Sunday, 8 July 2012

Put on your Cold War Duds, We're Going to the Barbican!

Barbican Complex: Photo Courtesy of The Londonist

Today we were headed to the Barbican, a cold war concrete fortress that I can only describe using photos. All that and more? That's Barbican, or part of it. After the Germans bombed London City, which is different from the greater London area, there was very little left, and so the English built the Barbican Center. It's multi-level, built on plague pits where they buried the dead and it has EVERYTHING. Everything including a yellow line leading people from the tube station to the middle of the center in case they get lost in a literal concrete jungle. It has a movie theater, athletic facilities, a theater theater, restaurants, a library, and right now the world's biggest James Bond exhibit. We weren't concerned with any of that though; we were there for the library.

The Library

 The Barbican public library is impressive and I'm not saying that to be nice. They have a massive collection and a number of really interesting programs. The Barbican is located right across from St. Giles church, where none other than one John Milton is buried, and offers a mobile library on top of its physical lending. Our tour was conducted by librarians Geraldine Pote and Jonathan Gibbs. The library has existed in some form on this general site since the 1400's when it was founded by Dick Whittington. Unfamiliar with Whittingon? Allow the excellent British children's show, Horrible Histories, to enlighten you:

So, in addition to being a star of panto (Christmas Pageants done in Britain), Whittington founded the Barbican library. It didn't become a lending library though until the 1960's. Most of the libraries that we went to weren't lending libraries even today, so the Barbican stands out as a unique place in both location and services. In addition to their regular public library, it also has a substantial music library, a children's section, and a large collection of books dating back longer than the US has been a country.

The library uses the Dewey Decimal system to catalog its large collection of over 9,000 books. The oldest book that one can take out of the library is from 1730. Their catalog is searchable by non-members, and even has a cool "who writes like this section" that will help to steer you toward the right book for you.

 Unlike many libraries in the US, to take a DVD out of the Barbican library you have to pay a small fee. Older films are a quid for a week of use, while newer films go for a slightly higher price. If the fee is too much for you, e-books and audio books are available for lending free of charge, and educational videos are free to rent regardless of how new they are. The librarians added that they'd love to be able to offer a streaming service, but there is no infrastructure to augment the process and companies like Amazon have rather taken over the market.

In order to get a library card at the Barbican you don't have to be a resident of the City of London, you just have to demonstrate that you will be coming to the library on a semi-often basis. Once the library has determined that you can be reasonably expected to be at the library occasionally you'll be awarded a library card. The books are one thing - you can get new releases in a variety of genres or take books out of the London Collection (their oldest books)
- but it is the services that really make the Barbican special.

The Services 

Of all of the really interesting things about the Barbican it's their services that I found to be the most eye opening and valuable of the trip there. I'm not training for public librarianship, but I admire the work that's done in public libraries and the services that they make available to their patrons. 

Online Lending and New Technology 

Their online lending system of choice is Cobra, and if you can't make it to library, but you'd still like to take some books out, they offer delivery services of materials to the elderly and the disabled. This is the first time I've heard of a program like that but I'll be sure to investigate it once I'm back to the states. One system the librarians are very proud of is the RFID system or, Radio Frequency Identification, which allows check out, returns and renewals using radio waves. The system works on just about any book, so long as there isn't any foil on them. Foil tends to thwart the whole process. The RFID machines use a touchscreen interface, which could be problematic for patrons with special needs, but there are still people available to check patrons out in the traditional way.

Children's Programs

 One of the notable book programs in the Barbican, and the UK at large, is the Book Start program, which provides a few books to children at their birth, and then more when they reach three years. This is meant to get children started on reading early on and seems to be an excellent program. On top of that the children's library runs a number of well-attended story time groups, and participates in a Young Reader's Program that offers prizes to the most well-read children over the summer. The Barbican also sports one of the country's largest public music libraries. Opened in 1983, the collection of the library was built up through donations from various collectors across the UK and today houses 16,000 scores. They have popular ones, like Adele, as well as rare and obscure English music. They've created their own song index for use within the library and have a file index of local music teachers that patrons can view in an attempt to find an instructor for themselves. With practice pianos and private listening booths, the music library serves patrons from all over London and gives access to an area that is, unfortunately for many, a luxury. In addition to their library services, the Barbican also runs several notable community programs; reading groups (with waiting lists), a crafting circle, and a music group make up just a few.

The Music Library 

Geraldine and Jonathan passed us over to Assistant Librarian Richard Jones for the tour of the music library. 

The music library opened at the Barbican in 1983 and is one of two large musical libraries in London, not the city of (which like I said at the top is a small burrow) but London proper. This seems only fitting as London is considered by many to be the classical music capital of the world. Between multiple concerts all year round and the phenomenal Proms series of concerts done every year at the Royal Albert Hall, it seems natural that London would have a music library like the one found at the Barbican. 

Run by a dedicated team of 5 librarians, the Music Library has a large reference library, approximately 16,000 scores from all over the world (including a great number of obscure British compositions), listening cubicles for students, researchers and music lovers, a range of periodicals (most given to the library for free by publishers), and 50,000 cds - just to name some of their items.

To organize their collection, the library sends many scores out to be
professionally bound, allowing them to survive longer despite multiple users, and has created an easily searchable song index for patrons to use.

To me the most interesting feature of the music library were the two
practice pianos, both electronic and with headphone jacks to prevent noise pollution for other patrons. They are free to practice on and both were seeing heavy use while we toured the library. 

 Though it looks imposing the Barbican is a sweet, if concretey, place to spend an afternoon. Or several if you happen to get lost.

Barbican Library: photo courtesy of Ravish London

Tuppence! Tuppence for everyone! The St. Paul's Library.

St. Paul's Cathedral and Millenium Bridge: Photo by Jenny Collins 

 Our first class took place at St. Paul's Cathedral and fans of Marry Poppins will be disapointed to hear that thought the pidgeons remain they don't appear to be getting much from the ole tuppence to birdseed trade like they used to. I think the pidgeon's are doing fine without it, but its always sad to see the old ways die out. At two pence I'm not even sure how much bird seed one could buy if they had the option.

The Librarian 

      Our guest instructor for the day was Joe Wisdom, the aptly named head librarian at St. Paul's. He met our class at the babtizmal fount, currently missing its cover because it's so dang heavy, wore an impeccable suite, spoke in a soft voice and was one of the most knowlegeable people I've met. He opened with some useful advise to all librarians out there, not just the baby ones like myself, "We don't do religion, politics, or gender, we're librarians." It's advise that I am going to have to try and take to heart. We walked with the tourists up the stairs, stopping about halfway up for Mr. Wisdom to remove a metal(and medieval) set of keys from his pocket. He opened one a large wooden door straight out of Hogwarts (fair warning now people the Harry Potter references are going to come fast and furious here, it's the nature of the nerdy beast) and we stepped into another world. We were under the main dome of St. Pauls and after gawking at that for a moment we prodeeded into the upper parts of the cathedral proper. As we walked down the hall we passed various artifacts, dating from a plethora of time periods. Mr. Wisdom referred to a number of them as "fiddly bits". He gave us the history of the cathedral as we walked; it was built by Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style and was brought into use in 1697.

The Great Model 

We were allowed into the room that contains the wooden model Wren had commissioned in 1674 to show his plan for the cathedral. The model is hugely impressive...and huge all my itself as it measures 10 yards long and about 5 and 1/2 feet high. It was the only model that Wren ever  had built, why you ask? Well it seems that once he had a model that the king could look at and appraise, the king started making demands and offering opinions. Some of them silly, like adding a bunch of gothic spires, and some of them architecturally unsound. You can almost feel Wren's frustration at the multitude of chefs in his kitchen in some of the facsimile drawings hung up around the room. The silliest of all of these drawings is the Warrent Design, a mish-mash of at least 8 different architectural styles that incorporated all of the kings demands for the cathedral. Surrounding it are facsimile editions of Wren's original drawings. The original plan was to use the real drawings, but as it would have been a conservation nightmare, they had copies made instead. It is difficult to control the temperature and the humidity within the cathedral, and these problems aside it would be near impossible to replace the windows with proper UV resistent glass. So the documents are preserved and safe, while the copies stand on display. The cathedral uses private consultants who work with the convervation team to make sure everything stays as prestine as possible. Humidity, temperature, and light all have to be controlled in order to makre sure that materials are safe for future generations.

The Great Model of St. Paul's: photo courtesy of

The Library

 Once we'd gotten a taste of the materials in St. Paul's it was otnto the main event, the library. The library of St. Paul's isn't as large as one might think, but all of its space is used to the fullest with floor to ceiling shelves. The walls are carved stone, with books and ink well featureing prominently in the decoration of the library. You can get a look at the carvings in the above photo of the model room. The original plan was for St. Paul's to have two libraries, but when this plan fell through they ended up with the model room and the current library.

 The bulk of the archive of St. Paul's is held off site, due to spacing issues. The library suffered from the great London fire when it's own collection burned along with thousands of other books being stored in St. Paul's basement. Bishop Henry Compton helped to recovera number of the books and many of the books in St. Paul's fall under "grey literature", things that are below the radar. People know of the books existence but not really where they can find them. More books were added in the 19th century when Sparrow Simpson bought in massive amounts of material to the library. To this day they are still adding volumes to their collection but on a very limited basis. All together 23,000 bibliographic materials and 10,000 physical volumes are part of the St. Paul's collection. Currently there is no digitization process going on at St. Paul's and very little digitization but it is an area that Mr. Wisdom has stated the library is looking into. Use of the library and it's materials is open to whoever can make use of it, and Mr. Wisdom can be contacted through St. Paul's website.

In addition to his skills as a librarian, Mr. Wisdom is also very good an analyzing notebooks and informing you how long you can generally expect them to last as he demonstrated with all of our notebooks. I got high marks for paper quality but low marks for my spiral binding. Good thing I am putting all my notes in the blog!

 It was an amazing way to start a month of library centric exploring.

St. Paul's Cathedral Library Website
St. Paul's Website

Why We're Here

Big question, and we're not actually here to try and answer it. Instead what this space is for is for me to post about the libraries that I am going to as part of my July abroad in the UK as a library science student. If you like libraries, or are related to be and feel obligated to read this regaurdless of how interesting you find the content, this should be chock full of fun facts. Hopefully fun facts. At the least there will be fun photos. So there is that if all else fails. Keep an eye on this spot; I'll be making a post for each library that we visit during the trip, and the odd Museum or two.