Research Report #2

The Women's Library Reading Room

The Women’s Library Reading Room

Today I took advantage of one of our scheduled research days to take another visit to The Women’s Library @ LSE (as the name of the collection is often stylized). I have made a few trips to the LSE Library so far. Today I was ready to view some of the archival materials themselves, as so far I have been using mostly secondary and open stacks materials (that is, materials that one does not have to request and view in the Women’s Library Reading Room), to gain some context for what I needed to see in the archive. But first, this morning I had a meeting with the project manager of the Women’s Library, Anna Towlson. Anna was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge, and I felt very lucky to have this opportunity to meet with her in person. It also gave me a lot to think about for my research paper!

Inside the Women's Library Reading Room

Inside the Women’s Library Reading Room

Following our meeting, I went upstairs to the Women’s Library Reading Room, to take a look at the materials I had submitted a request to view a couple of days ago. Anna had been offering me assistance via email to navigate the archival finding aids (as that was quite a new experience for me!), and to identify items that would be of particular interest for my research. I was looking for materials relating to the administration, collection development, and history of the Women’s Library. I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at the library that I have been reading so much about, by reading the administrative files in the archive. It is interesting to see what has and has not changed about running a library in the almost 100 years since the Women’s Library was founded. I felt very close to the library staff throughout this long history, as I could relate to many of their concerns and experiences.

About the exhibition

About the exhibition

Another important resource for me has been the exhibition that is currently taking place this summer, located just to the left of the entranceway to the LSE Library. It features items from the Women’s Library collection alongside historic items from UK gay liberation and peace campaigns, which were already in the LSE Library’s archives. The exhibition is just one of the ways that LSE is making sure people are aware of The Women’s Library, and also serves to show how the collection fits in with other collections already at LSE. LSE is clearly committed to their new acquisition, by proudly displaying it in the entrance. The exhibition was my first encounter with actual items from the Women’s Library archive, and gave me a good sense of what kinds of items are part of the collection.

Part of the exhibition

I have been enjoying this opportunity to work in a UK library and to research using primary source materials. I find that in simply accessing the Women’s Library collections I have been learning a lot. Reading about the actual people who have been caretakers of this library, seeing items from the collection, and working in the library itself as a reader has fuelled my passion for writing about this library in my research paper!

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Bletchley Park

I was very excited for our visit to Bletchley Park. During my undergraduate studies I completed a minor in mathematics, and I have a keen interest in cryptography, probability and statistics – the methods used by Bletchley codebreakers in WWII. I also opted to read Sinclair McKay’s excellent The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (also published under the title The Secret Lives of Codebreakers) for the book review assignment for this course, so it was really wonderful to see the places I had read about in person.

I was very excited to see Bletchley Mansion, and its distinctive architecture, up close.

I was very excited to see Bletchley Mansion, and its distinctive architecture, up close.

We started the day at the National Museum of Computing, where in just under two hours we explored the machines and theory of computing, from the time of WWII Bletchley codebreaking and the Lorenz and Colossus machines to present day, with the sophisticated programming used to coordinate arrivals and departures at Heathrow Airport. Although I do not think I was the only one who found some of the computer engineering and programming principles to be a bit beyond my level of understanding, this particular tour was not out of place among the other places we have been visiting, as aspiring information professionals. After all, I have seen a number of job listings for information professionals that involve the management of digital assets. This duty might be one of many that the individual is responsible for, or it could account for the majority of that person’s work time. I have often wondered if perhaps my lack of programming and computer science background might disqualify me for these kinds of positions. But my concerns about this were alleviated somewhat when I had the opportunity to meet with Jessica Green, a British Studies alumni now working as the Digital Curator at the Wiener Library here in London. (British Studies students had the option to meet with Jessica and tour the Wiener Library on July 10.) Jessica explained that librarians working in digital content-related roles are typically required to serve as more of a go-between, between the IT and computer specialists and other library staff. Due to the fact that computers are so essential to the dissemination, collection, organization, preservation and access of information, I think a basic understanding of how such systems work is essential for any information professional, regardless of their job title.

Bletchley's Cottage 3: The building where cryptanalyst Dilly Knox worked with his team, and also the site where the first German cipher was broken in January 1940.

Bletchley’s Cottage 3: The building where cryptanalyst Dilly Knox worked with his team, and also the site where the first German cipher was broken in January 1940.

Our second half of the day consisted of a highly entertaining and informative tour of the Bletchley Park grounds, where I found myself very excited to be walking in the footsteps of the I individuals I had read about in McKay’s book. I was reminded of something that had occurred to me while reading the book. Although when most people think of Bletchley they would probably think of mathematics, there was a highly complex system of information organization which was equally important for the success of Bletchley’s codebreaking operations. Being able to organize and systematically work through large amounts of information (i.e. the many, sometimes infinitely many, possible ways to go about solving a problem) actually forms am important component of solving math problems, which is a skill that is also essential to work as an information professional. For this reason I feel very satisfied with my choice of profession, as it will allow me to draw upon and continue to use the skills that I most enjoy from my time as a math student.

Barbican Library

Today we toured the Barbican Library, which is the largest of 3 lending libraries in the City of London (which, confusingly, is the name of a borough located within the city of London). The Barbican is a public library located on the second floor of the Barbican Arts Centre. Indeed, this is the arts centre which also houses the Barbican Theatre, a.k.a. the place where Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing Hamlet this August and September. This news was met with much excitement but most of us in the group. Sadly, Benedict did not appear at any point during our tour. But our visit to the Library more than made up for it!

The entrance to the Barbican Library

The entrance to the Barbican Library

What made the visit to this library memorable was the enthusiasm of the staff (especially our hosts Geraldine, Jonathan and Richard), as well as the creative and innovative programming and collections on offer. The children’s programming in particular sounded fantastic, including the Monster Club, the Summer STEM Club, and the Summer Reading Challenge. Library collections of particular note include skills for life materials, travel books and laminated maps, and the extensive music collection in the renowned Music Library.

The information/reference desk at the Barbican Library

The information/reference desk

The library aims to serve the learning and cultural engagement needs and wants of residents of the borough of the City of London, as well as those who work in the City every day (and clearly, reaching City workers is working, as the library reported heavy use during lunch hours especially). The Library is also well-situated within the popular Arts Centre, and is nestled amongst several large apartment buildings. But, like many libraries, the Barbican finds it difficult to make it known that they are here, and to make people aware of all of the services and resources they can offer.

I’ve been trying to decide what type of library I would like to work in, and in this visit I was reminded of how the diversity of needs and wants within communities serviced by public libraries really appeals to me. It is amazing what public libraries can offer to enhance the cultural life of their communities!

Edinburgh Central Library

Our first public library visit was to the 125-year old Edinburgh Central Library. Our guide joked that the library ran out of space the very minute it opened, which is a theme that has appeared throughout our library visits. The library was funded by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and was the first public library to open in the city of Edinburgh. It remains in its beautiful original Carnegie building. But being in a Victorian building has its challenges too, especially when trying to meet the needs of contemporary library users. I thought that there had been some particularly creative and effective updates to the library space, such as the new meeting room space, the renovated children’s library, and the addition of a mezzanine level in the lower levels of the library, which allowed the library to meet modern needs without totally sacrificing the beauty of this historic building.

The entrance to the Central Library

The entrance to the Central Library

The library has several special collections, including materials on Edinburgh and Scotland, as well as an extensive music library. Edinburgh is a very musical city, which is reflected in the huge collection of sheet music, CDs and DVDs, and an online music streaming service. I thought it was especially neat to hear about local writers, some of whom are now quite well known (including Ian Rankin) who have written here before. I think that’s one of the most interesting thing about public libraries – the opportunities for using it as a creative space no matter your age, background, or present circumstances.

The beautiful Reference Reading Room

The beautiful Reference Reading Room

We were very warmly welcomed to the library, and it was inspiring to see the enthusiasm and creativity of all of the staff that we were lucky enough to meet. Following our engaging library tours, we got the chance to hear about some of the specific initiatives and programs taking place at the library, over tea and cookies. The library has also developed many digital offerings, to be available to users 24/7. And beyond its 1 million item collection, entirely accessible to the public, the library is actively recording, preserving and making accessible the city’s history. There are opportunities for community members to be part of the creation of historical records, or to access historical images. There is a photographer on staff who is capturing life in Edinburgh today, for the benefit of future generations, and who has been working on the library’s digitization projects.

It was very exciting to visit a library where such exciting and innovative work is taking place, and especially to encounter fellow librarians who were so open and willing to share their experiences with us.

Maughan Library at King’s College

Today we visited the Maughan Library at King’s College Strand Campus in London. I enjoyed having the opportunity to visit a UK academic library. It was interesting to see what features were similar to the library at the London School of Economics, which I have been visiting as part of my research project, and to compare these to academic libraries back home. Overall, many of the services and resources seemed very similar to those that would be found in academic libraries back in North America. But there were some unique differences relating to the building itself.

Maughan Library at King's College

Maughan Library at King’s College

The building which currently houses Maughan Library was acquired by King’s College in 2000. Prior to this acquisition, the building sat empty for 10 years. From 1850 until 1990 the building had been home to the UK Public Records office (now The National Archives). The building is actually a Crown building, but King’s has a 99-year lease (so they are staying put for the foreseeable future). The building had been designed and built to meet the needs of the Public Archive. The physical structural needs of library and information systems are so dependent on their function. They can be very different for different type of information organizations, and can drastically change over time. The needs of a Victorian records office, with immovable iron shelving, limited public access, and security measures such as heavy iron doors (to prevent both theft and fire damage) are not necessary, and indeed are almost detrimental, to the functioning of an academic library.

In addition, this building is legally considered to be of historical significance, meaning that many aspects of the building cannot be altered. The constraints of being a modern academic library in a building with protections based on its historical significance are obvious. This problem is perhaps especially prevalent for UK libraries as compared to North American libraries, as there are so many older buildings here. I thought Maughn handled this challenge of these constraints particularly well, by creating a modern, appealing interior that still maintained the historical facade as well as the spirit of interior design elements. For example, the Public Record’s very heavy doors were taken down and hung on the wall next to the current office doors, rather than continuing to be used.

Heavy doors hanging next to the ones that are currently used

Heavy doors hanging next to the ones that are currently used

Only one room has been preserved with the heavy door and iron shelving just as it was prior to 2000, for historical purposes.

Original records room, complete with immovable shelving

Original records room, complete with immovable shelving

The rest of the rooms had their heavy doors and shelves removed, and have been converted to study and stack space, including knocking down walls to create more open space.

A converted records room, now home to stacks and study space

Several records rooms, now connected and home to stacks and study space

But of course, one feature of the Public Records office that was still of use for this academic library was a beautiful reading room.

The Reading Room

Research Report #1

Today I went to pick up my membership card at the British Library of Political and Economic Science at the London School of Economics (another library card to add to my collection – yay!). I had to apply for a card online in order to enter the library, and in particular to gain entry to the Women’s Library Reading Room and collections, which are the focus of my research project for this course. In particular, I am going to be examining and documenting the history, resources and administrative structure of Women’s Library collection. The Women’s Library has had a long history, over the past 100 years, of being moved from institution to institution for various reasons. In 2014, the Library reopened at the London School of Economics (LSE); previously it was under the care of the London Metropolitan University.

LSE Library

LSE Library

It was a very interesting experience, both as a student and as an aspiring librarian, to experience being a user of the LSE library. I was reminded of a recent post in Open Shelf, the digital publication of the Ontario Library Association (OLA), which in turn draws upon the idea of “Work Like a Patron Day”. I probably was able to navigate being a new reader at the library, and find what I needed within the library and in the stacks, more quickly and easily than the average person, only because I am a library student. But at the same time, there were inevitably questions I had and things I did not know about this library and how it operates, and it was a good exercise going through the process of orienting myself to this library system. The library website was quite comprehensive for when I had questions, but I also know that it can be frustrating to be at a library in person and to go to talk to someone at the help desk, only to be directed towards a website or email. It brought to mind that all-important fact, which is that the average person does not think like a librarian. We have to be very careful about how we organize our collections, and how we talk to patrons when they come to us for help, or else we risk having quite a detrimental effect on how approachable and useful they consider their libraries to be. My experience at LSE was a positive one, and the staff were very helpful. But my experience also was a good lesson for me in how there often will be gaps in what library staff assume a patron knows about the services or resources, and what the patron does in fact know, and putting ourselves in our patrons shoes seems like an effective way to work on closing this gap.

St. Paul’s Cathedral Library

St. Paul's Cathedral

At the very beginning of our tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, before we had even ascended the stairs up to the triforium level that houses the library itself, our tour guide, librarian Joe Wisdom, pointed out a book and heart carved above the west cathedral entrance. The book is understood to be a Bible, and this carving means to say that unless the message of the Bible is delivered with love, it will not get through to those who are meant to understand it. He suggested that we as librarians could take this message to heart for our professional lives too. It was very fitting that in this beautiful place, of so much spiritual and religious significance, we had a visit that delved into the philosophy of our profession.

St. Paul's Cathedral Library

St. Paul’s Cathedral Library

The St. Paul’s Cathedral Library houses items relating to the Cathedral. The collection is open to anyone with a “legitimate” query, which might be something academic in nature, or it might be related to family history. As librarian of this iconic institution, Mr. Wisdom was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the building as a whole and its history. We were in the library for only one small part of the tour, and otherwise explore the triforium level and its many treasures.

What I found to be particularly valuable to learn about, especially since I have had quite limited experience with it in my education or work experience thus far, were the realities of preservation for valuable and very old books, such as those in this collection. When entering the library, one immediately notices that lovely old book smell. Mr. Wisdom explained that that smell is actually decaying leather. He emphasized the need to avoid plants and food in a space with old books, or anything else that might invite bugs into the space. He explains that they take very regular measurements of conditions of the library room, testing the effect of different things on the room. One thing they have found is that most dust appears near entryways, rather than on books themselves, and is produced by people leaving and entering the room from these spots.St. Paul's Cathedral Library 2

At the end of our tour, Mr. Wisdom encouraged us to keep in mind what it really means to be a librarian throughout our professional lives. In particular, we were encouraged not to over-classify our collections (keeping in mind that even with the best of intentions this is more likely to benefit the staff in the library than the users), and to go about our work in a kind way: an idea that was embodied by the carving we saw as we started this tour.