Okay, I want to do a quick final recap of my last few days in London… I had such an amazing time on this trip, and due to my waning blog-energy, I won’t do the last parts justice at all. But in the interest of closure, and for those few of you who might want to know about what we did, I will attempt to provide the tale by picture.
Woke up late – look the tube to a “real” grocery store in Islington for some final purchases – wandered through Chapel Market – caught a late lunch at Wagamama with Carrie, Nicole and Dara – got dressed up and pretty for the Research Symposium where we heard short presentations about all the other British Studies classes – Nicole, Carrie, Jenn and I took the tube to our first and only London club experience: Fabric – after some gut-pounding music and scary dancing zombie boys, we found a bus home to our lovely little quiet rooms!
Woke up deliciously late, once again – packed in a frenzy for an hour, showered and then got ready for an early dinner – headed to Brick Lane with my favorite girls – ate some fairly good Indian food and drank some not-so-good free wine – wandered Brick Lane taking pictures of graffiti (including some Banksy!) – one final tube ride… – one final pub visit… – plus lots of hugs and sadfaces… and we were into Sunday.
Sunday: depart for USA, 10:30am coach to Heathrow, 9 hour flight to Dallas departing at 2:30pm, arriving at 6:30pm, 2.5 hour layover (pick up bags, customs, recheck bags), 9:00pm flight to PHX, arrive home at 9:30pm, pass out after 22 hours of being awake. Oh, travel days. (Also, uncharacteristically, no pictures. What?)
Monday morning, I did some shopping with mi madre and then drove back to Tucson and had a lovely reunion with some of my favorite people in the world. And, I remembered one of the reasons I love this town:
My, but it’s difficult to remember much about the final days of my trip. I’m going to try my hardest to recap my final few days in London; even though it was only a week ago, it feels so distant.
On Thursday, as I mentioned, Nicole and Carrie and I went to the Garden Museum near Lambeth Bridge. I was interested in going primarily for the photographic opportunities and the gift shop, but I was also interested to see what kind of collections and exhibits would be presented at a museum of gardens. From what little I know, I get the impression that the English are very into their gardens – the Garden Museum, opened in 1977, is the leading national venue for “exhibitions and debate on gardens and garden design.” The museum is actually housed in a 17th century church, which was a beautiful backdrop for their collections. The front area of the museum was actually rather disappointingly unkempt, which I found rather foreboding as we walked through the front doors. The inside is quite charming however, housing the collections, a giftshop, a video room, and a small cafe attached, of course, to the back garden.
While the museum holds over 9000 objects representing different aspects of British gardens and gardening, the place retains a small, intimate vibe that I really appreciated. I think my favorite part, quite honestly, was the back garden itself. I played with the macro setting on my camera a bit, recognized a few flowers (though I’m sure my mom and grandma would have recognized most of them!). Overall, I felt like it was a very well put-together niche museum – clearly much-loved and supported by donations from visitors. Upon visiting the website, I found a description of their overall mission that just tickled me: the aim of the museum is to “capture the garden zeitgeist.” Just delightful.
(Note to Karen: this is intended to serve as one of my three “extra” blog entries for class.)
On Thursday, we had our final tour of a library as a class – it was somewhat jarring to find ourselves back in the old habit of waking up early and dealing with public transportation in a large group at this point in the program. However, we did our best to shake ourselves awake for the Maughan Library – this is the King’s College academic library. I was surprised to realize that our last visit was, in fact, our very first academic library. Maughan is located in a huge beautiful building that was built in the 1850’s originally to house the public records of London. Once that purpose outgrew the space, the building was repurposed: it was leased from the government by King’s College to bring four distinct academic collections together under one roof. This promoted access for students and allowed the academic library to focus more directly on providing services to their constituency, college students.
Since this is the age group that I work with in my professional life (as a university admissions counselor), I was particularly interested to see the ways in which this library would address their specific needs. I was surprised to find that this academic library seems to be far behind our academic library at the University of Arizona in terms of student services. This may be due in part to their historical building, and the fact that any changes to its structure must be approved by the appropriate historical authorities. I wonder, though, if perhaps the lengthy history of academia in the UK may work against it in this sense. Change is slow in higher education no matter where you go – universities and colleges are generally unwieldy institutions in terms of being responsive to new circumstances and needs. The Maughan Library is only this summer instituting self-service capabilities – the University of Arizona library has had this technology in place for a number of years. They spoke of having dedicated areas for social interaction as if it were a brand-new concept, whereas there are entire floors in all the UA libraries dedicated to large tables conducive to group study sessions, as well as cafes, computer labs, and full sections of multimedia work spaces. I am not entirely sure if this lag is due to a wider difference in educational perspectives, a gap in the resources available, or some combination of effects. I also did not hear them make much reference to any user surveys – it was mentioned at one point that the librarians would watch entering students for signs of confusion, and this seemed like a somewhat ineffective means of discerning student needs in comparison to an actual survey sent to all King’s College students.
After the Maughan Library tour, all 35 members of our LIS class entered the Fuller’s Ale & Pie House on Fleet Street. In its “grisly” (but fictional) past, this is the alehouse that was directly between Sweeney Todd’s barbershop and the pie shop of his mistress, Mrs. Lovett. Legend tells us that it was in the vaults and tunnels below Fuller’s that Sweeney Todd’s victims were “butchered before being cooked and sold in in the pies to Mrs. Lovett’s unsuspecting customers.” Yum. In actuality, the pies were one of the best meals I’ve had in England to date: chicken and asparagus!
After our delicious meal, Nicole, Carrie and I wandered down though Covent Garden for some sweets and music – both of which we found in abundance. There is a cupcake shop there called Ella’s Bakehouse!
We walked down toward Lambeth Bridge to check out the Garden Museum at that point, a topic I will tackle in a subsequent post for class! Suffice to say, it was quite pretty – I took a lot of pictures and wished my mom and Grandma could have been there. :) Later that night, a few of us decided to “clear out the fridge” and take some wine, cider and chocolate down to the South Bank. We sat on the grass, in the blue glow underneath the London Eye, drank and laughed and talked. I love the Queen’s Walk at night, have I mentioned that yet? It’s definitely on the list of things I will miss the most. Along with the Tube, the weather, the food, the pubs, the accents… well, it’s a long list.
Alas, it is 12:30 and I am fading fast. I still have a few more days to recount from my trip – a few required posts for class to finish up, as well as a few personal notes to hit before I can close the chapter on this amazing month of my life. But I will have to embark on those writing efforts from my home soil – tomorrow I fly home! I am excited, I won’t lie – I’ve missed more things and people and opportunities than I can list. Goodnight, London. I hope to see you again, very soon.
In my first week here in London, I bought and read Audrey Niffenegger’s newest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. (This is the same author of The Time-Traveler’s Wife.) There were things I found beautiful about her new work, as well as elements I found trite. Overall, it was a surprising and haunting ghost story, and despite some of my problems with disjointedness and character development, I really enjoyed reading it. Perhaps one element of why I devoured it so quickly was the context: the book centers on two girls who have inherited their aunt’s flat and fortune in London. They were exploring the city, just as we have been doing. The plot itself centers on a particular cemetery on the outskirts of London called Highgate. Niffenegger herself actually volunteers at this cemetery, and much of the history of the place is woven into the novel. After finishing the book, I lent it to Carrie – since we both enjoyed the book, and share a fondness for the strange calm of cemeteries, we decided that we wanted to try to visit.
So, on Wednesday, Carrie, Nicole and I made our way up the Northern Line to the Highgate stop. We gathered a lot of the history of Highgate Cemetery from reading the book, and still more when we arrived. In the early decades of the 19th century, London was facing a population explosion – in addition to the host of problems this caused (living space, waste removal, etc.) was the somewhat distasteful fact that the cemeteries in the city were simply too small to handle the number of people who were dying within its limits. Parliament sought to address this problem in the 1830’s and 1840’s by creating seven huge private cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Highgate, as one might imagine, has the highest elevation of the bunch, and the original section was comprised of 17 acres. A second section, East Cemetery, was opened in 1856 to accommodate the level of interest in this, the most “fashionable” of London cemeteries. (A tunnel was constructed under the road between them, so as the bodies would never leave consecrated ground between the funeral and the burial. ) The older section is known as West Cemetery, and it was here that Her Fearful Symmetry was primarily focused. Unfortunately, the tours of West Cemetery are restricted to a very small number of people, and are only run once on weekdays… Therefore, we embarked on our own exploration of the East Cemetery. This gave us the time we wanted to wander, to breathe in the highly oxygenated air, and just enjoy the beautiful, calm silence of this incredible place.
Interestingly, after the Victorian frenzy for elaborate, theatrical funerals began to wane, these massive, gorgeous cemeteries began to fall into disrepair. Many graves were left to be overgrown or topple, and maintenance of the chapels and mausoleums became minimal. Just at the cemetery company ran out of funds entirely in 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was initiated as a non-profit organization. With their fundraising efforts, much of the overgrown cemetery has been restored and had “extensive, but sensitive, clearing.” The Friends are a registered charity, and they have the support of English Heritage. A Board of Trustees are elected from amongst the members, and the organization works through fundraising (from members and visitors) and grants to maintain the historic integrity of the cemetery. The Cemetery and its tours are entirely staffed by volunteers.
Two of the famous interments in East Cemetery that we got to see were Karl Marx and Douglas Adams. The graves were marvelously mixed, with people from various centuries buried side by side: scarcely legible, weathered stones leaning next to perfectly white memorials covered with recent flowers. There is something lovely to me about the chaotic recovery of nature that is underway here: some of the graves can hardly be seen under the ivy; some have been broken by the growing roots of trees; still others have brambles and fruits growing up along the stones. The newer interments are carefully maintained, some elaborate and some simple (“be still”)… but my favorites were the old ones, the ones that are maybe remembered but no longer visited – even their memorials are returning to the earth, to the the twining growth of trees and vines.
I wish I could do justice to the sweetness of the air and the silence there – I was moved, touched, and comforted by my experience with this place.
(Note to Karen: this is intended to serve as one of my three “extra” blog entries for class.)
Since returning to London, I’ve found myself struggling to write a single word. I was plumb worn out with talking and rehashing! However, in the interest of having a guard against future forgetfulness (and, of course, in the interest of my class grade!), I am back on the horse, fighting the blog burn-out.
When last I typed, I hadn’t yet left Ireland. Our flight back was uneventful, though dragging my bags (heavy with presents for many of you lovely people) through two airports, onto the Piccadilly Line, with a transfer at the Northern Line to Waterloo… not my idea of fun, per se. But, we survived! I had actually missed my tiny little uncomfortable bed. (I can only imagine how much heaven awaits me in mattress form at home.) We didn’t get into Heathrow until late Saturday night, so we didn’t do much of note that evening. On Sunday, my first priority was some sorely needed laundry. Sunday and Monday were both days “off” from the program, and classes technically resumed on Tuesday. I spent those two days recovering, enjoying wandering around South Bank with my friends.
On Tuesday morning, our class met briefly to discuss our respective paper topics and to eat cake for a few peoples’ birthdays. (Yum, breakfast of champions!) Carrie and I then decided to head over to Notting Hill and check out Portabello Market. I must admit, I had this song and accompanying scene in my head as we walked along. Portabello Road is great, full of every kind of anything you can imagine. Antique shops, Scottish cashmere, thrift and vintage stores, pizzerias, coffee shops, flower and fruit and vegetable stands, jewelry shops… very photogenic, all of it.
That night, I made my way across Waterloo Bridge and the Strand with Carrie, Nicole, Carey, Laura and Jenn. We ended up at the Wellington, where we had some delicious dinner, drinks and dessert… topped off by a random batch of rain! These girls have been so lovely, I’m very glad to have met them and feel lucky that I was able to spend my month abroad in such wonderful company.
After a few beverages, we pranced back over the bridge and Nicole, Carrie and I swerved off to take some pictures of South Bank at night. The Queen’s Walk seems to be full of people at all hours; at night, however, the population is tilted strongly in the direction of cuddling couples and circles of young people with guitars and wine. The London Eye is just gorgeous all lit up, surrounded by twinkling trees and buskers playing beautiful songs to the evening air.
I know that I’m much less verbose in these entries than I was in the beginning – as much as this has been the trip of a lifetime, I think that the fervor with which we experienced the city has taken a toll on me. Today is our last day in the city, and I feel a little bit guilty that I’m not devouring every last possible experience while I still have the time. I felt the need to take a slow day, however. I’m trying to recap, consolidate these experiences and put them in context for myself. I’m preparing myself to reenter my “real” life, and I am honestly not sure how I will have changed during the absence. I am not afraid that I will be different. I am afraid that my life won’t be. I’ve had some revelations about my priorities and habits and motivations… and I don’t want to go home only to fall back into the same old mindsets. One thing that hasn’t changed (and isn’t likely to ever change) is my occasional need for space and quiet – they’re necessary for putting my brain in order. :)
“It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable or cheerful or easy or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.” (-Henry James, 1869) Such a strange emotion – I feel like I am returning home and leaving it at the same time.
I am sitting in the café area of my hostel in Dublin, contented and relaxed… Ireland has been just amazing. I love this country – what little I’ve seen of it in the past two days, anyway. But before I talk about that, I figure I should pick up where I left off.
Where was I? Ah, yes, Scotland. Tuesday was another long day – we clambered onto a coach at 8:30am and drove about an hour to Dunfermline to see the very first Carnegie Library. One highlight to this little trip was when we crossed the Forth River – there’s a great big beautiful bridge spanning it, and furthermore, it’s yet another Scottish reference in a song from one of my favorite bands, Frightened Rabbit.
This library was another public one, but instead of feeling inspired like I had the day before, I felt a little sad. The library exists in a big beautiful building, and carries a lot of history with it. However, due to restructuring the in government of Fife, their lack of parking or easy access for the elderly or disabled, and the building of a huge new library just a couple miles down the road, my overall sense of the place was that of a library in decline. There was a lot of talk about budget cuts – as there has been everywhere – but here, the discussion seemed particularly centered on them. The highlights of this tour, for me, were: the extensive genealogical information collection, and the Robert Burns collection. In the special collections room where we saw the latter, the librarian was just so effusive and enthused by her job, you really couldn’t help but feel excited about it as well. After the library, we wandered around Dunfermline a bit. We wandered around Abbot House next door, and the adjacent graveyard. Shopped just a little, I bought a cute shirt for work… and then we got back on the coach, Edinburgh-bound.
The second half of the day was dedicated to the National Archive of Scotland. I have to say, I felt like this visit was one of the most structured and receptive of the bunch so far. However, since it was our very last scheduled tour before mini-break (and I’ve never been much of an archive aficionado), I was a bit ready for it to end. The National Archive of Scotland is actually a branch of the Scottish government, and they are charged with the preservation, protection, and promotion of the nation’s records. They see their mission to be educating, informing and engaging with the public. They maintain the records for every single legal transaction made within the country… every land sale, every contract. There are lawyers who spend a lot of their time in the archives, and consult these documents on a regular basis. They are working on digitizing much of the relevant parts of this collection, however, so as to expedite the process of consultation for those who need to verify ownership or contracts. The other thing that the National Archives seems to be best known for is the genealogical records – the entire ground floor of their original building is dedicated just to those who are looking into their family histories. Much of the most basic documentation is also available online, and you can request high-quality color copies of documents signed by a member of your family from the 1600’s, for example, for just a small fee and postage. The building itself was another very impressive structure – strangely, “very impressive” has become somewhat old hat to us at this point, which is another reason for me to come home to the more subtle beauties of my home state soon… I need to reset my standards of awe. Although, who knows, maybe the first Arizona sunset I see after my return will just bowl me over, since I’ve grown so used to grey skies!
On our way back to the bus stop, we stopped at H&M to poke around. Sadly, this turned out to be the site of my first property loss in the UK: after trying on clothes in the dressing room, I walked out without grabbing my bag with the shirt from Dunfermline in it, as well as a number of little trinket souvenirs. I remembered it mere moments later, but by the time I returned for it, someone had clearly decided that my loss would be her gain. I don’t think of myself as a naïve person, but I was really disappointed to have dishonesty demonstrated like that – not everyone would return something they find that isn’t theirs, and that just makes me sad somehow. Even though it was really my own fault, I was still really bummed out about it for the rest of the day.
The remainder of Tuesday was spent being cozy in Dalkeith Palace, uploading pictures and futzing about. Wednesday was a totally free day for us, and some people from class took off on their mini-breaks a night early. Carrie and I decided to take advantage of the free day in Edinburgh, and braved the steady downpour for some delicious breakfast and tea. To be honest, I don’t entirely remember what we did that day, but I know that we thoroughly enjoyed having no pre-set obligations!
We awoke at 4am on Thursday to be ready for our 5am cab – and after a whole host of airport annoyances, we were on our way to Dublin! Our plane was the smallest I have ever been on, and I got a little nervous about the flight right beforehand… luckily, I passed out for the entire hour of flight, only waking to the feeling of the wheels touching down. I spent our first day here feeling a bit dazed and overwhelmed. The past three weeks of non-stop activity is finally starting to hit me, I think. We ate lunch in a pub across the street until we could check in, and then got settled into the cutest little tourist hostel. I think I’ve been spoiled for all future hostel stays, to be honest – they have free wifi (woo!), free breakfast, a secure place to keep your belongings when you’re not there, comfortable beds, hot showers, a café area, and a little Japanese style garden in the back. I was just thrilled to have wireless access in my room – this is the first time in the entire trip that I’ve been able to lay in bed and use the internet. I can say that the slight separation from the ‘net has been good for me, overall. I am going to try to maintain that distance voluntarily when I get home… but we’ll see how that goes, haha. We wandered around the town a little bit, checking out O’Connell Street with all its shopping, and making our way up to a little park called Parnell Square. We browsed quickly through the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, and then had dinner and a couple of drinks at a pub. After a movie, we called it a night. I have never been so happy to not have to set an alarm.
Yesterday (Friday) was our big day here in Ireland – we took the DART about 20 minutes outside of Dublin to Howth. As soon as I got off the train, I felt lighter. There was ocean, there were boats, there was greenery – if it had been 20 degrees warmer, I would have thought I was in Laguna Beach. We walked along the pier to find the tourist office and grab a map, but got distracted on our way there by all the seals that were just bobbing along in the harbor, hanging out in the sun. They were so close to us, just breathing in and out in great gasps through their noses… one of them seemed to enjoy blowing out all the air just slightly underwater; it reminded me of being a kid and blowing bubbles in the pool. They were huge but somehow adorable, and their eyes made me miss my parents’ dogs. After we got our map, we had some delicious lunch – Carrie got the fish and chips she had been craving, pretty much as fresh as they could be!
We then embarked on a walk up along the cliffs… that turned into quite a little hike. Neither of us had come prepared with the right shoes, so our 2-mile hike around the edge of Howth Head was a bit more strenuous than it might have been. But we were rewarded by some of the most gorgeous views I have ever seen. I fell in love with Ireland on those cliffs, with the wind whipping around me. Just beautiful. I took one panoramic shot that I’m particularly happy with, because I think it comes the closest to capturing the scope of those scenes. I wish I had taken more now, because the single shots just don’t do it justice.
That evening, we wandered around the Temple Bar area, which is quite tourist-y in a lot of ways – we really enjoyed ourselves though, because the tourists themselves were really diverse and a lot of fun. We sang along to Johnny Cash in one bar, made friends in another, ate greasy pizza while sitting on a curb, and generally had a great time.
Today, we are heading back to London-town for our final week in the UK. It’s a bittersweet, strange feeling. I feel homesick in layers – first for London (where most of my belongings are awaiting me, where I can do laundry and go grocery shopping), and second for home (where everything else is: family, friends, cat, coworkers, job, house, yoga, books, kitchen…). While I am happy to be going back to London tonight, I know that I will be more than ready to return to my life in a week. I only hope my life is ready for me.
After a long, warm and comfortable night’s sleep, I finally feel prepared to tackle writing about my experiences with Scotland thus far. Everywhere we go, people have been apologetic about the “dreadful” weather we’ve been experiencing, but I needed this rain. I needed the grey skies and calm depths of green.
I wrote this bit near the end of our eight-hour bus ride on Sunday, when I finally woke up and noticed the countryside rolling past our windows under shifting clouds and occasional sprinkles:
From my iPhone: “I find Scotland soothing in a way I haven’t quite experienced before; I am so very far away from my home, my family, from everyone I love, and yet I feel quiet inside. It’s a feeling akin to safety, but it doesn’t share that sense of swaddling, of enclosure. It’s like confidence, but without any swelling of pride. This isn’t about me, except that I am a part of it. I feel connected to the world, each of us a vitally insignificant cog. I am staring peacefully out the window of the bus, listening to Frightened Rabbit sing about what makes us who we are, and just smiling. I can think, right now, about all the responsibilities and plans that lie ahead of me, and I feel no anxiety. I know that it is within me to be successful in all the ways I want to be, to grow and be always growing in my relationships with other people, to retain this sense I now feel so strongly, this sense of what’s truly important to me. (Goodness… the grass literally ripples.)”
Dalkeith is a tiny town, about 15 minutes outside of Edinburgh by bus. We are staying in an 18th century estate, in a building that as been called a palace, but is far from palatial inside. Most people I’ve spoken to in Scotland call it Dalkeith House… but of course, I prefer to call it “our palace” whenever possible. It belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch (pronounced awesomely: buh-clew), who is second only to the Queen of England when it comes to land holdings. At some point, however, it was leased out to the University of Wisconsin, an institution that has been holding semester-long “Wisconsin in Scotland” study abroad programs here since the 1970s. In the summers, the live-in staff (quite like hall directors from ResLife) are happy to take in educational groups like our British Studies group. The LIS class is all here, obviously, but a few other classes accompanied us to Scotland: Theater, Children’s Literature, Shakespeare, and Psychology. There are four girls in my room, including me, but the bed is so comfortable (compared to our place in London) that I hardly notice the extra company. The only somewhat touchy situation, as ever, is the communal bathrooms. Hello, freshman year of college! But I can say that, once I have managed the clothes and towel logistics, every shower I’ve taken has been marvelous. In the end, that’s all I really need to be cheerful: a cozy bed and a hot shower.
As I mentioned before, the weather has been delightfully damp. We arrived on Sunday, and the remainder of that day was a steady drizzle. The forest and fields here are like sponges – so very different from my desert home, where the ground is shell-shocked by any downpour of moisture, forcing it to run off in deadly flash floods. The soil here knows the rain well, and welcomes its steady arrival. Monday was another rainy one; yesterday (Tuesday) was mostly sunny but still cool. The grounds surrounding the Dalkeith Estate are around 10 square miles, and we explored a little bit of them on Sunday evening. Beautiful flowers, so much greenery, an old bridge and river, and quite a lot of ugly brown slugs.
As far as our class requirements go, we have definitely had a whirlwind experience here – two visits each day. Monday, we started our morning by catching a bus into Edinburgh and wandering through the exhibits of the National Library of Scotland. The NLS is one of 6 deposit libraries in the UK (the biggest of which being the British Library, another being the Bodleian); this library, unsurprisingly, focuses on Scotland, its authors and culture, newspapers, etc. They have 14 million books and manuscripts, and receive 6,000 new items every week. Unfortunately, since we didn’t have a scheduled tour, we could not see the reading rooms or much of the actual library at all. On the bright side, this library had some fantastic exhibits on the ground floor – and believe me, at this point in the trip, it’s tough to impress me with an exhibit of any kind… I’m that sick of museums. The entry room of the exhibits used great design elements, bold facts that were easy to take in at a glance, and interesting/eye-catching visual displays. The NLS possesses all of the papers of the seven generations of John Murrays – these men were publishers, and were partly responsible for the publication of a number of authors we now consider to be our greatest literary treasures: Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin and Herman Melville. The John Murray exhibit was quite dimly lit, with little pools of light around different stations – they would light up in various orientations depending on where you browsed on the nearby touchscreen. They had digital copies of letters written by the authors highlighted, diagrams showing convoluted social webs, pieces of clothing. Just a really well executed exhibit.
There was also a walk-through summer-only exhibit on the history of golf – normally this would not interest me a whit, but given the history of the sport in Scotland, I enjoyed browsing through a bit of it. My favorite part of this was the quotes on the wall: “Who but the Scots could evolve a game that offers such opportunities for humiliation and failure, and no one but oneself to blame for it?” And another: “Golf is a Scottish Presbyterian karma game. You pay for what you get and what you get is what you did.”
All told, the visit to the NLS was quite short – we took advantage of the break in our day to explore Edinburgh a bit. I began to discover that this is a city that genuinely prizes its literary heritage and values the continuation of that reputation: www.cityofliterature.com. For example, J.K. Rowling wrote much of her Harry Potter series sitting in the back room of the Elephant House coffee shop, with a phenomenal view of Edinburgh Castle on the hill, and a little closer, a cemetery wherein apparently one would find a great many familiar character names. We spent a little time in Elephant House, and honestly, I didn’t want to leave. Sometimes a place like that, a coffee shop or what have you, just has such a lovely vibe about it, friendly and warm and inspiring in all the right ways. They had delicious food, various types of elephant art and sculptures tucked into all sorts of corners, and though they pride themselves on being the “birthplace” of Harry Potter, it is still very much a spot for locals, not tourists. They seem to have weathered the frenzy with their personality entirely intact, and I am glad for that.
The next visit was my favorite of the trip – sure, the British Library was imposing and impressive, the Bodleian has centuries of history behind it, and St. Paul’s Cathedral can literally render a person speechless, but… I don’t know, as soon as I walked into the Edinburgh Central Library, I just felt at home. I grew up in public libraries, I spent countless hours getting lost in books plucked from stacks, I participated in years of programming for teens, I saw the processes from so many different sides. I made great friends in that place, and furthermore, I come from a family of book-lovers, with a librarian mother to boot: I guess you could say libraries are in my blood. They cultivated my love of words, my ongoing affair with language, and without that personal history steeped in literature, who knows if I would love to write so much? What I mean by all this, really, is only that I loved being in this library and our time there reminded me of the components of my program that I am truly passionate about and interested in.
I took pages of notes on this visit, but I’ll try to boil it down! We got an opportunity to hear a presentation from all different parts of the library staff. I was most interested in the talks from the Web 2.0/virtual library specialist and the Reader Development team. The Edinburgh public library system apparently has 28 community branches, all of which operate somewhat under the umbrella of the Central Library – aspects like Reader Development, marketing efforts, and events are all pushed across the entire system. I was particularly impressed with how well they have incorporated and utilized Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and blogging. I do think that the Scottish population is more interested in reading as an activity than perhaps most Americans are (apparently their literacy rates have been astoundingly high well back into history) so it might make it easier to get people interested in participating in library events. But I believe that the success of their online efforts really comes down to the fact that it’s all so interconnected and focused on the expressed needs of the people they serve. Their ongoing digitization efforts include thousands of photographs stretching back through centuries of history and up to present day (capitalcollections.org.uk) – they have a Flickr account as well, where they run a “Mystery Photographs” set. They post pictures here when they’re not sure of their location or time period, and this allows the community of Edinburgh to feel connected to the process, encourages discussion, as well as providing assistance in identifying elements of their own history. They utilize WordPress (woo, WordPress!) for an informational blog, supplemented by shorter Twitter posts about things like their Mobile Library locations on a given day, or an upcoming author event. One of the aspects of their online attitude that I really appreciated was when they said that Web 2.0 is about discussion and conversation; it’s not just talking to people, but also having them respond. That understanding infuses their practices, and seems to be promoting community engagement with the library. The library also has a YouTube channel, where they post videos of their various events – for example, the Music Library hosts all sorts of concerts in their space and can post the videos online afterward.
I also really appreciated the talk from the two librarians who spoke to us about Reader Development. They are essentially all about placing reading at the core of the public library experience – this doesn’t conflict at all with the virtual library efforts, the Web 2.0 presences. On the contrary, the online services are intended to raise the profile of the library by bringing all the e-resources together, and increasing their “discoverability.” The idea is that a potential reader may learn of the various events and services offered by the library system and be more likely to participate in them if the information presented well and widely. Reader Development focuses on engagement with readers, and their personal connection with books – it takes Reader Advisory to a different level, because it includes marketing efforts, surveying patrons and implementing suggestions, putting together events of interest, and (perhaps most importantly) customer service. The Central Library has an author event each month, bringing Scottish authors of various levels of fame into the library spaces to speak to their readers and have conversations in a neutral setting. They work to bring big names through partnerships with the Scottish Book Trust and others, as well as providing forums for up-and-coming Scottish authors to start building a base of readership. There are 38 book groups across all of the branch libraries, and they also try to provide resources for private book clubs. (There seems to be such an underlying culture of reading and literature here, I can’t help but be jealous!) In terms of customer service orientation, the Reader Development team is working to get all the librarians in their system registered and through a three-year training program called Frontline – I had heard of this program before, and I think it has tremendous potential to bridge the gap for professional librarians who may not have entered the LIS profession to be customer service oriented (quite the opposite in some cases), but are now being forced to interact with the public.
The tour itself was great – it’s a huge old building, with multiple additions and renovations having changed it through the years. Central Library is actually one of the many Carnegie libraries. And, at long last, I got to see a Teen section! When I enquired about YA programming, I was told that though the Central branch has a fair-sized collection (still relatively small, but at least it’s present!), the programming is generally organized by the community branches, so as to make it easier for the teens to get there and participate.
Goodness, I am long-winded. And I haven’t even tackled Tuesday’s visits! It’s tough to concentrate when there is a lovely rainy evening outside my window and I’m cozy in my pajamas on a couch. :) A good number of our compatriots have left Dalkeith House already today, and Carrie & I are leaving bright and early tomorrow morning for Edinburgh Airport. Dublin, here we come! I’ll do my best to keep blogging while I’m there, but I will for sure update once I’m back in London on Saturday.