Me (the delinquent blogger) and the British Library

20 12 2009

My big fear in starting this blog was that I would be unable to post often enough to maintain an active blog.  That fear was realized this past month.  I have some good excuses – I traveled to London and Paris over Thanksgiving, then was sick and then finished graduate school.  I’ve had topics in mind to post about but haven’t had much time or energy to post.  I’m going to get back into blogging and with that in mind, I wanted to share my experiences from the British Library which I took a private tour of when I was in London.

The British Library was originally part of the British Museum.  Planning and construction started for a new building around 30 years ago and the building was intended to be 3 times the size it is now (which is pretty large if you consider all the underground shelving).  The tour of the library was fascinating, although probably more so for a librarian than for the general public.  They really undersold the tour since it’s about the library itself, and not its treasures (which include a Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s first folio).  The tour is also on the pricey side at 8 pounds but was totally worth it.

A few of the most interesting parts of the tour:

  • The glass display in the middle of the library holds George III’s personal collection, since his collection started the British Library.  However, the display was intended to hold card catalogs.  In the time between planning and constructing the building, catalogs moved online and there was still a giant space intended for the card catalogs.
  • George III was rumored to have chosen his books based on appearance rather than content (and they do look quite nice in the glass case) but there are handwritten notes in a good number of his books.  Patrons can request the books by title and staff retrieve them.  Most books can be touched by patrons but for some they need gloves and for others, which are old and rare (or really older and rarer) a staff member has to sit there and turn the pages.
  • The library is surrounded by the subway and was built out as much as possible without hitting the tube on each side.  You can feel the tube go by while you are in the library.
  • Behind the Reference Desk (which has a sign saying “Reference Enquiries”), there are 400 year old books right next to Ulrich’s, Balay’s and Wolford’s, same as any other library.  In the reference collection, it was the same thing – 20th century literary criticism next to old reference books and ones in other languages.

The most interesting part to me is the struggle about the identity of the library.  The British Library is a library of last resort.  To even get a reader’s pass (which sounds so much nicer than a library card) to just read books in the library for the day, patrons need to bring a proof of address (not just UK, any address will do) and a list of books at the library that they need to see.  Once patrons have that pass, they can request any book in the library they want.  They receive a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland.  When we were on the tour, we were able to see the books that patrons requested.  In this library of last resort where you need to have a desk spot in a reading room before they will deliver any books to you and that you can’t take the books out from, the books requested included: Windows Vista for Dummies, Dan Brown’s latest book and others of that sort.  These are books that can be found at any local library, yet they were requested and held for patrons at the British Library.

This reminded me so much of the signs we have next to the computers at our academic library.  It asks that before using facebook or checking email on our computers, students take a look around and make sure that there aren’t any other students are looking for computers to do work.  Our mission as an academic library is to provide resources to support the curriculum and learning at the college.  We provide entertainment resources, but they are secondary.  The British Library attempts to ensure patrons are looking for unique resources for scholarship by requiring a list, but clearly there are some using the library for more common books.  On the tour we learned that there are days where if you don’t have a table by 9am, you won’t find one all day.  I wonder if the British Library should do more to ensure it’s patrons are using the “appropriate” resources or redirect them to other libraries.  I usually tend to be of the thinking that libraries should provide what it’s patrons want and need, rather than what we think they want and need.  This tour showed me how critical having a mission and vision of the library is and how decisions should be made based on the mission and vision.


Cartoon Reference

26 10 2009

Libraries provide reference services through a variety of communication methods. There’s your standard face to face and phone. Electronically, email and chat have become more common with a variety of chat services with options for co-browsing and other fancy things. Some libraries are tweeting; others are on Second Life.

But I just saw Anthony Bourdain’s Alternate Universe (his new animated web series) and found myself wishing I could provide reference service online as a cartoon version of myself. The amount of time and energy it would take to animate myself (and my lack of artistic ability) make it highly unlikely this could happen.

At the root of this (aside from just how cool it could be) is the desire to have an online presence that is accessible to patrons. Librarians seem impersonal and “scary” to those who don’t know us. There’s a library anxiety and worry of judgement. Cartoons, pictures, details about interests and all of that kind of jazz personalize people. When I met Lisa Lillien (Hungry Girl) at a book signing, she seemed familiar and accessible because her cartoon was identical to her.

Common interests provide an entry point for patrons to feel more comfortable. It’s basic common sense that we all know and feel. As a resident advisor in college, we had to write a little intro about ourselves in the hall newsletter. I didn’t think anyone would read it, let alone remember details from it, so I wrote that I love cheesy ’80s music. On move in day, students came up to me all day long to let me know that they too shared my love for cheesy ’80s music. And that helped them to feel comfortable coming to me with their questions all year long.

That small detail made the difference to the students in my hall and can make the difference with patrons. Patrons have questions, some they don’t even realize they have or that they don’t think librarians can answer or that they think are too dumb to ask anyone. Having a personal connection can increase their comfort level and keep them asking rather than getting frustrated. Cartoon versions of ourselves might not be an option but being a little more animated and playful in our service delivery methods certainly are.

New Dictionaries

18 10 2009

The Sunday New York Times is one of my favorite indulgences.  Give me my coffee and the (online) Sunday Magazine and I’m on my way to a good week.  While I never agreed with William Safire’s politics, his articles were always interesting and thought provoking.  Since he was older, I never expected him to “grok” technology entirely – but he never wrote anything totally off base about technology.  Since his passing, the article has been guest written, mostly by Ammon Shea and Ben Zimmer.

In today’s On Language column, Ammon Shea writes about old dictionaries.  Some that people use that are so old that don’t include the word airplane, let alone words like internet and w00t, or the ones that Scalia uses from the 17th century.  He ends his column by discussing print dictionaries that are passed down from generation to generation and what the future of that will look like :

As people increasingly rely on Internet dictionaries and other online reference works, it seems that passing down an ancestral book will become more and more of a rarity and that keeping older versions of these books will become exclusively the province of the professional and the persnickety. Although who knows? Perhaps one day a child shown a dictionary will be told, ‘This is the very same HTML that your grandfather read when he was your age.”

There are a few things about this that confuse me:

  1. Internet dictionaries can still include older reference works – the OED includes more words because it’s online and therefore makes it a better keeper of language.  Older versions of the books can still be kept online.  It no longer needs to fit on a shelf so there’s less need to weed the words.  Since he’s the guy who read the OED (and wrote a book about it), I’m surprised at his take on this.
  2. Why would a child be shown a dictionary and told it’s the same HTML their grandfather read?  Would they look at the page source to look at the code?  Because otherwise you’re seeing the rendered HTML.
  3. Wouldn’t coding have changed by the time the grandchild views it?  Can’t we hope for more from our web tools rather than expect them to remain static?
  4. Is the HTML code the appropriate analogy for the book?  Isn’t HTML more appropriately compared to the printing press?  Maybe someday the grandchild will look at our ebook readers, laptops or iphones and have nostalgia for this outmoded technology.

Maybe I’m one of the persnickety (okay, I’m definitely persnickety) but I love technology as much as I love books and hate the confusion of form and function.  Until we get to the point of the contacts from Minority Report, there’s still a physical representation of books – even if it’s a multipurpose device that has more than one book on it.  I also wonder if book will be the most appropriate term for an online dictionary.  Online dictionaries are databases, not books, and are already being arranged in more useful ways than just alphabetically.  These changes are making dictionaries, and language, accessible to more people and that’s more important to education than the handing down of old books.