15 August 2011

The Sir John Soanes Museum

July 30

The last day before we left for home, I decided to make a trip to see the Sir John Soanes Museum.

This museum is incredible.  Sir John Soanes was an architect in London who collected all manner of architectural items. When he became a professor at the Royal Academy in 18096, he decided to arrange these items for easy viewing in his house and open it to students on certain days. After his death in 1837 the house was retained as a museum, free to the public.


I had to wait a few minutes to go in because only a certain number of people are allowed in at one time.  Once I was waved through, I was told I should start on the bottom and work my way up.  The bottom floor holds a lot of stonework, but the most magnificent item is the stone sarcophagus of Seti I (which I hope he was done using).  I had to climb up onto a step to see inside, and it was covered with hieroglyphs and carvings.  It sits at the bottom of a light well, with the floors above opening on balconies and a big skylight at the top.

Further in and up a set of stairs, and I passed some incredible stained glass, as well as a wall covered in carved stone pieces.  There is a picture room that I didn't go in because you have to cross a big grate to get in, and everyone kept passing me because I didn't look like I was in line.  I did get a glimpse, though, and there are wall panels that open out with paintings attached so that the tiny room can hold much more than it looks like it should.

The fun part about the museum is that Soanes actually lived there, so there are rooms full of furniture that just look like living rooms (albeit fancy and gorgeous), with lots of books, busts, paintings and vases everywhere.  His desk is still where he had it, tucked into a tiny little hallway of a room that looks out over one of his courtyards. 

I loved the creaky wooden floors (minus the grates) and the awesome views, where the skylights are allowed to reach all the way down to the bottom.  You can stand on a balcony and look down into the sarcophagus, and it's lit only from the skylight. Everything is related to architecture, but it doesn't feel stiff or contrived. Beautiful.

The museum also deals with book conservation, as "Soane’s library is unique as the only intact library of a great architect which remains in its original setting" (from the website).  This museum is truly one of a kind.  It reminds me a great deal of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but seems to feel much more random but much more lived in (although Gardner lived in her museum, too).

*Museum photo courtesy the website

British Library Centre for Conservations


July 28

Our last visit was to the British Library Centre for Conservation, a bit of a relief after this very intense month.
About half of the class had already been to the British Library on a tour, but the rest of us didn’t get to go because that was the day we left for Paris (although with how late the bus was we could have made it with plenty of time).



Our guides were Alison and Mark, who gave us really becoming lanyards with large blue cards to wear as we walked around.  First we stopped in the conservation studio lobby for a quick health and safety talk, and then Alison was going to give us some information about the library but half of us had already heard it so she skipped ahead.  She did give us a few tidbits, such as that 1,200 readers can be seated a day, and each person can order up to 12 items.  There is a remote newspaper library and another building for materials as well.  The author John Berger also donated his archives to the library in 2009, but they were located in a barn in remote France and had to be picked up in person.

In the conservation studio there is one person whose only job is to control the studio environment.  There are five teams of conservators, though there is room for six, and Mark’s team specializes in stamps.  I thought this meant postage stamps, but later I on learned differently.  There is a quarantine room for books and items that come in, so that if they carry anything on/in them, it doesn’t become a problem.  There are also studios upstairs for working on larger items.

The goal, Alison told us, is conserving items, not restoring them to what they were originally.  Everything they do is intended to be reversible or retractable, so that, as we saw on many of our visits,  there are not mistakes made that truly cannot be fixed.  there are very detailed records made for each item they work on, with photographs taken before and after.                                        

After this introduction we went into a large studio room, filled with workstations covered in odd conservation tools.  We met Ivanna, who has worked there for seven years, having begun in the manuscript department.  She was working on a new material that probably no one there had ever worked on, palm leaves.  These were long, thin sections of leaf, covered in writing, with two holes each that wer threaded through with cord or similar, and used as a sort of book.  It is possibly a religious text, definitely Asian, and there were hundreds of them.  This type of book is only meant to last or be used for a hundred years, and then it is rewritten, so the leave all have some damage, corner broken off or bits eaten out by bugs or something.  It’s unknown exactly what century they came from, possibly the 17th, or as far back as the 13th or 14th.

We were shown photos of a palm processing demonstration, and then Ivanna talked about the process of filling in the holes in the leaves in order to keep them from falling apart.  There are two processes used: a leaf-casting machine and hand filling.  The machine is something I’ve never heard of, but is really cool. It is filled with palm pulp, then the leaves are placed inside and the holes are filled.  She couldn’t really explain more than that because it’s a weird process, but this is the first time it has been used on this type of material.  It is much faster than working by hand, as Ivanna demonstrated.  Hand work is a painstaking process and I can’t imagine doing that for hours on end. 

After looking at some of the filled-in leaves, we moved on to the stamping room for a demonstration by Mark.  This is where I discovered that stamps meant leather stamping.  Mark demonstrated the process of stamping gold leaf onto leather, which involves egg adhesive (called glare), Vaseline, and extremely hot irons—that sounds like a torture session.  We had a bit of a wait for the stamp to heat up to the right temperature, so Mark explained some things about how he got to be working at the studio.  After school, he had to take a five year apprenticeship, which is not done nowadays, during which it was discovered that he had a knack for stamping, and that was how he ended up specializing in stamping.  He pulled out two pieces of gold leaf and had the group try passing them around on the backs of their hands, but I was in the back and didn’t get to try because they pretty quickly got stuck on a couple of people. I had never thought about how gold stamping, or any kind of leather stamping, is done, so this was really interesting to me.

After Mark finished stamping his name onto the demonstration leather piece, we went back out into the studio lobby, which had activities and informational materials.  I sat down and worked on cleaning up the only known recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice (again, the irony) and then picked up the booklets on offer.   
After this we all trooped back out, and while half the group left, I think everybody who went to Paris walked down to the treasures room. I was determined to see Jane Austen’s writing desk, and I didn’t realize that one of her three volumes of juvenilia was there as well.  Loved it.  I did wish a bit that I could have gone on a tour, but I did get to see some pretty awesome things. 

This was a great trip, it was fascinating to see how innovative things are and what goes into something that seems easy and inconsequential like the leather stamping.  I hope I get to go back someday, when I am not burned out from an entire month of library and museum tours!

Middle Temple Library


July 27

This is a law school library, located off of Fleet Street in a twisty bit of streets and alleys.  Our tour of Middle Temple Library was not really long, but it was interesting.

We first went upstairs to see some of the law collections, which includes one of the largest collections of US legal material in the UK. There are some US textbooks, and many donations of law books, including the Harvard Law Review and materials from Notre Dame in the All American collection. This section is used for quick access, commercial and business, needed for areas where American law comes into play in the UK.

The building underwent construction to convert into rooms which can be used for seminars or meetings, or when not in use can be for quiet study.  There are bookshelves on every wall, so conceivably anybody could walk in quietly and take what they needed during a meeting.   The idea behind this conversion is adaptation of library usage, filling several needs at once.

We got an explanation of British law, the differences between a barrister and solicitor and the Inns of Court, but it was confusing to me and I don’t think I should attempt to type it out.  One interesting tidbit is that early lawyers in the US were sent to the UK to learn because there was nowhere to get that education in the States, and then they went home to set up law practices.

The building is built out of reinforced concrete because the original was bombed twice in WWII.  The second floor holds legislation and the like, reference, collections of trials, and ecclesiastical law materials. There is no classification systems because it is traditional not to, and also there was agreement that labels look ugly.  It can be a bit touch-and-go finding books sometimes because of this, as there is only alphabetical order.

On the second level, in front  of the balcony looking down on the lower level, there are two glass-encased globes, the only pair of the earliest made gloves in England.  One is terrestrial and the other celestial; they were made in the late 16th century of papier mache, and it is theorized that they have held up so incredibly well because they were shellacked (or something similar, I didn’t write down the specific word). 

Down on the bottom floor is a large portrait of Robert Ashley, who donated his personal library to establish the Middle Temple Library.  Down there are located English textbooks; sub-law reports; Irish, Scottish and EU materials; and a small European collection.

After this we moved into the dining hall, which is a sight to behold.  The hallways between the library and there are lined with plaques with shields on them, and they continue here, covering all the walls.  There are half-suits of armor lining the upper ledge, with stained-glass windows above, and many long tables filling it up.   The wood is very dark and the doors have terrifying spikes on them to keep out latecomers who want to get in to events. 

In this room was held the first performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  The plaques are representative of each Reader of the Inn, who had to pay for the entire dinner honoring him, which was no mean feat.

We climbed up a staircase to the Minstrel’s Gallery, which gave us a view of the entire room below (well, everybody else, anyway) and a great view of the ceiling and some of the windows.  The ceiling is all points and carving, and there are hooks that were once used for lanterns; one of these hooks, we were told, was used to hold an acrobat doing one of those routines where they hang and roll up down on a long length of material.  The main table (where one is “called to the table”) is made from the hatch of the Golden Hinde.

About as close as I was willing to get
At the end of my notes for this day, as I sat in a chair with hardly any bottom support, I wrote V. TIRED OF HEIGHTS (underlined twice).  Ain’t that the truth.

King's College Maughan Library


July 26

Our first library back in London after London Away and minibreak, and it was part of the college we were staying at. We were early again, but it was nice sitting outside and talking with everyone about what they did over break. 

Once in the King's College Maughan Library building, we first went in to see a small exhibit on historical bibles.  The room was a bit strange for being part of a library, as it had memorial statues and plaques and things all over it, with big stained glass windows.  Soon our guide came in, one Sally Brock, the Information Services Center Manager, who gave us some background on the library.

King’s College was founded in 1829, at the same time as University College London, but was proclaimed as the “Godly” institution and UCL as the “ungodly” (they have been rivals ever since). The library was originally four separate buildings on the Strand campus, but became overcrowded and was likely very inconvenient. 

 The front of Maughan (with Olivia's finger)

The current building was opened by the Queen in 2001, and brings all four libraries together. The building itself is a former public records office, the first fireproof building in the country.  Because it is historical and also very interestingly built, it is hard to make changes to; there are many restrictions and accessibility problems.  The land the building is located on is Royal Land, leased to the college by the City of London. 

Inside the building there are over 1,000 reading areas, 300+ computer places and over 750,000 items.  There are 11,000 student users, and 1,000 regular non-student visitors. During term time the building is open seven days a week, and for about ten to twelve weeks during exam time it is open 24/7.  There have been many changes to the way the library operates recently, including roaming/roving desk services, and dropping the information part of Library and Information Services.

We went over to Special Collections, where the Special Collections Librarian, Katie Sambrook, had a bunch of items out on the tables for us to take a look at.  She stared by talking about what SC holds. There is a big emphasis on travel and discovery, and one of the earliest books they hold is from 1493. There are extensive medical collections, as medicine is one of the library’s strengths; one of the books was called Garden of Health, printed in 1491, and there was also a handwritten doctor’s notebook.  The book I found most funny was one written by Florence Nightingale, which was composed of charts and things tracking medical issues in the Crimean War.  This was only funny because about half of us had read the book we were given at Dunfermline, which had Florence Nitingale as a character and was partly set in the Crimean War. 

Katie told us that there is a move toward non-interventionist methods in conservation at Maugham, which has never really been done before.  The library is also slowly digitizing its special collections, holding three exhibitions on campus a year and then digitizing those items once the exhibition is done.  Of course this takes some work, getting copyright permission as well as the artists’ or authors’. 

Other items shown to us were a coronation album containing reports from reporters around the world, showing how other places were celebrating the event; a foreign office secret publication from 1949 showing a map of the Rhine put tpgether from reconnaissance and postcard pictures; an autographed book by Benjamin Franklin from Philadelphia entitled Charteers of the Province of Pensilvania and City of Philadelphia (at least he spelled the city right, hey?); a signed book of Allen Ginsberg poems; and two Holocaust items—one a collection of single pages that were meant to be secreted about the body and used to argue against Nazi ideas, and the other a book of lithos showing concentration camps as favorable and idyllic, which was drawn by an inmate under duress (there were 50 copies printed for the Red Cross and only three are accounted for). 

These were all items that we were allowed to touch, again a thrill that I don’t get to have very often over here in the states.

After this too-short presentation, the class split up into two again, and off we went for a tour.  The building is really interestingly set up, filled with interconnecting rooms packed with shelves, lots of rooms with a wall of windows and the second floor looking down over a railing, glass tiles in the floors, and lots and lots of doors.   We even went up to the top of a tower, which was totally nerve-racking. We went up in an elevator with glass sides, followed by a wobbly metal staircase that took us to the tower, high above much of the city. 
There were three or four study rooms up there, which looked like showers more than anything, small cubicles with frosted glass doors.  Of course then we had to go down again, and I was shaky going down the stairs and had to close my eyes in the elevator.  I don’t think there can be many people afraid of heights in London, or at least none that work in the libraries and museums.

View from the tower

We quickly toured some more of the building, seeing the self-checkout, inquiry desk, and the wand-thingy they use to pull out holds from the shelves.  There is a short-loan area where high-demand books can be checked out for 2 hours or up to 24 hours on certain items. 

The classification system is LC, and the law department has its own but is starting to switch over.  The film studio and music collections are short loan, up to one week, and there are viewing and listening equipment for DVDs, CDs, and even some LPs.  We went into the Round Reading Room, which is general reference, and the upper levels are storage.  No one is allowed above the ground floor because the handrail is too low (yay, no heights for me this time!), and the room is one of the quietest areas.

Because the library is so twisty, there has to be signs to tell everyone where they are and where they’re going, but since nothing is allowed to be hung on the walls, there are signs stuck up on the sides of the shelves. There are specific areas for each subject, so signs need to tell you where you are in relation to other rooms.  There is also a sort of color coding with some of the paint.

One of the more interesting areas in the library are the two rooms that are kept in original state.  They are small and filled with metal frame and slate shelving, and are fairly intimidating.  Along with this there is a zinc ceiling in the library that is painted to look like wood, which is one of only two like in the United Kingdom.

Another fabulous visit where I got to touch old books (that is a big reason why I am in the archives program), and of course stairs and heights were part and parcel.

Dunfermline Carnegie Library


July 19

Another morning train trip, this one bringing us out to Dunfermline, Scotland.  After getting some faulty directions and going in  a big circle, we climbed a rather large hill and finally made it to the Dunfermline Carnegie Library. 
We met Librarian Ross Manning, who brought us all the way to the top of the building to a meeting room to leave our bags, and then the rest of the tour was up and down all over the building.


The Dunfermline Library was opened on 29 August 1883.  Andrew Carnegie was born not far away in the town, so it is a point of pride that this is the very first Carnegie Library.  The most recent addition to the library build was in 1992, adding the Children’s Department and the Local History room.  The Children’s Room holds craft sessions, rhyme time, toddler sessions, etc., providing lots of opportunities for children to become readers (there is also a Harry Potter rug that I took some glee in).

Next to the Children’s Room is the Abbey Room, which is small and quiet, and had a display of Ancient Egyptian artifact replicas and the story of Ancient Egypt.  The Reference Library was originally the lending library, but with more books needed much more space.  There is also a Special Collections room with closed access, which contains both the George Reid Collection and the Murison Burns Collection. Most of the room was filled with Robert Burns materials—books, letters, artifacts, and even a big black statue in the middle.

The room where we spent most of our time was the Local History room. The Local History collection is not a big room, but it contains a lot. While we were there, the middle of the room was taken up with glass display cases, containing a collection put together by a local man in the community, all about soccer player Billy Liddell.  I am not up on my British football players, but it was a nice collections with all kinds of materials in it.  Locals are welcome to do displays but the library also does its own, and some of the displays are located on boards in the hallway just outside.

In this room there is open access to local history materials. There are books, and things like parish registers but also copies of many of the photos the library holds, stored in binders.  The classification is done by locality, then further by date, industry, etc.  This makes it much easier to find items for most researchers, because generally they will come in with a place they want information about or that is somehow associated with their research.

Next to the local history room we were shown a work room crowded with materials.  There is a big cabinet that holds a collection of glass negatives from a local photographer, Morris Allen.  Out of these negatives, some were selected for their local interest and printed off, and these are also included in the binders out front. The library owns the copyright of these photos, and there is a charge per photo for the public to obtain copies.

In this room there is also another photo collections, postcards, a map collection (we were shown one of the local area in the 1760s), and many unprocessed materials that no one has had the time or wherewithal to process.  It’s like any other library or archives, short on funds and manpower, but it’s interesting to know that they have such awesome materials that could possibly be accessed for research.

Another room holds quite a lot of older books and bound newspapers. This room is very full of shelves and I was sort of pushed to the back so I don’t have too many notes for it.

After the grand tour, we walked back up the stairs to the conference room for tea and drinks and some cookies.  I ate the top part off of these cookies covered with big marshmallow puff and had a hot chocolate.  I also took some pictures from the skylights in the angled ceiling and nearly accidentally launched myself out the window when I got up on a chair to do so.  We were also all given a kind of goody bag, with a galley copy of a novel called Blood and Ice, another book called Cardboard Wedding Cakes which was about Dunfermline during WWII, and then some information about the library and the area. 

 View from the skylight

Afterwards most of us walked down to Dunfermline Abbey to look around, although it started to rain and we got very wet.  It interesting trip, one that isn’t on the average vacation.  I like that we went out of the ordinary to see such an important piece of library history and the history of Scotland.

Central Library of Edinburgh


July 18

The same chilly, rainy day in Edinburgh, and after lunch at The Elephant House (J.K. Rowling’s former haunt) and a slog through the saturated Greyfriars Kirkyard (where Rowling got some of her HP names), my feet were disgustingly wet but we had another tour to do.  Since we were early, some of us went across the street to the National Library to check out an exhibit on censorship, which had an interesting history of the f-word which would never be showcased in the US.

Then we went back over and into the Central Library, and settled in at a conference table to hear all about the public library system of Edinburgh.  There were three staff members present to talk to us, and first was Alison Stoddart from the Digital Information Team.


The library was opened in 1890 and is at the heart of the library system of Edinburgh, coordinating all the branches and serving thousands of people. 

There are many way in which the CLE is trying to stay on the cutting edge of web 2.0 services and technology to bring the community what it needs. The library works hard on development and maintenance. They have many online services, providing a virtual library, have recently launched a library app for smartphones, there are plasma TVs throughout the building for providing information to patrons as well as interactive touchscreens that provide maps, location information, and catalog searches.  The library is on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and has its own blog.

The Your Library website is a collection of all the online resources that the library provides, many free to users. There one can search the catalog, check out the ebooks and audiobooks on Library2go, get news updates, find links to local and family history resources, and access many other resources.  It’s meant as a community information site—bringing users services from all over city.  Alison also spoke about digitization as a new way of allowing involvement and giving a wider reach to the library; it is not meant to be replacement but an alternative and an outreach resource to make more people aware.

Next up to speak was Annie Bell, Reader Development Librarian.  She spoke about how the library subscribes to lots of online literature, and the Scottish Book Trust, which promotes reading, writing and literature in Scotland.  She also touched on the Reading Agency, which is a program where authors are willing to come in and promote their work, and there are monthly author events at the library.  There are also City of Literature events once a year.

Some of the work Annie does is with promotional material, awards, and the forty-six book clubs associated with CLE.  These aspects of the program work to get some people out of a reading rut.  Another program is Frontline, a reader-centered approach training. They also work with book groups, and Read Aloud for the elderly in care.

Wendy Pearson, Service Development Leader, was the last to talk to us before our tour.  She spoke a lot about technology and computer literacy, having funds for free computers and internet in libraries.  The library tried to be an informal, easy place to learn, with classes held for two hours a week for six weeks.  Sometimes there are one-on-one sessions for those who are still unsure by themselves, and every 4 months there is a celebration of class alumni.

The library offers so many services besides this though, with social network classes, job classes for those out of work, dyslexia services, and dealing with illiteracy.  Two interesting programs that they do are the Six-Book Challenge, in which people have to read six books in a certain amount of time and then write a review for each, a program which is also done in prisons; and Quick Reads, which are simple versions of books for adult beginning readers, which are important because they are not children’s books and adults don’t have to feel like they are being treated like children while they learn to read.

We looked at a few materials and were given several more, including a catalog to the Edinburgh Book Festival, which I am sorry to say happened the week after we left.  At this point we had a break for tea, and then we were split up into two groups and given a tour. 

The tour was fast-paced, including the lending library, the Scottish collections (where Olivia got into an interesting discussion about copyright that I remember exactly nothing of), the reference room, and the music collection which is in an entirely different building along with the children’s room.  Music is really important in Edinburgh and it was interesting to hear about what kind of people come in and what kind of use the collection gets.

After all this stairclimbing and a precarious moment between the buildings when I looked down from the bridge and realized how far up we were, we checked out the touch screen system, which is really cool and probably addictive if you let it be.  The second half of the class joined us, and then we were free to go, so some of the girls ran off to see Harry Potter, and I trudged back to the bus stop to return to Dalkeith to rest.