Maughan Library, King’s College

Ah, our lovely host university, King’s College. Their library’s a lot of fun. Well, the Maughan Library is, they’ve got others that I can only assume are also fun.

For starters, it’s huge. it serves 25-30,000 students (which is fairly close to my current institution), depending on the term, and 11,000 study spaces spread over the various campuses. The building it’s in was designed to be the National Archives for the UK; when they outgrew the space, King’s College bought it and began the lengthy (and probably very frustrating) project of setting it up as a university library with reasonable accessibility accommodations. One room was kept as it once was, for historical purposes, and it’s not even been used to house books at the moment. I find that somewhat surprising, and I’m guessing that they may at some point use it for books- there’s a lot of space in that room, and using it to house books shouldn’t detract from keeping the room as it was for historical purposes. It couldn’t be used for public access- there’s no way it’d be compliant with disability regulations- but for staff-only storage it might work. (I say as if I know anything about the regulations regarding historical buildings in England. Hah.)

so many shelves like this.

so many shelves like this.

Although not nearly as bad as Oxford, King’s College is everywhere and nowhere- the campus seems a bit spread over several locations in London. This makes a great deal of sense- neighboring real estate is seldom available when an institution wants to expand, so facilities are purchased when and where resources allow. I’m betting similar things happen in major US cities, but it’s just not something I, personally, see very often.

After the tour, we hit the Foyle Special Collections library, where they showed us some of their treasures. the prettiest binding was the Nuremberg Chronicle.

so pretty

so pretty

Antique bindings fascinate me. I swear sometimes I missed my calling regarding books- I would dearly love to take classes in conservation. Hands-on type classes, with leather and linen and a laying press… but I digress.

do you KNOW what goes in to making these? it's a ridiculous amount of work.

do you KNOW what goes in to making these? it’s a ridiculous amount of work.

Beautiful as the binding was, the content… was incomprehensible to me, being in German. The prize for most interesting that I could read? That went to the first history of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the treatment of mental illness.



I know just enough psychology to know that Bethlem, in the early days, was a textbook case of “what not to do” with the mentally ill- and makes me very, very glad that I did not live in Victorian times with a mental illness.


National Art Library, V&A Museum

I tend to forget how many special libraries there are. Being in the public library sphere, the special collections set doesn’t really operate where I see them- especially with my location. You do not find things like art libraries in my town.  You’ll find some art books at my library, and that’s about it. I have a hard time fathoming an art library needing 26 FTE staff, the fact that the National Art Library does is really cool.

Our guides, Sally and Aisha, were very knowledgeable (I liked that they were perfectly willing to use notes. Heaven knows I’d never attempt a presentation without notes, I’d forget half the details) and seemed quite nice- my half of the group started with Sally and some of the treasures of the library, which collects items about art and items of art and occasional items explaining how to do art. I’d have to say that some of the items are works of art in themselves, but I dabble in bookbinding. How am I not going to find this a work of art?

totally a work of art

totally a work of art

same book, side view

I mean look at that fore-edge!

the identifier tag

so glad I photographed all the tags

Time with Aisha was quite informative regarding the daily operations of the library and thus the statistics of the library- it has about a million items and 30,000 visitors every year. Items are all requestable, it is a public resource, but they are all reference books- it is not a lending library.

I find the origin story interesting- it was opened as a library for the Government School of Design, which was trying to improve the standards of British art and craftsmanship to meet or exceed the international competition in quality. The library was rather basic and practical in nature- not fine art, but craftsmanship. that’s what drove the creation of what eventually became an art library.

I also find the classification interesting- they’re arranged so that the biggest books are on the bottom, and the smaller books are on the top- there is no rhyme or reason regarding subject order. In this kind of situation, that’s perfectly sensible- art books, more than most, vary wildly in size and occasionally shape. getting anything on standard-sized shelving sounds like an exercise in frustration. better to have shelf order be a little weird but workable than to have books damaging each other by ill-matching neighbors.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Mr. Joe Wisdom from the Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral was a lot of fun- I only wish the tour hadn’t been rushed due to services, but those do take precedence in a functioning house of worship for some reason.

The tour naturally covered a little of the utterly gorgeous architecture- rather famously begun in 1673 by Christopher Wren. It’s the sort of building that can render people speechless- it is certainly awe-inspiring. We began the tour in the whispering gallery, which was accidentally designed with acoustics to let a whisper on one side be heard on the other- that kind of thing is always neat, just because sound waves and how they interact with solids? Neat stuff.

Mr. Wisdom then showed us “the most important piece of kit in the entire building,” which looks like a wooden cork coming out of the side of an interior dome. “If you pull that out, the entire building deflates.”  Sadly, he wouldn’t let us try this, which is why the Cathedral is still standing.

St. Paul's Cathedral

see? still standing.

We moved through a few of the Cathedral’s treasures- while it is not a museum, they do have several things that they try to conserve the way a museum would- and into the room that was originally the library (there are books in the carved stonework) and currently the model room. The wooden model is probably the most impressive scale model I’ve ever seen in person, and it is not even true to live- the model is what Wren wanted to build, not what was actually built after the bishops and builders went over the plans.

The library itself is the sort of thing librarians drool over. It’s an active research library, though obviously specialized as books of that age tend to be.

Mr. Wisdom discussed that, when thinking about conservation, you must consider not only the item itself but the entire envelope of its environment- the room it’s in, the building, the surrounding climate, etc. That you have to take into account the humidity of the area, especially if the building isn’t tightly climate controlled. I really liked the turn of phrase, and I’d never really thought of it that way- granted, I am not a conservator, but neither do I exist in an area where most buildings aren’t climate controlled to some degree. Southeastern USA is not a place you want to be without central heat and air, which does wonders for temperature and humidity regulation.  I sometimes wonder that books survived as well as they have, for as long as they have, without that kind of thing- temperature changes and damp are really hard on the things. Then I remember that rag paper is far sturdier and resistant to things attacking books…

Royal Geographical Society

It had not actually occurred to me that a librarian would be working in the Royal Geographical Society. I’m not entirely sure why, probably because I just never thought about it, but there you go.  I did not take many pictures at the Society; the rules surrounding photography were enough that I decided it’d be safer to just leave the camera out of it.Royal Geographical Society

Our guide (whose name was Eugene! I actually wrote it down this time) was more of a speaker, and the tour was more of a presentation than trying to cram through hallways and fit too many people into too small a space. This was quite sensible, and let us actually sit through the presentation… which may explain why my scribbled notes are far more extensive than I’d recalled, let’s hope I can read them. (there’s a reason I don’t write in the journals I bind. my handwriting is that reason.)

We were set up in the main reading room, which was once four different rooms (the library reading room, the map room, the picture room, and the lab) that were gathered together in the name of efficiency, space, and general convenience. Their catalogs were merged as well, which makes their records considerably easier to sort through, which has in turn extended the usefulness of the collection and extended the range of patrons that it can serve.

The Society was once in the business of exploration and financing expeditions. Founded in 1830 on the principle of scientific geography, they sponsored explorers into whatever region held their interest at the moment, from the Nile to the North Pole. They are no longer finance exploration expeditions, being more an information source with the two million items currently held. What outside projects they do fund are to work with indigenous peoples rather than explore.

The collections are skewed heavily towards maps and pictures- maps comprising one million items and pictures about half a million- the rest of the collection consists of books, archival items, and artifacts. The artifacts are perhaps the largest draw for any kind of tourism; the maps and journals are of far more interest to researchers.

Our presenter discussed various expeditions- from the search for the Northwest Passage to the Far East in the 1800s, to the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic, to the search for the start of the Nile. He showed us Inuit boots and sunvisors brought back by Edward Perry, the weird ways people went looking for lost expeditions (putting collars on foxes with coordinates stamped into the leather in the hope that those foxes would wander into the lost expedition’s camps and thus send them to the rescue ship), the rivalries between explorers to be the first to do something.

the quest for Everest was obviously interesting- many explorers have died trying to reach that summit, because the human body was just not meant to deal with that kind of altitude and oxygen deprivation. A tidbit that was left out of the presentation that’s morbidly fascinating is that when someone dies on Everest, the body is left there. You can’t get machines and vehicles up there due to terrain and the fact that internal combustion engines rely on oxygen to function. People at that altitude can barely carry themselves, let alone a dead body.

The bodies are used as navigational markers.

that kind of thing is why relics from George Mallory’s fatal 1924 expedition were brought down when they were found in 1999, rather than the body. if they ever find his companion and camera, supposedly a vest-pocket Kodak, history may be re-written to show that Mallory and Irvine were the first explorers to reach that peak, rather than Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay.

The collections available at the RGS are seriously impressive.

Archives of the British Museum

You could spend days in the British Museum and not see everything. You could spend days in the records archive just getting a feel for what’s down there. I admit to being a little baffled that they’ve only had a trained archivist on staff for the last fifteen years, but it seems that here (like everywhere I know) people don’t want to pay for necessary staff until the need has gone on far, far too long.

British Library Central Archives

The history of the museum is the same the history of the British Library in many respects, which is hardly surprising since they’ve only been in separate facilities since 1997 and began life as the same thing. The archive’s records start slightly before there was even a museum, in the 1740’s when there were talks and letters about founding one and the start of collections and potential decisions on what to do with the national collections. The first actual Trustee’s meeting was in 1753, and the first one that was properly recorded was in 1754. Most of these records, from 1754-1914, are bound in volumes, much to the irritation of the archivist as they’re far less useable and prone to unnecessary handling than they would be if they were boxed.  They have records of donations and purchases that were, at one point, sifted and sorted… poorly. Hunting down specific records obviously can take a while, because the archive is kind of a mess…. which is what happens when you don’t have proper staff and/or training.

Bound records

The records themselves don’t always make terribly much sense, either- the things that were kept were things that someone, at some point, decided would be a good idea to keep… without any notation as to why they thought it was worth keeping, or any guidelines for the staff to work with when making those decisions.

As to the items themselves, there is an index of them- it’s just that you have to guess as to how the person who cataloged it actually did so. Amusingly, I’m used to that- did they put the book of Cathedral photographs under “art” or “architecture.” There are also some items that are in the archive itself rather than with any of the other departments- such as an incendiary bomb from WWII. I almost wonder at someone deciding to keep that- not by now, but at the time, which would have been shortly after it exploded.

Incendiary bomb from WWII

I think the records of any place that old and with that much growth are going to be a bit messed up unless someone who knew what they were doing imposed some kind of order and structure on it early on. Modern curating and archiving did not occur in a vacuum, but from trying not to repeat past mistakes… and newer facilities are very much beholden to the older ones like the British Museum for making the mistakes.

The Archivist’s (again, in my wisdom, I did not write down her name) first priority is get the catalog in order- currently the museum doesn’t even know everything that it owns, and the catalog that’s in place is not exactly in the greatest of shape- in the 1980’s, the Museum started a collections database and gave pretty much everyone edit access to the database. To anyone dealing with a database in today’s IT environment, this is an actively painful idea. The new one, currently under construction, is a bit better supervised. 😉

London Library: or, a library begun due to one man’s disdain for fiction

Ah, yes, a library begun out of disdain for that most academically unsound of things: fiction. The horrors.London Library

While there were a couple of iterations of a London library before this, the current library was begun by Thomas Carlyle in 1841. The London Library was and still is a membership library; those that wish to borrow materials from the collection pay a membership fee of around £485 per year. Carlyle wanted a research library with lending services, and was also deeply offended by his local library lending out fiction. He thus hunted up the funding to begin such a library. Originally, the Library shared space with the Philosophical Society, but the Library outgrew needing flatmates and took over the entire building in which it was housed.

The facility started life as a house and the architects have done their best to preserve the aesthetics of being in a house with a reasonable degree of success- the entryway does not, by any means, give a newcomer a real idea of how many rooms and how much storage there actually is. The facility has been expanded over the years, with floors added and neighboring buildings bought and merged into the structure while still keeping the aura of a home.London Library map

In 1896, the library became the home of purpose built seven-story steel bookcases that are an integral part of the weight bearing structure of the building. This is both awesome and fascinating, as I’d never really considered that such a thing was possible, let alone actually in existence. They were commissioned and installed to handle the growing collection and the sheer weight that was affecting the building, and the interior of the building was torn out and rebuilt around the stacks in order to make the building fit the purpose rather than trying to force the purpose into a building that could not handle the strain.

Disabled access to the building was rather late in happening, though I get the impression that such is the case with many of London’s historic buildings. Access is now possible, if a bit circuitous.

the classification system is another custom system that isn’t used anywhere else- it’s based on the subject of the work and the size of the book. the system needs to be flexible, as once a book is added to the London Library, it stays there. Weeding is not a thing that happens, and around 8,000 items are added yearly. Needless to say, storage is at a premium.

Of particular interest to me given the fact that I like to make tiny books was the Library’s cabinet of miniature books, which are quite adorable.

miniature books

As noted earlier, part of the classification system is based on size, so all the miniatures are together regardless of subject. I admit to thinking “mine are tinier,” while staring at the cabinet… even if mine don’t contain any text. 😉

The British Library

the British Library is a delight. Our tour guide was very energetic lady called Kris, if I recall? In my wisdom, I did not write that down, but I’m fairly sure the British Library was where the tour guide and I almost shared a name. I liked her, she clearly enjoyed her job.

The British Library split off from the British Museum not terribly long ago in historical terms- 1997 was when they moved out and into the current facility from the Museum and several other facilities… the library is a bit huge, being the largest public building in the UK. Four huge basements, eleven reading rooms, and much to my public-librarian heart’s dismay, nothing can be checked out- it is all reference material. I do understand that, and certainly wouldn’t advocate checking out the rare and valuable holdings, but still. My library has taken its reference collection down to the bare minimum, putting most of those books on the circulating shelves, simply because they weren’t being used. This is not a problem shared by the British Library, obviously; the building was obviously frequently used by the public. I was also pleased to realize that foreign nationals are  welcome to use the facility with about the same ease as locals. The only major barriers are around the very old, very rare, or very valuable materials, where a user’s reasons for wanting the original are likely to be somewhat scrutinized. Fortunately, the content of many of those is available in volumes that aren’t the original works- facsimiles and digitizations suffice for those that need content more than the original work itself, and keep exposure of the original to a minimum, which is far better for the original (and the conservationists charged with keeping the originals in decent condition.)

The facility itself was designed to mimic a cruise ship in both outward appearance and interior design, which I found very interesting. Having been on cruise ships a couple of times, once that was pointed out the little notes began popping out all over- porthole shaped windows, the feel of the hallways, the gentle rocking of the floor as I walked…

British Library model

The centerpiece of the library is the six-floor glass-encased shelving unit that holds King George’s gift- about 60,000 volumes of the 100,000 in the case were given to the library by King George III in 1893 on the condition that they would always be held on shelves that the public could see. They are part of the working library collection, too: the books from King George’s gift are available to request and study. Only one is not on those shelves, due to size constraints- the Klencke Atlas is on display elsewhere in the museum… and is one of the objects that a user needs a really, really, really good reason to access.

central glass case

One of the most interesting things I learned was the classification system- it’s entirely unique to the British Library, and has kind of grown around and with the collection as it expanded as they’ve never changed a book’s shelf reference once it had a shelf reference. I have no idea how that even works, and I’m yet again glad that I’m working in an era that has electronic catalogs…

After the tour, I eventually made my way to the conservation exhibit- I know enough about bookbinding to find conservation and preservation fascinating, I’d be delighted to get into that in some fashion. Conservation is rather vital to an institution of this size and breadth and depth of collections:

They had these on display:

I actually own one of these

I actually own one of these

sewing frame (above) and a laying press (below)

own one of these, too.

own one of these, too.

and a small pile of leather… I wonder if they’ve had any of the leather wander off, it didn’t seem secured. The videos they had describing a few techniques, or at least the decision making process on which techniques to use, was also interesting. I kept saying “I’ve done that, I could probably replicate that with no major issues, I have one of those, I have a couple of spools of that thread and yeeesh sorting out what the numbers mean in linen thread weights is confusing…” I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t a cast iron book press in there.

My actual book press

My actual book press

One of those exciting moments when a display was put together that might as well have been custom-tailored to your interests. And obviously makes me want to talk about all my toys. Do forgive me for indulging that. 😉