Bodleian Library, Oxford University

The first library for Oxford University was housed in a room above the Old Congregation House, begun around 1320.  The library was built with funds supplied by the Bishop of Worcester but was still unfinished when he died in 1327.  It was superseded in 1488 by the library known as Duke Humfrey’s, which is the oldest part of the Bodleian complex.

The reason for moving to a new building was the gift to the university by the Duke of Gloucester of his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts. These volumes would have made the existing library overcrowded, so in 1444 the university decided to build a new library over the Divinity School. The School of Divinity was started in 1424 but because of chronic shortages of funds the building was still unfinished in the 1440s, and the library was not opened until 1488.

The library is named after Sir Thomas Bodley who rescued the library after the majority of its collections had been dispersed to eliminate books and materials related to Roman Catholicism according to King Edward VI.  In 1610 Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London under which a copy of every book published in England and registered at Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in the new library.  Because of this arrangement, the Bodleian became the first copyright library in the country.

The Bodleian Library is one of the famous academic libraries of the world, and I enjoyed having an opportunity to learn about its founding and history through the tour.  It seems like many of the great academic library collections within England were bequests of wealthy bibliophiles, and they have left significant holdings.  I was also unaware that the Bodleian was the first copyright library within the country, though I remember reading about how once they received Shakespeare’s Second Folio, they considered the First Folio to be a duplicate and then de-accessioned it.  Even the great libraries are not exempt from concerns about space that might result in discarding items that might in future be considered treasures.

It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to see the Bodleian Library and learn more about its history.  I think it would have been wonderful to speak with an actual librarian as well, but the architecture and the story of the library’s creation were quite amazing unto themselves.

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Royal Geographical Society Library and Archives

The reading room at the Royal Geographical Society opened in 2004.  Prior to that there were four different rooms for the different types of materials in the collections.  Photographs, books, maps and the archives each had their own reading room.  Now all of these materials can be viewed in a single self-contained space now.  The Royal Geographical Society built the reading room to increase accessibility and make it welcoming to the public.  The former entrance was rather forbidding, but the new entrance is bright and has a receptionist to welcome visitors.

The collection contains two million items: one million maps, a half million images, a quarter million books, several thousand archival boxes and fifteen hundred objects.  They have climate-controlled storage with books and maps on one side and the rest on the other side of the reading room in another climate-controlled storage room.  All materials are kept on-site.  They created an online catalog from the separate card catalogs with a lot variation.  It increased the accessibility to the collections, but it was an involved process because of the differences within the collections.  They are a lending library for members, but anyone can have access to the collections within the reading room, though there is a charge for non-member and non-educational users.

This is one of the most impressive collections I have ever seen.  One of the great advantages of organizations in the UK is that they have been collecting for centuries rather than merely decades.  And with an organization like the Royal Geographical Society, their collections reflect the history and endeavors of the past members and their remarkable accomplishments.  I really appreciated the librarian taking the time to explain the history and significance of each item.  I had heard of most of the explorers, but I did not know quite so many details about them.  I enjoyed the photographs from the Antarctica expedition.  The can of meat found in Canada after lying in the ice for a hundred years was one of the most unusual things I have ever seen in a collection.  It is both a bit puzzling and amazing that they chose to keep it, albeit wrapped in plastic.

I have to say that this was the most unique library and archive we visited in our time in London.  I truly enjoyed having the opportunity to visit a library and archive that so greatly differs from the majority I have seen.  It is hard to imagine finding a library or archive quite like this one anywhere else in the world.  It drove home to me just how many unusual and different information centers exist within the city of London and just how each one can be important to the study of discrete fields of research.

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National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The National Art Library started in 1837 at Marlborough House as part of the School of Design and pre-dates the museum.  In 1884 it moved to Kensington when the museum was founded.  It operates as the curatorial department for the history of the book treated as objects.  They also are a reference library, so they do not lend books to the public.  Reference material is open access in the reading room, but everything else resides in closed stacks and is retrieved at readers’ requests on the half hour.  They have 46 to 50 people in the department.  The collection includes 8000 different periodical titles and 2000 of those are current.  The library’s collection reflects the museum’s collection.

They collect trade catalogs, which include exhibition and auction catalogs from the end of the 18th century to the present.  It is an international collection with catalogs in other languages.  It is the largest collection in Europe after Paris.  They try to classify by subject but most of the collection is ordered by size.  The books have a shelf mark and then a finding/floor guide is used to locate books in the stacks.  They have a constant flow of books into the collection through purchase and bequest.  They also collect artists’ books and bequests often contain first editions of literature and other works, which the library keeps as history of the book items.

Since I have spent the majority of the summer as an intern at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City, I was anxious to visit the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Many of the items in the collections at the FARL are also held by the National Art Library, which I was aware of from performing searches for different projects in the course of my internship.  During our visit I discovered that the FARL and the National Art Library do share many similar collections, such as auction and exhibition catalogs from around the world and in many different languages.  However, I was impressed with the extent to which the National Art Library also collects artists’ books and rare books related in some way to art, such as Audubon’s Birds of America.  This is a major difference from the collecting scope of the FARL.

I found it amazingly kind of the librarians to allow us to view many of these treasures and to even allow us to look through many of their rare treasures.  I have seen several copies of Audubon’s Birds of America, but it has always been with a glass case between me and the actual pages.  I am also quite interested in the theatre and performing art archives that are held within the Victoria and Albert Museum, though not necessarily by the National Art Library.  The National Art Library truly has a broad and thorough collection of works about art and related to book arts as well as those books the incorporate fantastic art into their pages, such as illuminated manuscripts.  I appreciated having the opportunity to visit such a large and prestigious art library given my own recent experiences in a more modest art reference library.

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Shakespeare Library and Archive, Stratford-upon-Avon

The collections of the Shakespeare Library and Archive cover all aspects of Shakespeare’s life, work, times and the history of Stratford-upon-Avon.  In addition,  the collections document the stage history of Shakespeare and other dramatists, particularly those of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

Printed materials on William Shakespeare, such as reference books, periodicals, photographs, pictures, individual editions of the plays and sets of complete works, translations of the plays into 80 languages, biographies, critical studies and books on the performance history of the plays are also included within the scope of the collections.  The Shakespeare Library and Archive uses its own classification system to organize its materials given the highly specialized focus of its collections.  Among the treasures of the library and archive are three First Folios.

The Shakespeare Library and Archive also maintains the archive for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It includes production materials covering the history of the RSC and its predecessor, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, from 1879 to the present. The archive includes photographs, programs, prompt books, reviews and designs.  There are also video recordings of productions from as early as 1982 that are available for viewing.

With my background in early modern literature, this library and archive were of particular interest to me.  Visiting the Shakespeare Library and Archive also influenced my decision to focus on theatre archives for my research paper.  I found it intriguing that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives are maintained here, particularly because the the RSC does not contribute money toward their organization or preservation.  However, the Shakespeare Library and Archive offer a great service to researchers of theatre performance and history by maintaining the RSC archives and making performance-related materials, such as performance recordings, photographs, and scripts, available.

Discussing the library and archive with the sole librarian made me more aware of how thinly staffed many important libraries and archives truly are.  It is amazing how much is accomplished by such a small number of people.  I found it fascinating that the Shakespeare Library and Archive has its own classification system and also that the archives had an online system before the library.  Typically in the United States, libraries transitioned long before archives, but given the highly specific focus of this library and the limited staff, it is no wonder it took time to implement an online catalog.  Even large institutions with endowments have not managed to retroactively convert all of their card catalogs to online systems, even when they started the conversion early on in the advent of online public catalogs.  Overall I found visiting this library and archive highly educational, and I think it must be an amazing experience to work in an institution with such a specialized focus.  Given my own background in early modern literature and my love for theatre, I know I would enjoy working in a library or archive such as this.

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Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  He is also buried in Holy Trinity Church, and his grave has a curse upon it to dissuade people from disturbing Shakespeare’s final resting place.  Many historic buildings related to the life of Shakespeare have been preserved and are accessible to the public in and around the village.  The Royal Shakespeare Company has its home here as well.

I have visited Stratford-upon-Avon once in the past, and I did the majority of the requisite tourist activities at that time.  I visited the Shakespeare Birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage along with his grave.  Since my first Masters degree is in Renaissance Literature, and I have a keen interest in drama, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit Stratford again.  I particularly enjoyed being able to see Cardenio.  I had planned on spending a few days in Stratford to see performances, but the difficulty of arranging accommodations during the high tourist season prevented me from making those arrangements.

It was wonderful to discover that I would be able to see another production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in spite of that.  I had a particular interest in seeing Cardenio after reading about it in The Book of William and to see how successfully the play had been recreated.  I am interested in finding a copy of the version from the 1700s from which the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version was adapted.  While I feel that the effort was impressive, the play lacked several qualities of one of Shakespeare’s works.  That could be put down to it being a collaborative effort between him and Fletcher, but it seems likely that attempting to recreate Shakespeare in this day an age is truly a feat that will never be entirely successful, no matter how admirable.

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The London Library

The London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world.  The focus is on lending and making the collection accessible to members.  At the London Library it is believed that books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant.  For this reason the collections are not weeded merely because material might be considered old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable.  Except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library’s collection.  As recently as 2000 a book space audit was conducted and a an extension built to allow for growth and a conservation studio.

Over 95% of the collections, some one million volumes, is stored on approximately 15 miles of open-access shelves that can be freely browsed.  Over 97% of the collection is available for loan. Books date from the 16th century to the latest publications in print and electronic form.  The collection is largely focused on the arts and humanities with some science and miscellaneous materials also included.  The library pre-dates the the Public Libraries Act and was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, who, among other well-known writers and visionaries of the time, wanted access to a research collection from which he could borrow materials, something not permitted at the British Library.  The London Library has played a significant role in the intellectual role of the nation ever since.

The London Library was my favorite library of all those we visited during our month in the UK.  Something about the history and its role in the intellectual history of Britain makes it one of the most compelling places I have ever been.  I love the idea of a library dedicated largely to the arts and humanities with miles and miles of shelving that can be freely browsed.  I also appreciate the ingenuity of their user-friendly classification scheme.  It is wonderful just how many libraries in the UK have found their own methods of organizing materials by size and subject according to their own needs.  If I could pick any library I have ever seen in which to work, I would choose this one.

The dedication to maintaining the collection and not weeding materials out appeals to me as well.  It demonstrates a keen awareness about context that is often lacking in libraries in the United States.  The trend toward discarding physical materials is one that can easily be seen as more and more material becomes digital, but I feel it is a short-sighted vision of the future and demonstrates an ignorance of the significance of what we already have.  The London Library recognizes and respects the role that previous scholarship plays in forming the future and also sees that a digital future need not and should not result in the destruction of the physical past and present.  There is often so much space to be had in the United States compared to a city like London, but the London Library has shown far more dedication to acquiring and successfully utilizing space than many libraries I have seen in the US.  I am so glad to have had the opportunity to visit this unique library, and I hope to be able to freely browse the shelves as a member one day in the not too far distant future.

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Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Sir Christopher Wren planned the site, just as he planned many of the domed edifices in and around London. Greenwich Palace, which once existed on this site, was purportedly the favorite palace of Henry VIII and the birthplace of Elizabeth I.

William and Mary had the Old Royal Naval College built for naval veterans.  With peace established in the course of the nineteenth century the number of pensioners housed in the hospital declined and the hospital finally closed in 1869. Soon after this the Royal Naval College moved in, using the site as a naval training centre for officers from around the world.  The navy gave up lease in 1998.  Now it contains the University of Greenwich and the College of Music.  The foundation of the original royal palace still exists beneath the grounds.

The tour of the Old Royal Naval College provided a large amount of history regarding Greenwich and the various palaces erected there throughout the course of time.  I enjoyed being able to go beneath the grounds into the crypt areas and see the old skuttle alley (bowling alley).  It is amazing what can linger beneath buildings that have been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times.  The dining hall and the chapel were particularly beautiful spaces with wonderful architectural and artistic elements.  The tour guide was so knowledgeable about the details, and it is amazing to think how much planning goes into artwork of that scale where every tiny item has a special meaning that is often political or religious if not both.

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