Bletchley Park

This expedition started out with the National Museum of Computing, which holds many, many dinosaurs.

technological dinosaurs

technological dinosaurs

It was a crash course in the history of computing, which started out rather confusing because the maths behind the enigma machine (and encryption technology in general) are a bit beyond me at the speed the guide had to go in order to get us through in an hour. Interesting as it is, it mostly flew over my head. I was a bit more at home when we got to punch cards and batch processing… I’ve never had to deal with them personally, but I could at least follow along. My father was an old-school computer programmer, spoke fluent COBOL- I recall several instances of him explaining the binary code with ink pens on dinner napkins.

The story of code breaking and computing came out a bit more when we toured Bletchley Park itself, which started with the story of how the grounds were purchased in the first place. Admiral Sinclair, who was in charge of the Government Code and Cypher School in 1937, wanted to move his branch away from London and possible air raids, knowing how important codes and deciphering schemes were to national security. He found Bletchley, which was perfect in location, proximity to rail lines and universities, and just beside the telephone, telex, and teleprinter lines.  The Admiral was given a standard bureaucratic run-around when it came to buying the property, and eventually just bought it himself.

Of all the architecture we saw the entire time we were in the UK, the mansion at Bletchley Park was the most eclectic. They commonly refer to it as Victorian Stockbroker, as the owner of the property before it was purchased by Admiral Sinclair was a stockbroker who liked to travel. He and his wife would bring back ideas for their house, and would have them shoehorned in whether they made the slightest sense for the building or not.

Victorian Stockbroker, or "bloody mess"

Victorian Stockbroker, or “bloody mess”

Bletchley Park, at its peak, cycled 9-10,000 people through in a day, on three shifts, and treated codebreaking like an assembly line. Many of them were women who had joined the military for the war effort, put to work checking over messages and putting pieces together. This approach worked, as message after message got decrypted and the information put to use. It’s estimated that the work done here shortened WWII by about two years.

I was surprised at how little was mentioned of Alan Turing in either place. He was mentioned, yes, but nothing specific, despite his name being one of the most recognizable and important in the code-breaking/early computing fields. His office, at least was pointed out.

Alan Turing's Office


The Barbican, with the sexy Darth Vader-like wildebeest of a self-check machine

The Barbican Library resides in the City of London.  This is not precisely like the other boroughs of London, though it helped me to think of it that way for clarity while there. The City of London is far more complicated, because Romans happened.

So within that roughly one square mile of territory that is no longer completely enclosed by an ancient wall, there are three lending libraries, of which the Barbican is the largest. By my perspective, it’s huge. When there are 10+ people on the acquisition team, your library is huge. Despite the size, it still surprises me how similar public libraries are across the board- there’s never enough funding to do everything, but we try anyway- the phrase one of the staff (I didn’t write down which person) used was “there is something for everyone, from cradle to grave.” There are always issues with people not returning their items, and when the oldest lendable item on the shelf is from 1793, this can get nerve wracking. Oversized items never fit where they’re supposed to and have to be put where there’s room, which confuses both patrons and staff. Publishers tend to be obnoxious about libraries providing things for free, and will demand of the music library that CDs not be loaned during their first three months of release. Some books are horribly written, such as a chunk of the Barbican’s London collection which is pulp crime novels that are truly horrible by today’s standards for writing quality.  Collaborating with local institutions is a great idea; they partner with the local music conservatory to give piano lessons to retirees, giving the students teaching experience and the retirees a new skill.

We were also shown the self-check machine, which our guide Johnathan likened to a sexy Darth Vader-like wildebeest. It did not work properly when they tried to demonstrate it for us, which is yet another way in which public libraries are alike… the technology only works when it feels like working.

not pictured: the sexy Darth Vader-like wildebeest

not pictured: the sexy Darth Vader-like wildebeest

Kew Gardens

When I was little (10-13 or so), I wanted to be a horticulturalist when I grew up. Obviously this did not stick into adulthood, but plants remain a curiosity to me despite my vampire-like avoidance of the sun. I know, it’s weird. I’m obviously more a fan of indoor plants than landscaping.

The trip to Kew Gardens thus would have been interesting on its own, but I’d read For All the Tea in China, in which Kew is a prominent location. Not much action happens with the story there, but it was the hub of Victorian-era botany and the place where all the results were discussed, all the specimens examined. (It is from Kew that ill-advised invasive species were sent around the world as ornamentals or potentially useful plants.) The book is the story of a field expedition, Kew was the headquarters. Armed with the knowledge that Kew was for botany, I was not expecting a slideshow on Beatrix Potter and the mono-alphabetic substitution cipher she developed in order to keep her diary private. The presenter for that bit was Andrew Wiltshire, who had known Leslie Linder, the man who cracked the code. Potter’s life was deeply shaped by multiple domineering forces- most notably her mother and the extremely misogynistic society of the time. Her mother drove her to write in code, and the society drove her to almost abandon her interest in fungi as none of the prominent names in the field treated her as if she had any shred of intelligence. I do wonder what she would have been like if her life had been less prone to forced Victorian-era propriety.

We moved from there to the Kew Library, where we gawked at some of the botanical illustrations, which are still used in field guides today despite our advances in photography. Illustrations show plants at angles that may be impossible in photographs, laid out perfectly to show every identifiable bit of the specimen.

so detailed

so detailed

Saw some of the treasures of the library itself, and then the herbarium. I’d never been in an herbarium before, and it was really kind of neat. Plant specimens of every sort, still pressed between newspaper sheets and stacked in manilla folders, still arriving regularly fro the field. Kew still functions as a hub for botany, and that’s where the seeds and specimens are stored.

I seem to have caught Kim in this shot. Hi, Kim!

I seem to have caught Kim in this shot. Hi, Kim!

Central Library of Edinburgh, take two

My consultation with Alison Stoddart of the Edinburgh Central Library went quite well, really- she’s quite easy to work with.  She told us (me and Jamie) about the mass digitization push that got started in 2006.  The initial shove is long over, and the digitization team now considerably smaller than it started. That’s quite normal for digitization pushes with libraries… the interest and novelty (and funding) fade, and the work goes on as it can.

The initial push worked on the Edinburgh collection naturally enough- the library works hard to tie their digital collections to community events such as WWI memorials, building anniversaries, anything that’s coming down the pipe. The hard part is getting things digitized enough in advance to have them fully ready and loaded to the web before the event occurs.

Ms. Stoddart discussed their stance on copyright, orphaned works, and the public domain. Whenever possible, the library tracks down the copyright holder of a particular image, but that is not always easy to determine. This has long been a real problem in the copyright world- works that can’t be released to public domain because they either don’t have an owner, or the owner can’t be located without far more time and energy than the work is worth. The library takes a rather relaxed approach to photographs from the 19th century; copyright for them has almost certainly expired. 20th century photographs are viewed with a bit more caution.

Copyright is a very funny beast when it comes to digitization, and by “funny” I mean “incredibly frustrating.”

One of the more interesting products of the library’s digitization efforts is the “Then and Now” section of Our Town Stories site. Our Town Stories is a collaboration of the community, sharing their stories and memories. the Then and Now section is one of photographs, where someone (usually Kevin, the in-house photographer) takes an old photo of the city, finds the same vantage point today, and both photos are posted on top of each other. A slider bar lets the user fade between the two images, or see both at the same time.

Ms Stoddart actually took us up to meet the photographer, Kevin, who has a job that my father would probably fawn over, and equipment that he would swoon over.

picture of photography equipment

Kevin’s setup

There will (obviously) be far more about all of this, up to and including my opinions on open source software (SO FASCINATING) in the project itself… so if any of my intrepid readers want to check that out, yell at me in September and I’ll shoot you a copy. 😉

Central Library, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Central library is older than my current library, though not by the centuries that some of the university libraries in England can claim. Central got started in 1850, and Art Circle has its origins in 1898, though a dedicated building didn’t come around until 1939. They do, however, have more in their local collections, having both an Edinburgh collection and a Scottish collection, not to mention their digital collections.  The Edinburgh collection was considered a major “jewel in the crown of the library,” as it should be- it contains materials in every format, from photos to books and everything in between, which includes a collection of at least 10,000 pamphlets from the time that the format became widespread that was given to the library at its opening. A significant amount of the Edinburgh collection is available through their digital collections; though far from all that’s available, there’s still a lot there. Having it digitized is great for both accessibility and for preservation- while a digital copy is never going to replace the original, having a digital version available for people who just need the content cuts down on the handling of the original immensely. Handling, naturally, is one of the worst things for keeping any material in excellent condition. Books are for use, and so are other library materials, but digital versions mean that the book will be available for use for far longer.


They very definitely have a bigger reference collection. An entire ballroom sized space with nothing but reference materials, two stories high, with hidden staircases… this kind of thing is novel to me. My library’s reference collection doesn’t get enough use to justify more than a couple of shelves. Granted, the city of Edinburgh is rather larger and rather older, which MIGHT have something to do with it. Might.


Not for the only time during the British Studies program, I wondered if the librarians were aware of the Imagination Library. (it’s a program that sends an age-appropriate book to any registered child from birth through age five.)  I never had a chance to inquire deeply, and while I know that the program has a toehold in the UK, it’s not terribly widespread.

Alison Stoddart spoke to us about the digital offerings; I got notes as best as I could here, and then communicated with her later specifically as my project concerned the digital offerings specifically. Central has had a dedicated digital team for about five years now. They’ve created a portal to library services from the official government website, which links users to all online library services from e-books with Overdrive to the crowdsourced Edinburgh Collective “community archive of Edinburgh memories.”  The most popular of all the digital resources? the driving theory test prep section.

That still cracks me up.

University of Edinburgh, New College Library

The New College Library started life in the 1840’s when the Free Church of Scotland split off from the Church of Scotland (and I’m sure no one got confused whatsoever by the similarities in the names there).  Once the theological split occurred, the Free Church rapidly found that they needed a university to train new ministers, and the founders were rather keen on the idea of libraries.

University of Edinburgh

They apparently targeted women for donations of books- because they didn’t think that women were making the best use possible of the books that they owned. The mental contortions people went (and still go) through to justify misogyny are incredible to me.

The library eventually merged with the University of Edinburgh, which is considerably older than the Free Church, and by now can handle any religion or none at all, though their historical collections are largely Protestant. The special collections make up a large chunk of the overall collection, and not all of them are even currently included in the online catalog. Cataloging, however, is somewhat entertaining. The entirety of the University of Edinburgh moved to Library of Congress cataloging in 2002, and not all of New College has completely caught up. Their former classification system, the Union Theological Seminary system, looks quite similar, which has caused a few issues in finding things on the shelves.

What struck me as very odd to modern information science people was that prior to 1936, there was no open access to any material- any person wanting a book had to request it from a librarian, who could refuse to get it if he didn’t think you should have that material for whatever reason. I’ve had to walk people to books or information that I, personally, find abhorrent and would prefer to forget ever existed, but you can’t just refuse to give an adult a book because you, personally, don’t think they need to have it for whatever reason you, personally, dream up. I dunno, I suppose I got into this profession because I like matching people with information, not because I want to stand on the bridge yelling “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

I also enjoyed the special collections, because there’s some weird stuff in special collections… including unicorns on Noah’s Ark, as shown in Edward Wells “An historical geography of the Old and New Testament,” from 1809.

Row C, close to the middle

Row C, close to the middle.