British Library

british-library-reading-room-2Interesting Facts:

  • Purposed to collect the public output of the country
  • First library to focus on preservation
  • Like the Bodelian, it is a legal deposit library
  • Receives 8,000 items a day
  • Physically designed to resemble a ship to commemorate naval service

The British Library essentially began when King George III–deciding that a royal library was essential–set about obtaining a rather impressive collection. He obtained first the collection of British Consul Joseph Smith, and continued on to collect a variety of texts he deemed essential. When the reign was passed on to his son King George IV, the library was donated to the British people under the stipulation that it must always be visible and accessible to the public. That collection was originally held in the British Museum’s Reading Room, and now stands as a focal point at the center of the British Library. Readers can request the items which will then be retrieved via magical moving shelves!

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Interestingly enough, the British Library does not subject catalog. The books are organized–as they originally were–by size which has proven to be the best method!

Currently, The British Library has on a fantastic exhibit called Shakespeare in 10 Acts. This exhibit takes the viewer through the world of the performance of Shakespeare’s plays and their lasting impact on the world. This incredibly put together exhibit broke down various forms of media–including a clip from the latest film version of Macbeth that later inspired me to download and watch it before bed! It also spoke quite candidly about issues of race and gender in the performance of Shakespeare’s works. If you happen to find yourself in the area, I recommend that you check it out! If not, a book was published about it that you can get directly from the website.

For more information on the British Library, click here
Photos are courtesy of the British Library website

British Library Conservation Centre

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Our visit to the Conservation Centre was one of the most eye-opening of the lot. My love for books, libraries, and the general spreading of knowledge runs quite deeply, but I have rarely learned about the art of caring for such items.

Here we watched as experts in their field explained the very in-depth process each item goes through, and the importance of never doing something to a book–or any item that we wish to preserve–that cannot be undone.

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Our tour guide happened to be the Head of Conservation, Dr. Cordelia Robinson. She gave us a bit of background on the projects currently underway at the Centre, and then took us around to each conservator at work and allowed us to hear from them personally! I could gush for ages about each person, and item that we encountered, but I’ll spare you by giving just a few highlights:

-Liz Rose: Textiles

Currently working to restore old East India Trading Company flags found in India. The flags had been stored carelessly and were impossible to simply unroll. To treat them, she created a water bath that allowed the flags to be cleaned without ever sitting in dirty water. One thing that fascinated me about this process was that the water was later kept for analysis. Everything matters! She then created a board with a digital image of the original flag underneath to be kept in the back ground, but give the viewer an idea of what the original item looks liked.

Cordelia pointed out that this was a prime example of how different projects are chosen. These particular flags are only 2 remaining in existence which makes them utterly unique and so worth conserving despite their almost total degradation. Liz estimated that the project would take her 350 hours of work, but also pointed out that this was a hopeful estimate.

-Jenny Snowden: Treatment conservator in charge of the Hebraic Digitization Project

Jenny’s project was one being funded from the outside which made it another interesting one. She showed us how she performs minor repairs like page tears using a particular type of Japanese paper as it is made from such a thin, almost tissue like substance that is easy to later remove from the book if necessary and will not cause irreparable damage to the book.

-Daisy Todd: Book and Paper Conservator

Rather than showing us a project that she is currently working on, Daisy showed us the basic process of making a simple book. She then shared with us that working in her field requires manual dexterity and high levels of concentration. She also pointed out that working in conservation is a highly multi-disciplinary field. There are so many variables involved that focusing on what area is nearly impossible!

I am fairly certain we left the experience all considering changing our programs to focus on conservation. It is just such a fascinating take on the field, and the work done at the British Library Conservation Centre is pretty inspiring.

 

For more information on the British Library Conservation Centre, click here!
*Photos courtesy of Dr. Terese Welsh

Bodleian Library/Merton College-Oxford

Interesting Facts:

  • One of oldest libraries in Europe.
  • Oxford University’s first library began around 1320.
  • First opened to students in 1412.
  • Duke Humfrey’s collection became the predominate portion of the library in 1488
  • Duke Humfrey’s library only lasted 60 years when Christ’s Church destroyed most of the collection to purge Catholic influence–feel free to gasp here. I did!
  • Sir Thomas Bodley-who carried out diplomatic missions for Elizabeth I-came to rescue!
    (More on this below)
  • First opened to scholars in 1602
  • Oscar Wilde’s trial was held here in 1870

Years ago, a friend asked me to make a bucket list. I tend to live rather freely without setting lofty goals, but it is always fun to dream. On my list I placed only two items:

  1. To see the Aurora Borealis
  2. To visit the Bodleian Library in Oxford

Well, the second is officially marked off! And what an adventure it was. I squirmed in my seat becoming more and more anxious as drew ever closer to Oxford. Walking the streets of Oxford, I instantly felt a calm fall over me. It was lovelier than I imagined! Oxford is nothing like London. Yes, it’s got a bit of a touristy element to it, but it still has this gorgeous small town feeling to it that permeates through you with every step. Our tour began with a lovely guide breaking down the history of library to us. Most of which I laid out in the interesting facts, bit, but there were a few things that stood out to me.

First, Thomas Bodley–the hero of the Bodleian and it’s namesake!

As a champion for Elizabeth the First, he was a prominent man. When our guide explained why he took an interest in the library she said, “He wanted a project, really. He wasn’t ready for pipe and slippers.” Bodley’s library opened in 1602 with 2000 books. Clever Bodley didn’t stop there, however! He set up an agreement that still rings true today for the Bodleian–a copy of every book published in England is brought to the Bodleian making it the second largest in England–falling just behind the British Library!

My second favorite–though really quite horrifying–story deals with The Bard himself, unsurprisingly.

So the only types of books our hero Bodley did not like were plays. He found them frivolous. This meant that when the Bodleian acquired a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio they left it relatively untouched. When the Third Folio came along, however, they decided they didn’t need two so they chucked the first one! 200 years on an undergrad comes into the library with the Folio tucked under his arm and asks the librarian about getting it rebound. The librarian identified it as their missing Folio and a fundraiser ensued to ensure that it was returned to the library.

I am quite certain my heart stopped momentarily upon hearing this news! Nevertheless, the library now takes great care of their Shakespeare collection. There was a gorgeous exhibit in honor of the Bard on the theme of death in his plays.

After exploring Oxford post-Bodleian tour, we had another tour of Merton College–a constituent of Oxford University.

Founded in 1263 by William de Merton, it is comparably steeped in history. It is one of the oldest libraries in England, and is the oldest academic library still in continual use. One of my favorite portions: within its collection there was a gorgeous astrolabe once owned by Geoffrey Chaucer (!)IMG_2189

As with all libraries in England at the moment, Merton had a lovely Shakespearean display. While they do not have a first folio, they do have a 2nd!

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A rather well-known connection to Merton College, J.R.R. Tolkien was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 until 1959. Our delightful tour guide pointed out his room to us:

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(It’s the top right corner window)

Ended the trip with a drink at The Eagle and Child whilst brushing up on one of my favorite literary friendships because obviously that’s the smartest plan 🙂

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Oxford, you’ve stolen my heart 🙂

 

For more information on the Bodleian
For more information on Merton College

St. Paul’s Cathedral Library

The stunning 18th century library chamber

Interesting Facts

  • Original library destroyed in the Great Fire, rebuilt after .
  • Working theological library with over 30,000 items in its collection
  • The design of the building is symmetrical. Second room no longer used as the library–which provides a bit of a space issue–the stairs are tucked behind bookcases! A hidden stairwell!
  • The oldest book is a psalter from the 12th or 13th century that has been in the library for nearly 800 years. It is valuable because of its local connections

 I have very vivid memories of visiting St. Paul’s on my first journey to London–hearing fascinating stories about its history (I have a vague memory that the iron gate near the gift shop was important for a reason, but I can’t quite remember what!) Little did I know then that tucked behind the south-west tower on the triforium level of this beautiful cathedral lies an absolutely gorgeous library! We were getting a tour from the librarian, Mr. Joseph Wisdom, who, in my opinion, is one of the most charming gentlemen I’ve ever met. Soft spoken, witty, and incredibly knowledgeable, he shared with us a wealth of information about the history and use of the library. St. Paul’s was burned down during the Great Fire of London in 1666, almost all of the books within were lost.  Mr. Wisdom regaled us with stories of how the library came to rebuild its collection stating that like most libraries they had to beg, borrow, and buy.  (Not steal! This is a church library!) For me, the most memorable part of the tour was the wealth of knowledge that Mr. Wisdom gave us on life as well as books–because as librarians the two are truly intertwined. My favorites were:

“To photograph is to forget”

-on why it is important to take in the world around you rather than to focus on capturing it on screen

“It is wrong to say that one supplants the other”

-on the value of books as an artifact versus a text

By the time we left my head was reeling, and I was relatively sure that the day had peaked. Little did I know that before me lay the National Art Library and all of its treasures! Stay tuned for that post!

For more information on the library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, visit their website!

*Photograph courtesy of St. Paul’s Cathedral Library website

 

National Art Library at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Interesting Facts:

  • Largest collection of book art–a book or book-like object where the book is a work of art itself.
  • Previously the South Kensington Museum, it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899.
  • First part of the museum to have electricity.
  • Two largest collections were contributed by Reverend Alexander Dyce and John Forester. The Forester Collection being the largest of the two. John Forester was a close friend of Charles Dickens and served as his literary executor upon his death.
  • Only 43% of the library is in English.

The V&A is arguably my favorite museum. Unlike the British Museum’s rather overbearing display of imperialism, the V&A gives off the feeling that you’re looking at your rather well-traveled Grandmother’s attic filled with prized possessions–each room separated by country or type of art, it is rather awe-inspiring!

(Note: I have NO reason to equate this museum with a grandmother as it is very clearly an art museum, but it just feels as though each item is a treasured possession rather than a coveted triumph if that makes sense?)

After a rather hasty lunch, we raced through the museum, up the stairs, and to the doors of the NAL. We were greeted by a lovely librarian who instructed us to choose a seat at the tables nearby. Little did we know in choosing said seats that we were placing ourselves before some of the library’s greatest treasures. I would love to say that I remember vividly what each one was, but when I tell you what I saw I hope you will understand why only two have remained permanently ingrained in my heart! Our opened the first book in front of Jess and explained its contents. Rather impressive. The book in front of me was next and when she opened it my eyes widened. There. Sitting in front of me was the original handwritten manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House! IMG_0736I’m fairly certain my heart leapt into my throat. I was so taken aback that I merely stared in awe at the pages. Dickens battled through 10 pages before he came up with the final title—”Tom All Alone” was a continual contender. In truth, I’ve never read Bleak House, but I very much plan to do so now!  After that, the rest of the things—while quite fascinating and covering a broad range of things like a beautiful replica of Da Vinci’s notebooks, and a rather whimsical fashion book.IMG_0737 When she reached the last book, our librarian paused without explaining it and said that we should walk around and look at the books around us. I lingered with Dickens a bit longer and then strolled the room. As I approached that last book I was struck by a familiar face. William Shakespeare was staring back at me—though upside down because I approached it from behind. My heart skipped. Because each book in this room was rare or valuable in some way I assumed that this clearly a replica of one of Shakespeare’s Folios! As I made my way to the front I heard Dr. Welsh say, “Isn’t this one of the first folios?” My heart stopped. There was no way that just inches away from me lay an actual first folio of the great Bard himself. No possible way. I looked at the dates and felt a bit stunned, but still stuck in my disbelief. Then the librarian spoke up, “Ah, so you’ve found the Shakespeare”, she said with a small smile. “This is one of the 3 First Folios in our collection.”

In that moment, my heart was wholly overwhelmed. I felt the tears coming before I could take a breath to compose myself. I turned to hug Dr. Welsh in an attempt to stem the stream. “Thank you so much for this,” I whispered through my tears. She hugged me knowingly and said, “I asked for this just for you. I didn’t think they’d be able to do it, but they did!” I lack the words to express how much both those words and that moment meant to me.

For more information on the National Art Library visit their website here.

*Photos with First Folio courtesy of Dr. Teresa Welsh