Library Visits 2011-12

The Warburg Institute Library
Warburg Institute
"This is no place for idleness - be gone, time waster" 
Image via Flickr user Alastair Dunning.

The Library emerged as a weapon of enlightenment against orthodox dogmatism: Luther; the French Revolution; Sciences; Liberating the right to think for oneself.
Thus wrote Aby Warburg about his library. The eldest son of a prominent German banking family, he ceded his right to the family business to his brother on the condition that he was to be bought any book he required for his studies. Around his profound interest in how the art and culture of the ancient world had influenced the development of Western civilization, the library grew up. Ultimately, he developed his personal collection into the library at the heart of a research institute, attracting a community of renowned scholars, their output and the library continuing after his death in 1929. With the rise of the Nazis, the entire library and its staff were clandestinely shipped to London, where, after several moves, it settled in Woburn Square. Its dedicated home is, to this day, a strange world of Latin notices, renaissance images, free-flowing tea and holistic classification.

It was the notice welcoming researchers to afternoon tea that we first noticed when we entered the Institute - a sign that the Warburg's sense of scholarly community is as alive as ever. After prying several excited members of our party away from the noticeboard of events, we were welcomed  by our fellow trainee Raphaelle. We first visited the downstairs reading room, home to the recent periodicals and general reference volumes, and all overlooked by a large sign painted on the walls in Latin urging readers to maintain a scholarly silence.  There we were introduced to assistant librarian Dr. François Quiviger, who told us about the history of the library, and about its unique structure and classification system. Having been established from a researcher's private collection and created as an institute for and by researchers, until relatively recently the librarians held no formal LIS qualifications, but were instead researchers active in the fields covered by the library. To this day, many of the staff are also academically active. Dr. Quiviger also explained the structure of the library. Arising from Aby Warburg's own arrangement of his books, the library aims to organise knowledge not in alphabetical order, by place or by person, but rather by flow and reaction. Books are arranged under four principles: Image, Word, Orientation and Action, meant to replicate the flow of human ideas from their perception to their explication, to the responses and reactions they engender. The floors of the library are arranged according to these principles, beginning with Image on the 1st, Word on the 2nd, etc. Dr. Quiviger illustrated how a researcher could physically follow the progression of an idea from the ancient world onwards along shelves and floors. However, despite this holistic arrangement, the books are now catalogued by standard Anglo-American rules, the library having transferred from a system which required the use of Latin accidence...

The Warburg Institute Library classification scheme

We were also shown the Warburg's iconographic database of images drawn from the Institute's photographic collection and library. The Warburg has consistently been at the forefront of digitisation, and this database in progress allows for either classified or keyword searching of images ancient, mediaeval, renaissance and beyond. This runs in tandem with the Warburg's long-running book digitisation project, which allows them to make otherwise fragile or rare works available easily to researchers either as online PDFs or as durable reprints on the library shelves.

Afterwards, we were taken on a tour of the library by Raphaelle, where we met other members of library staff who explained the library's policies on periodicals, acquisitions and conservation. The latter included some discussion of the library's (at times controvertial) policy of rebinding some damaged or fragile works to allow them to remain in use in the library, rather than risking the volumes becoming unavailable while attempting to maintain the original binding. This triggered a lively discussion about our own libraries policies with regard to repair, conservation and circulation. This was followed by further discussion of the library over tea in the Warburg's welcoming common room.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Trust is a global charity with billions of pounds at its disposal. As well as funding vast amounts of medical research, Sir Henry Wellcome envisioned a place where people could come to learn about the many wonders of medicine and its history. The Wellcome Collection provides a fantastic space for this public engagement, housing a café, bookshop, exhibition galleries and a library.

Image via Flickr user Maggie Jones.
A small group of trainees were met and taken upstairs by Amelia, a friendly member of staff from the library. Having been impressed by visits to previous exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection many times before, I wasn’t surprised to encounter a fantastic library facility. With a vast number of reading rooms and an extensive collection ranging from biology and the usual sciences to magic and the occult, the library has plenty to keep your mind occupied; and membership is open to everyone. There are beautiful paintings hanging on the walls, whilst the shelves, desks and facilities are all brand new. In addition to the many books available on the shelves there is a large reserve collection including moving image material and special collections are able to be viewed in an allocated room in the depths of the library.

After being shown around the entire library we spent some time looking at the library website, hearing about Wellcome’s extensive digitisation project. We also had a look at a special project called ‘Wellcome Images’ which contains a vast array of images on things ranging from diseases to tattoo designs. You can access it by clicking here. At the end of the tour, my enthusiasm for the Wellcome Collection only increased and I certainly look forward to my next visit.

Joe (IALS)
Westminster Reference Library

Image via Flickr user Jamie Barras.
Westminster Reference Library is tucked away behind the National Portrait Gallery but it is one of the busiest public libraries I have ever been in. It is a hidden gem in the West End that not only houses an incredible collection of print and electronic resources, but it is also a hub of culture and innovation with rolling exhibitions, installations and live events. As a reference library it has had to think on its feet to keep people coming through the doors in recent years, due to the availability and dependence on increasing online resources. It offers free WiFi for laptop and smart device users, and PC’s to connect to the internet for anyone else who wants to get online. Its core subject areas of Art & design, Business, Law, Performing Arts and UK Official Publications are comprehensive and the whole collection is used imaginatively to support the many live events that also take place. The library hosts group study space that can be booked, a suite of PC’s that allow access to a wide range of online databases, in-house only resources and mailing lists that would be otherwise inaccessible to small businesses and people starting up on their own. The library has moved on from being strictly reference only and has a collection of around 10,000 loanable items and has an incredibly knowledgeable staff who are on hand to advise and help with queries.
This is the library I remember of my youth in terms of feel and staff that instil you with the confidence that they can find a solution to any query. Nostalgia is often the word used when people discuss their love of libraries or indeed the reason people will fight to keep them running. If nothing else this library is a testament to how public libraries should adapt for the future and the attitude they should adopt when trying to demonstrate how a community will suffer without it. The library answers to its user group which is truly eclectic and I would imagine, demanding with a footfall averaging 1,000 people a day to use the range of services it offers; it cannot be denied that this is a public library that goes above and beyond expectations.

Anna (Courtauld)

The National Archives

On December 1st, I attended a tour of the National Archives at Kew, organised by the M25 Consortium of Research Libraries. The National Archives is the official archive of the UK government, which manages and preserves over 1,000 years worth of records and which works with 250 government and public sector bodies, helping them to manage and use information more effectively, as well as ensuring that the general public can access these records. They hold government, military and court records, as well as maps and historical documents. They also provide online access to resources kept elsewhere, such as births, marriages, deaths, census records, more recent military records, medical practice records, wills and parish registers.

National Archives

The tour was conducted by the Librarian of the National Archives, Helen Pye-Smith. We began by sitting in on the orientation talk given to all new visitors to the National Archives, which described, with the aid of power point and a sign language interpreter, how to search the catalogue, what resources were available, what events were on, and how to access different materials. After this, she showed us around and elaborated on the content of the talk as she showed us around the banks of computers on the first floor. As a great deal of material in the National Archives is now digitised, a decision has been made to allow the public to access this without a reader’s ticket. So once past the well-appointed bookshop, spacious café, and museum showcasing the Domesday Book on the ground floor, the stairs lead to the first floor, full of computers, where members of the public can access online government, military and census records, print scanned documents off in A3 and speak to the staff at two specialised information desks. The space is also currently shared by the London Family History Centre, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which specialises in providing access to genealogical material.

Also on the first floor is the library. The space has recently been refurbished and is now entirely open-plan, as the previously-enclosed library had been difficult to find and was consequently not used by many visitors. The library is one of the few research-quality reference libraries in the UK that is accessible without a readers’ ticket to the general public. The collection is designed to complement the archives, focusing on topics pertaining to the records (government, military, social history), and the collection development policy is to primarily select works that use the archives as sources, meaning that in addition to providing further information on topics to those researching, they can also provide further sources and directions for research within the archives themselves. Incorporating the library into the general research floor also involved a restructuring of library staffing. Rather than manning a dedicated library information desk, the library staff were given additional training and now work on one of the floor’s general information desks, answering queries about archive searches as well as the library, a set up which has proved fruitful both for archive users and for the staff themselves, who have gained a much more comprehensive picture of how the collection relates to the records and documents held, and how they are used.

London - Archive Research

We then moved to the other side of the floor, to view the document reading room. To consult documents themselves, a reader's ticket is required. This can be gained by anyone on the provision of two forms of ID, but also requires those registering to undertake a short document-handling course and quiz on a computer, which must be successfully completed before a card can be issued. Documents can then be ordered up from the catalogue, and the reader is assigned a seat and locker number. After the document has been brought out from storage, it is placed in the numbered locker for collection, and must be taken to the assigned desk. As these records are unique, security is very high, with uniformed staff patrolling the desks and many security cameras – allowing a wide variety of access to these records is not without its challenges! However, while they take great pains to avoid any documents being mistreated, they also go to great lengths to make sure that people can record the documents in the best possible format for their research. They not only allow and provide stations for people to photograph documents with their own cameras, but also have set up cameras on adjustable frames, connected to computers, from which researchers can photograph documents and email the images to themselves (USB sticks and similar are not allowed as they could potentially introduce viruses). They also provide a copying and scanning service for larger documents.

London - Research Material

The tour then progressed to the second floor, where readers could register for tickets and where the maps and large documents reading room is situated. This room provides access to the largest, and usually oldest, documents, with big workspaces where they can be safely rolled out. The floor has a dedicated information desk, with staff well-versed in Latin, paleography (the study of historic handwriting), and even Norman French! Unlike the first floor, where many of the readers were more casual, perhaps researching family history, the second floor seemed to be the preserve of academics and researchers, although the National Archive offers online guides in deciphering older documents on its website which, along with the reading room's dedicated staff, should make older documents accessible to anyone with an interest!

After the tour was finished, the Librarian answered any questions that we had, such as why we were unable to go 'behind the scenes' (security concerns, though it is apparently a strange netherworld of archivists riding buggies around miles of shelves of identical brown cardboard boxes), the practicalities of registration and security, and the challenges of managing a library within an archive.

Altogether, a very interesting introduction to a fascinating place!

Images via Flickr users Ewan-M and Magh under Creative Commons.


RNIB Research Library

For the second visit of the year, our destination was the Royal National Institute of Blind People research library on Judd Street, and what an enlightening visit it was! The library is now run by one librarian after staff cut-backs year after year, but the perks of being the only librarian were immediately obvious as it inevitably means a level of professional variety that isn’t always available to librarians working in specific roles.

We were given an initial tour of the library space where the printed materials are kept, mostly for the use of researches investigating visual impairments. This was the aspect of the library with which we were all most familiar, with journal subscriptions, pamphlets, books and magazines built around a rather intricately designed classification system. However in and amongst the usual materials were some absolute gems, including a copy of The Merchant of Venice entirely in Braille and a (very patronising) 17th century treatise on ‘entertainment for the blind’, still in fantastic condition. There were also examples of school books for children with both Braille and raised images created with felt and various other materials to enable them to engage with their subjects.

The key differences between the academic libraries we are all used to and the RNIB library were of course technological. The computers in the main work space have had to be tailored to the needs of users that have considerable variation in the nature of their condition. Therefore numerous settings needed to be developed to enable users to increase the size of text on a screen using JAWS screen reading software, as well as being able to change the colour pallet of a document in order to make it more accessible. The RNIB is actually responsible for accrediting websites as being user-friendly for those with sight problems... it definitely has made me look at the website of my own library very differently – size 8 font? I don’t think the RNIB would approve! They recommend a standard size 14 font for all websites.

We were then given some demonstrations of some of the gadgets available to aid low sighted users including handheld devices that were essentially digital magnifying glasses, and what looked like CD players that were used for talking books, enabling someone to place ‘bookmarks’ at different points so they could refer back to numerous sections with ease. Many of us will never have had to deal with the problems of accessibility faced by the staff at the RNIB library so it was brilliant to see technology working so effectively to really improve the experience of low sighted or blind users.

At the end of the tour we had a chance to have a look at (play with) some of the toys aimed at children with blindness, plus a range of other devices used to aid anyone with sight problems. The RNIB Library visit provided us all with an insight into the issues being dealt with by the librarian when working with blind people, and is well worth a visit to see how libraries and technological advancements are able to combine to vastly improve the library experience for those with blindness.

Hannah (IHR)


Istituto Marangoni Library

A small group of the trainees visited the library at the Istituto Marangoni, the international Fashion and Design School, at its London campus on Tuesday 8 November. We were met by Katherine Rose who took us through to the building, past groups of trendy-looking people and rotating red sofas, to the library. The library itself is just one narrow room with huge windows on one side looking out onto the street and shelves filled with bright, shiny books and magazines on the other. Katherine is the only librarian at the London campus (there are two other campuses of the Istituto Marangoni in Milan and Paris) and her attention was needed by some students as soon as we arrived, while the trainees had a browse around the shelves.

When we sat down to talk, Katherine explained the London campus had been there for six years and until she arrived in Summer 2010 there was no librarian, no collection development plan, no classification system and no thought about the library at all. In the past few years the Istituto’s programmes have been validated by Manchester Metropolitan University and one of the conditions for validation was that the library be brought up to standard.

Katherine talked us through her first year at the library, from choosing and implementing a library management system, writing and updating the collection development plan, cataloguing and classifying the entire collection from scratch and trying to persuade students unused to the idea to use the catalogue. It was interesting to hear from a solo librarian and there are definite advantages and disadvantages to working alone in a library. The best part appeared to be having the opportunity to try your hand at every element of librarianship; however the downside was that Katherine rarely left the library for more than ten minutes each day and could never attend external training or personal development events. She did talk about the online networking that a lot of solo librarians take part in and that most of her contact with other people in the profession was through email, forums or blogging.

It was evident from the times that Katherine had to go and help students that she clearly knew her readership and collections extremely well, in total there were approximately 1,400 books and a large magazine collection. The large fashion and history of fashion collection is supplemented by books on history of art, architecture, interior design, graphic design, marketing and fashion business. Katherine also spoke about the three specialist e-resources that she had chosen to invest part of the budget in. The library is currently reference only for the 600 or so undergraduate students but as the institute now aims to validate its postgraduate courses, the library must make a percentage of its collection available for loan which means another large project for Katherine in the near future.

Katherine finished her MA in Library and Information Studies from UCL in 2010, so we took the opportunity to pick her brain about courses and the application procedure. It was incredibly helpful to have her and Anna – the other Courtauld graduate trainee and a recent graduate of the City course – there to give us advice about those particular Library and Information Science courses. Katherine spoke about her experiences at UCL and which modules she particularly enjoyed.

Our visit to the Istituto Marangoni ended with biscuits and a look around the workrooms and studio of the fashion school. As all of the trainees are currently working in small to medium sized libraries, it was incredibly interesting visit: the size of the collection, the subject matter covered and the recent history of the library was completely different to what we were used to. It was also insightful to hear from a new professional working as a solo librarian and was a thought-provoking way to start our series of visits.

Jen (Courtauld Institute of Art)


The Women's Library

On Tuesday, November 1st, some of the trainees attended a talk on the history of the Women’s Library, part of an ongoing series of seminars run jointly by the Institute of Historical Research and the Institute of English studies, both part of the School of Advanced Studies in the Senate House.

The talk was given by Dr. Jane Grant of the Centre for Institutional Studies, University of East London, and was held at the library itself, in Aldgate. The library is a fantastic purpose-built space, situated in a former wash house, and served as an excellent location to discuss the unique challenges faced by independent library collections over time and to hear about the tumultuous history of the Women’s Library. Dr. Grant gave an interesting and amusing description of the history of the library, which was initially established in 1926, as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service, the successor of the Society for Women’s Suffrage, later the Fawcett Society, which ran the library until 1977. Today, the library is part of London Metropolitan University. The collection of books, archives and artefacts focuses on the experiences of women and the women’s movement, with particularly strong collections on the British women’s suffrage movement.

We started the evening with a tour by one of the librarians, who explained the nature of the collection and the challenges of selecting and cataloguing material with a small staff, as well as answering any questions the audience had about the collection. She also highlighted the concerns the library has in making sure they don’t ‘step on the toes’ of other libraries in terms of their acquisitions. The catalogue, and different methods for searching their very varied collection, were also explained and demonstrated. We were then able to have a look around, not just at the books on the shelves (though they were enticing enough!), but at some of their vault materials, including the 1902 minutes of the Society for Women’s Service and a collection of 1980s feminist postcards. After this, all moved to the café to listen to Dr. Grant’s talk.

Detailing the evolution of the library from a few shelves of books in a London pub to its current location in Aldgate, Dr. Grant demonstrated some of the difficulties that such a unique and important independent collection can have, particularly in gaining funding and support, and the importance of volunteers in keeping the Library up and running. There was also discussion of the Library’s current status as a branch of London Met, a partner selected because of its willingness to keep the collection intact, and give it a purpose-built home, instead of dispersing it and rejecting duplicates, as some other potential university partners had suggested. Dr Grant also illustrated the struggles faced by the Women’s Library during the Blitz, when its Marsham Street building in Westminster was severely damaged, though thankfully leaving most of the collection itself intact. During the following discussion, a representative from the Feminist Library commented on this transition, speaking about her own library’s difficulties in finding a suitable partner in higher education, especially in the current climate. The discussion then broadened out to the importance of special independent collections, and the vital importance of ensuring that they are used, promoted and preserved.

Altogether, a thought-provoking and fascinating event, giving insight into a previously unconsidered element of libraries. The story of the Women’s Library is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when collective belief in a cause is able to triumph even in seemingly dire circumstances.

Next stop, the Feminist Library!

Hannah (ICS) and Hannah (IHR)