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.