Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Storing the Stage ~ The Archives of the National Theater

The National Theater: Photo by Jenny Collins
I loved the National Theater a long time before I got there to see it myself. Since 2008 the National Theater has filmed and broadcast their stunning plays (all of which have British authors, or are accepted members of the British theatrical cannon) into theaters around the world. The program is called NT Live and I would recommended that anyone with an interest in theater find a local movie theater that participates in their streams. Through NT Live I had seen a number of the National Theater's productions and so I was thrilled that it was right down the street from my home in London.

I had the chance to see 4 plays at the National Theater during my stay and on my last day in London was privileged to take a back stage tour of the theater itself and then of their archive. A theater archive is a slightly different beast, how do you catalog a lighting display that's almost a half mile long? Or boxes and boxes of props?

The answer is carefully and diligently.

The archive has materials dating back from 1963, when the National Theater was started, to the present day. The archive is open to anyone who makes an appointment and when there patrons can view materials such as programs, posters, photographs, production drawings, video and sound recordings of NT productions, press cuttings, prompt scripts, costume, lighting, and sound information and more.

The NT production recordings that have been filmed within the past decade are done from multiple angles, and nowadays with HD cameras, allowing researchers an unprecedentedly close look at performances that formerly would have been ephemeral. 

For those unable to make it to the archive their catalog can be searched from their website anywhere in the world. You can also request some materials be scanned by archivists and sent to you for research purposes. The NT Performance Database, one of their catalogs, contains details of every play ever staged by the National Theater. While the NT Archive Catalog contains entries for the items held in the Archive collection, such as props, set pieces and other items used on stage.

The National strives to be inclusive and on the cutting edge of technology and is moving steadily forward with digitization of those items in the collection it is possible to digitize while at the same time looking into tablet and other technologies to bring the archives to a more global audience. Audiences of the NT Live screenings are now able to by digital versions of production programs, with special digital only video interviews and interactive features not available in a paper medium.

The National Theater is truly one of the Seven Wonders of London and I can't wait to go back!


National Theater Archive Website
The National Theater Archive Catalog
The National Theater
National Theater Live!

Once You've Got it, You've Got to Fight to Keep it. A tour of the British Library Conservation Studio

Photo by: Melissa Proulx

On our final week in London it was back to the British Library, this time for a trip to their conservation studio. Their facility of state of the art, with its own dedicated building within the library itself. For a library as large and important as the British Library it seems only natural that they would want a space to do most of their own conservation work. Opened only 4 years ago the conservation studio is one of the leading institutions in the world for book preservation, conservation and restoration.

The Teams

There are several teams working within the center, all with unique jobs but all devoted to the work of keeping book treasures safe and usable for future generations.

Their Preservation Advisement Center contains a small, but highly dedicated team, of librarians and archivists who help to share methods and practices with other libraries to help them educate their own staff on matters of conservation.

The British Library does a great deal of Intervention Conservation, running repairs, and preparing items for exhibition.

The Conservation Science Research Department works on storage, pests, guidelines and environmental monitoring for the library.

They manage conservation both for those materials in the library and those in storage far away. The storage items are kept in a chamber with no more than 15% oxygen which prevents, pests, fires, and other problems that could destroy the books. For those books in danger of being destroyed or falling apart the studio will assess and then decide which books they will work on repairing. The process is vigorous and highly skilled, using binding skills, chemistry knowledge and artistry to preserve and restore books to as perfect a condition as modern technology allows. The studio is brightly lit, clean, and contains a number of work stations each with their own tasks and conservator.

Conservation is an area that I believe all library students, not just archivists, should be aware of and so I felt very lucky to have had this be the final tour of the visit. Librarians are responsible for the care of book from its acquisition in the library until it leaves, to end with conservation felt only fitting.

Bench at the British Library: Photo by Melissa Proulx


British Library Conservation Studio

"My Grandmother has the Hat!" ~ The Royal Gegraphic Society

Royal Geographic Society: Photo Courtesy of the RGS Website
Tucked up the street from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Science Museum is the Royal Geographic Society. The name invokes images of proper Victorian gentlemen with posh names sitting in arm chairs, snifting brandy and discussing the "plight" of the "natives". My mental image has always included top hats and pith helmets and visions of stiff upper lip Brits getting caught in the snow, sand, and any other environment one can think of.

Jokes aside, starting from its foundation in 1830 and going until the modern day, the society has been behind most of the greatest exploratory missions in the western world. It was members of the society who discovered the origin of the Nile river for Europeans, who traveled to the Poles, who investigated vast swaths of earth and brought the information back to England. The society began as a gentlemen club, first as one generally interested in the sciences before become a group primarily interested in, you guessed it, geography. From there they expanded, eventually becoming the society that is so famous today.

As the societies main goals were to acquire information and then bring it back for the people of Britain, they would need a lot of space and thus the archive was born. Not only do they have documents like maps and notes from various expeditions but they also have scientific instruments and personal items from the societies most high profile explorers.

George Mallory's boot, recovered from Mt. Everest : Photo by Audrey Taylor

Most of the items in the societies collections have to do with 4 main regions of exploration:

The Polar Regions
The Antartic
Central Asia and Everest

There are 2 millions items in the collection which breaks down thusly:

1 million plus map sheets

1/2 million pictures (photos, drawings etc)
250,000 manuscripts

1,500 objects (vases, boots, and a tin of meat flavored sweets just to name a few that we saw)

The reading room of the society is hyper modern, having been opened in 2004, and is open for students and professors to use free of charge. Others have to pay a small fee in order to come in and conduct research. Nowadays the society sticks to funding smaller projects and making their findings available to researchers; sensitive to issues of imperialism they tend to stick closer to home. They raise money through memberships, events, and renting out the building to various functions and the Queen is also a patron of the society.

Overall it was a fascinating (and in the case of the meat lozenges gross) look into the history of exploration in Britain and the preservation of that history. 


The Royal Geographic Society

A Good Place to Spend a Rainy Day ~ The Edinburgh Central Library

Central Library Upper Gallery Walkway: Photo by Jenny Collins

What better way to spend a rainy day than by going to the library? I'm not sure I can come up with one so that's what we did our first rainy day in Edinburgh, went to the Edinburgh Central Library.

It's a public library, located just down the road from Edinburgh castle, and is also a Carnegie library. Our guide for the tour was librarian Vesna Rajacic and Alison Stoddard who is the acquisition and digitization specialist and children's librarian.

The Central Library has 28 branches across the city and membership is both free and easy, even international citizens can join giving you access to their catalogs and some of their digital services. Their openness concerning membership brings in between 8 and 10 thousand new members a year.

The library originally contained three departments:
1) Reference Library - which has remained largely unchanged since its construction.
2) The Lending Library
3) The Newsroom - which is now the Scottish collection and houses, as one might imagine, works of Scottish origin.

The library has seen a great deal of expansion since then, adding more books, a music library, an art library as well as a inflatable Dalek who is dressed in various literary costume for the children's section. He's currently naked, awaiting his transformation into count Dalekula, but I took his photo non the less.

E-Books Rising 

Like the British Library and others, the Central Library at Edinburgh is embracing both e-lending and tablet specific apps for their library. "The Inspired Library" is an app offered by the Central Library that allows users with tablets to experience their special collections and exhibits, regardless of where they live geographically.

There are also multiple touch screen interfaces allowing patrons to interact with exhibits, explore new features and even do genealogical research. These efforts are funding mostly through the city council with more money coming in from grants and other avenues.

Digital Interface: Photo by Jenny Collins

There digital services are some of the most advanced and aggressive I have ever seen. Their goal, as stated by Digital Information Services team leader Alison Stoddard is to create a "24 hour digital library", or library2.go as many refer to it as. As of now their mobile site (link provided below) provides heritage resources, mobile apps, their catalog index and many other features meant to make a mobile, online library a feasible possibility rather than a supplement to traditional library services.

Interestingly services like dictionaries and encyclopedias, as well as other resource materials, are the least popular on the website. Users want interactive content, researching abilities into subjects like family history; services that carry quick "measurable outcomes" for the user are the most successful. Perhaps the most important key to the success of the Central Libraries Web initiative is the knowledge that digitization has to be more than simply taking an item and scanning it as an image to place on line. The web is a different medium and needs to be treated as such in order for programs to work and flourish. For patrons nervous about getting into e-content the library offers a variety of classes and tutorials to assist all age levels become comfortable with a new iteration of the library.

I highly suggest checking out Library2.go!


Central Library website
Central Library Online "Your Library" service - go here for more information on library2.go or, if you have ancestors from Scotland, check out their ancestry service!

Preserving Heritage ~ The National Archives of Scotland

After a harrowing bus ride 9 hours north from London, and then a nice overnight in a Manor that pleasantly resembles several abandoned orphanages that one might see in a horror film, we took another (thankfully) short bus to Edinburgh for some library visits. We had two on site visits on this particular day but I'm going to start by writing about the National Archives of Scotland. The rain managed to hold off until we were nearly at the archive, so rather than an exterior picture here is a shot of the impressive yellow dome that marks the entrance to the archive.

The National Archives of Scotland: Photo by Jenny Collins

The National Archives of Scotland are just what they sound like: an archive for all those materials pertaining to the civil and government actions of Scotland. The contents of the archive are Scottish law, land deeds, and materials from the civil and criminal courts. There is an agreement between the Scottish and the English stipulating that government documents have to stay in the National Archives rather than being sent down to London for storage there. I found this fascinating and ingenious.  Most think of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and leave it at that, but Scotland is its own country, that had aspirations of independence and and still does in many ways. By keeping government documents, including genealogies of the Scottish people in Scotland, the heritage of the country was protect. In times when relationships between Scotland and England were less stable and pleasant it was a way for the Scottish to protect their heritage and their history from possible destruction.

The archive holds government records dating back to the 1140's, before it was even made part of Britain. The original head of the archive was called the Clerk of the Roles and his job was established in the 1280s. The term was still being used even after scrolls had gone to the wayside but nowadays they just use "archivist". The building in which the archives are housed was constructed in the 1880s and meant to be used as an all purpose government building but was quickly filled up with the abundant materials of the archive.

The majority of Scottish citizens enjoy free access to the archives but there are fees incurred for legal teams wishing to use the archive as well as for people wishing to access the "Scotland's People" ancestry database. The fees are reasonable but in some ways it seems wrong that people should have to pay in order to access records pertaining to their own personal history. The service, despite the fee is widely used, both digitally and physically in house. As we walked through on our tour with archivist Dr. Clarke, there were a number of people using the reading rooms and researching their own family background.

Digital Endeavors 

The archives are fully embracing a move to digitization. They have digitized half a million family documents which can be viewed from anywhere in the world for a fee. In addition to that they've digitally imaged 200 years worth of property indexes in order to make access to this information easier and faster for all kinds of users. Their digital efforts are not limited to those on site at the National Archive; they've opened multiple genealogy centers all across the UK which allow people who can't travel to the archive easy access to family related materials. They have their own digitization lab on the premises which allows them to quickly and easily go from deciding which volumes to digitize to making it happen with little input and wait from middle men.

The National Archives of Scotland: Photo by Jenny Collins

 The National Archives of Scotland is committed to protecting the heritage of the nation and bringing people closer to their past. It is a great facility and was an eye opening experience.


The National Archives of Scotland

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The British Museum

British Museum: Photo by Jenny Collins

Chances are if you've taken any kind of ancient history class, or had a section on it in your high school class, you've seen at least 10 items currently housed in the British Museum. Maybe more, probably more, I'm not sure that I managed to see everything that was in the museum. Our visit was to the Central Archives with archivist Stephanie Clark. The Central Archives is responsible for storing items pertaining to the history of the Museum itself. That includes but is not limited to the following:

Staff applications and evaluations
Donations and Gifts
Artifact Acquisition 
Exhibition Planning History
Building Plans

What kind of more you might ask? Well one of the items held in the Central Archive is the bomb that fell on the museum during World War II. There are other items as well, sketches done by janitorial staff,  records that allow artifacts to be traced (mostly to make sure they came from legitimate sources). 

British Museum entrance to the central archive: Photo by Jenny Collins

Stephanie has a lot of responsibility, she is the only archivist working in the Central Archive and had her work cut out for her in terms of organizing the space to make sure researchers can quickly find items when they need them. The history of a building and an institution might not seem like the most important thing to preserve but Stephanie did an excellent job of making it apparent that the history of the British Museum itself is equally important as the items inside of it.

Stratford Upon Avon

Stratford Public Library: Photo by Jenny Collins

Stratford Upon Avon probably sounds familiar to to...well most people. Its the birthplace of one William Shakespeare and also where he's buried. I actually found Stratford to be a very uncomfortable place. Like most people who come from an English Literature background, I love Shakespeare, I do I swear! Every time I go a few years without seeing Hamlet and see it again I'm reminded of how much of our literary cannon and our most common quotes come from him. He was a genius of a playwright. Not for me personally, but to many he's like a god. That's what Stratford feels like...a strange hybrid between Disney Land and a religious site.

That might seem like a strange comparison but here me out. People flock to Stratford like its a religious pilgrimage, the line to go into the home where Shakespeare was born was enormous, so too as the line to see his gave. But there are elements of the town that are also carnival-esque, people in the streets perform bits of the Bards plays, many dressed in costume. The main street has a feeling of artificiality to it, like its not a real place. It closes when the tourists leave and that leaves you wondering how the people who actually live there feel about the deification of the towns most famous resident. Rather than visiting a Shakespeare centric library I decided to take a temporary break from Willie and see what the Stratford public library was like.

In a street crowded with 16th century style homes, I thought that the interior of the library would match the ye olde exterior, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. The Stratford public library is very modern from its banks of 16 computers in the main entrance to its RFID check out system. The library is a Carnegie library and is part of the larger Yorkshire public library system. The facility is clean and modern with no displays extolling Shakespeare's values. There are ads for information literacy classes and local community interest groups.

All the shelves are wheeled, which allows them to be pushed back to make room for reading groups and other community activities that take place there. There is a large teen/young adult section, and there is a free ancestry look up service available for anyone who wishes to use it. Dewey Decimal is the cataloging system in place and it looks like there is space for continued expansion.

Grave of William Shakespeare: photo by Jenny Collins