Gordon Square is home to Dr. William's Library. I confess I didn't even try the door; I was sort of blissed out, and too tired to care by then. While recently reading The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World, I discovered that Dr. William's Library was home, until recently, to a First Folio. Well then. Also, the library is "the pre-eminent research library of English Protestant nonconformity" (now you know, OK?) Meanwhile, we stood outside #46, at left, and contemplated a young woman living with her sister Vanessa on Gordon Square in 1905.

And then it was on to the British Museum. The old Reading Room is now, of course, the space for temporary exhibits (Aztecs, when I wanted the ghost of Marx), so we bypassed that. I had the lovely good fortune of being chaperoned by not one, but two (!) lovely gentlemen willing to do my bidding (K and K!), so I elected to inspect the Staffordshire Hoard (not merely because I enjoyed saying, "Let's go inspect the hoard!") and, of course, all the pilfered Egyptian stuff.

Have you head about this Staffordshire Hoard, by the way? Largest batch of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found; found, no less, by an amateur treasure hunter, Terry Herbert, while he was metal detecting in a field. Wow.

One of our final stops in the Museum was a lovely room with the title, Enlightenment. An exhibit about exploration and discovery in the 18th century, the room was originally built for the King's Library (do I get to say I saw it twice, since the actual collection is now at the British Library?). The King's Library is the collection of King George III, donated to the nation. Donated material from the House of Commons now fills the shelves, although I wonder who belongs to the gigantic, multi-volume (at least 80) atlas, hilariously entitled, General Atlas (what, pray tell, does the Specific one look like?), that Kielan and I kept tripping over?

After inspecting mummified cats, Cleopatra, oversized dictionaries, stuffed field mice and suchlike, it was inevitable that we stop by the actual, working library at the Museum. Really, it had been at least 72 hours since I had last attempted to break some rules. This time, I was summarily told "what for" after taking an illegal picture of the Paul Hamlyn Library. Kielan was scandalised; Kris was not surprised. Interestingly, the library is not for researchers, but rather for the visiting public, to help them to discover more about the cultures represented in the library. The collection is thus reference-only, with photocopy facilities, and uses the good old DDC. The information pamphlet comes with a funny warning not to use the ladders along the walls; staff will apparently run up and get things for you (ah, Nicholas Hoare flashbacks!).

After parting ways in the rain with Kielan, who was finally off for his honeymoon with the lovely Kate, we made our way to the Idea Store in Whitechapel. My friend Diane had recommended this one as emblematic of the Idea Store concept, so off we went.

Let me just say, getting off the Tube at Whitechapel, after dark, is rather grotty. There is a street market by day, and it's rather like going by the Byward Market after closing: all tattered shop wares, exhausted workers, and dirty tarp. It's rather Brick Lane-y, too. All in all, an inauspicious start. Although, given the sampling of ethnicities we saw in the neighbourhood, I can see why the Idea Store was chosen as the local library concept. Certainly it makes the library experience less bleak, at least architecturally, than Oxford.

And what, exactly, is the library experience? I found myself wondering as I wandered through the Idea Store. I think the stores have actually done a good job of providing excellent service; I think they get flack for their gimmicky nature. Certainly, the big-screen TV was even a bit much for me. I like the idea that they are rather like Quebec's Maisons de la culture - a third space that includes not only a library, but a coffee shop, daycare, dance studios, and rooms to rent for ESL groups or other activities. While I was wandering around, I eavesdropped on a staff member giving what looked like an impromptu library tour to a young mother in the Bangladeshi novel section; I thought, this is what service is all about, and this is probably what this community needs. Many of the little things were thought out to be as simple and welcoming as possible: Braille labels on signage, public use PCs scattered around the floors (in addition to a large area for many stations), swirly stacks that don't rise as high (and are somehow less intimidating... Some might argue wistfully that we should be intimidating, but I think we need spaces that fulfill each role: grand, majestic library spaces celebrating the wealth of knowledge, and functional, everyday spaces that invite everyone in, regardless of age, wealth or culture), and tabs for fiction.

Some things I liked:
  • Good use of pictogram labels for children's non-fiction (you know signage makes me passionate!)
  • A bibliotherapy book club (well, the bibliotherapy part is icky, personally, but the idea is noble: more informal club where readers come with ideas rather than a formal, classroom-y club)
  • The Idea Store has a toy library - I've read about these in a few places now (we have one in Ottawa) and I think it's a great idea. Why would anyone want to buy all that stuff? Plus, boost your kids' immunity (hee hee!)
  • They have a monthly "News views" club - "share your views and opinions about the latest news over a cuppa and croissants." I want to do this!
  • They have a Citizens Advice Bureau Service - hmm, interesting....
  • Just so you don't despair that quality reading of literary fiction is dead, the Idea Store Festival of Reading 2009 was on while I was there, "focusing on the themes of life, crime and history," with readings in various branches. I like the emphasis on reading, not writing, in the festival name.
I was less impressed with the staircase (honestly! Just because it's functional doesn't mean it has to be totally horrid! It looked like estate housing stairwells!) and surprised to see picture books not shelved in any order (aaah! Anarchy! Now, I know this may be less "strict," but it's entirely useless for anyone trying to find specific titles. Part of encouraging pre-literacy skills is choosing the right books, which is much harder for staff or parents if they're all muddled together. Trust me; I separated ours out at Rideau Branch after losing my mind a few times).

Overall, I expected to be more annoyed with Idea Stores, frankly. I think, in the end, the thing I am most uncomfortable with about them is the name: many think that the "re-branding" campaign was undertaken because the word "library" had failed in some way in England (think: Oxford, only much worse, probably). But the thing is, it still seems kind of silly to me; part of the goal of the Idea Stores is to appeal to immigrants, who probably don't have any associations with the word library (unless, say, they lived in Communist China or North Korea). Using the word library would probably be more instant "brand recognition" than explaining the concept of an Idea Store. Many other Britons, who quite like libraries despite everything, are also pretty much permanently alienated; adding in the word "Store" gives them the creepy-crawlies. We should be less caught up in terminology and more worried about actual service; during this conversation I had with Ralph, Jackie and John, John mentioned a run-in he had recently had with a librarian in Birmingham who scolded him about proper handling of items in the Reference collection. We should be more concerned about developing positive relationships (and being partners in lifelong learning rather than security guards for Burke's Peerage) than about the word, library. Moreover, usage of libraries in the UK isn't totally going down.

And, really, the expanded hours and additional services of the Idea Stores are not too far from the concept of the public library in North America: many of us are also experimenting with adult ed classes and such; OPL is expanding its Sunday hours based on popular demand; many libraries in smaller communities have acted as community centres (or within community centres) for generations.

Oh goody, I just started two sentences with "and" and "but." Nicely done. Oh well.

After dawdling around the Idea Store for an hour or so, we were off into the night (and the tube) to enjoy Italian food at Attillio's (delish!)


  1. Alex, thanks for these the flow, the specifics, the links and the photos. Have a great year! JW

  2. Jean! xoxo!

    The photos were the most fun :)