Wednesday was actually a very laid back day, despite how very long it lasted, and how exhausted I was when I finally fell into the metal arms of my spring-filled mattress. This day was rainy from the very start. We took a bus to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare… a two-hour drive through green and pastoral countryside. Sheep and cows and rolling hills of green: the whole shebang. I managed to stay awake for part of this ride, actually, and was rewarded by some beautiful rain views.
Upon arriving, we spent the day with no particular purpose, which was particularly welcome at this point in the program. We wandered about, avoided the large groups of touring/screaming/running adolescents, did some shopping, some eating and drinking (we are still in England, after all), and some reading in a park.
This town was a charming little tourist trap, a bit Disney for my tastes, a bit too commercialized. Stratford apparently gets three million visitors a year making pilgrimages to see Shakespeare’s birthplace. This may be mildly sacrilegious to some, but as much as I enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed, as much as I recognize their artistic value and linguistic brilliance, I just never felt much connection with the man as author. I adore his sonnets, but don’t really feel much need to visit the place he was born. (I’ve always had the impression that there is some question regarding the authorship of his plays… this has always lent quite an air of pleasant mystery to his works for me. However, in this case, it left me feeling a bit disenchanted with Stratford and the Shakespeare fervor.) …Or maybe I was just tired of crowds and tours! Either way, I enjoyed exploring the town – it really was quaint in many ways, small and communal.
That evening was the highlight of the trip: we got to attend a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of “The Winter’s Tale.” It always takes me a good 10-20 minutes in the beginning of a Shakespeare play to get myself into the linguistic frame of mind necessary to understand what they’re saying, but the performance was really fantastic. It was all done on a single stage, with very few props – but what they did with those props was impressive. Two imposing bookshelves toppled at the end of a scene, in a particular height of emotional turmoil… they were then used as a cave from which a bear (made of book pages) emerged – the scattered books and papers played many roles in different contexts… it was a really visually exciting play, one I had never seen or read before.
The show began at 7:15 and was over three hours long – well worth the time. Thanks to traffic and construction, we didn’t get home until after 1am. I slept fitfully on the bus, and when we returned to the dorm, I looked the wrong way when crossing the street and very nearly walked into traffic. Guess I forgot what country I was in for a minute. 🙂
On Tuesday, we visited the London Library! I was really excited for this visit, because I thought it would be a more conventional “public library” type setting… the reality of the place was quite different, but I was far from disappointed. (Sadly, two days after the fact, I don’t remember what I did with my morning. Furthermore, I have no pictures prior to the visit itself, so I have to assume that I didn’t do anything of consequence. It likely involved some sleeping in and a long, hot shower.) At any rate, we made our way to the London Library by bus, and after some (expected, at this point) confusion, we made it to our destination. It is quite unassuming from the front, actually – an elegant façade that looks like nothing more or less than an old but well-maintained apartment building. Located on St. James’s Square, the London Library looks out on an island park, a lush green patch fenced off from the public. Apparently only those who live in the bordering buildings have access to this bit of verdancy – I think it’s quite a nice way to have a yard, actually, with all of the pleasure, but none of the grass-cutting responsibilities.
One of the first things I noticed about the London Library, when we sat down in the lobby to wait for our tour, was the fact that they charge for membership. They charge quite a bit, in fact – the membership fee for an adult is 400 pounds per year (just about $600). Initially, this irritated me, calling to mind all sorts of access issues and related indignation, but as we moved through our tours and I got to hear the history and mission of this huge, amazing library, I came to think that they earn every penny of that fee. Thomas Carlyle, angry that the British Library wouldn’t let him take books home with him, founded a lending library in 1841. Over 150 years later, The London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. Its collection spans some one million volumes, from the 16th century to present-day, 97% of which is available for loan to members. The Library seems to be of the mind that books are meant to be read, and does what it can to remain as relevant and contemporary as possible in any given age. It obtains books through donations as well as purchases made from the revenue of the membership fees. The London Library holds rare titles like a first edition “Origin of the Species” (plus lots of other Darwin titles). Most books published after 1700, with a few exceptions, are actually shelved out in the library and freely available to members to pick up, read, or take home with them. Books published prior to 1700 are kept in a special collections section, with more environmental controls, but are just as available to those who would like to take them home. (Of course, for the more valuable pieces in their collection, the patron must sign an acceptance of financial responsibility, in case anything should happen to the book in their care. The outlined costs of repair and refurbishment are often enough to dissuade people from taking the very rare books home with them.) Stella, the head of their preservation department, put the spirit of the place into words quite well for me: “We are not a museum.” The whole focus of their existence is the books and their members.
A few words on the books themselves – all hardcover acquisitions are immediately disrobed of their dust jackets. When they must buy in paperback, those are fitted with a reinforced cover. Books work hard in this library, and they are well taken care of by Stella and her team. As a result of this practice of rebinding and no dust jackets, the whole place looks like it’s full of old books, beautiful bright covers embossed with golden titles on the spine. It just looks like a library should look. Given the mission of lending, the preservation department seems to almost have one of the most comprehensive and difficult jobs in the Library. Stella said: “What we do here is basic, but good.” Each book is examined carefully after every loan period, fixed in-house if possible or sent elsewhere for conservation. The stacks must be ensured to be free of dust, environmentally controlled as much as possible, and all possible care taken to avoid infestation by beetles or other such insects that like to devour books if left unchecked. Stella said that it took four and a half years for her team to clean every single book in the London Library, to dust all of the shelves and organize every book onto new shelves with room for the collection to grow. Now, because of the recent refurbishments and construction on the building, they have to begin all over again. But, as with every other part of the library, their care and investment in the institution and collection are evident in everything they do and say.
One of the more delightful facts about the Library is probably best worded by their own website: “It is a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library’s shelves.” This policy of keeping everything, along with the acquisition of eight to ten thousand new books each year, results in quite the problem of space. As a result of the constant and rapid expansion of the collection, the London Library is in a state of constant expansion. What looks like a pleasantly unassuming building front from the outside actually leads you into “four buildings smashed into one” as one of our guides put it. I can hardly explain the layout of this building, except that it’s a sort of brilliant mash-up of styles and material. Four buildings really have been smelted together, staircases and lifts added, with reading rooms here and there in all their beautiful appointments. The best way to give you a sense of the place is to show you their section map, I think.
Each color indicates a space that was once a separate building. The back stacks were actually built expressly for the purpose of housing this collection; it is essentially a huge, 7-story steel frame, the first steel structure ever built in the 1890s. Even now, perusing the aisles of books, you can look up or down a number of floors through the slats. It’s staggering, the size and scope of the jobs these librarians do.
The membership of the London Library is around 7,500, and is a mix of individual members and organizations. The Library has no late fines, and is happy to send items away for loan by mail – they often get and fulfill such requests from organizations or universities. I asked about the issue of access, and the Library does have a Trust Fund that can be applied to, should a scholar or potential member have a level of financial need. They put a great amount of weight on the members’ opinions – they seem to really believe that the London Library belongs to the members themselves, and do what they can to make the improvements and adjustments that would most benefit and please their users. They offer one-to-one inductions for new members, explaining the layout and processes involved in membership – one librarian said that they “aim for good to superlative” in terms of customer service, something I identify with and respect. I can see that mentality manifested in the way they speak of the Library, the love they clearly have for the institution, its mission, and its members.
Upon leaving, I realized that I had started thinking of the membership fee in terms of its monthly breakdown: a mere thirty-three pounds a month for access to all that culture, literature, and history? Where do I sign up?
I’m having trouble believing that I’ve only been here for a week and a half – we have two and a half weeks remaining in the program, and it is truly jam-packed with activities and travels: Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, Scotland, Ireland, and more London!
Monday morning was one of our earlier wake-up calls… but luckily, we woke up to a gorgeous grey sky, a chill in the air, and drizzling rain! I’ve been waiting for this weather since we got here, and it’s amazing. We were down in the courtyard by eight to catch a ferry down the Thames to Greenwich. Part of our initial assignment in this course was to read a couple of books on various topical parts of London’s history, and one of the ones I chose was Longitude by Dana Sobel – this book left me fairly excited about our trip to Greenwich. It was entirely different from what I expected in terms of style, very readable with a good narrative flow and sense of character. I learned some truly interesting things about the history of determining longitudinal location at sea, how this scientific problem took decades to solve – in the end, John Harrison, a gifted, self-taught clock-maker, created the kind of portable watch that could withstand variations of temperature, humidity, and air pressure (as well as the pitch and roll of a ship deck) without losing more than a second or two over the course of a months-long voyage. While Harrison was working on perfecting his creation, astronomers around the world were hard at work mapping the skies – constellations, moon movements, sun movements. In the end, the watch provided a more reliable solution, as it did not rely on having a clear view of the stars to evaluate location (or four hours to calculate). However, this period of intensive astronomical study yielded a great many more amazing discoveries – the size of the earth and Jupiter, for example; our distance from the sun; the fact that stars do move, in tiny infinitesimal increments, over the centuries. All of this was determined in the 18th century, using telescopes that are more than rudimentary by today’s standards, but more than sufficient for the scientific minds of the time to unlock a few secrets of our solar system, and put together incredibly details maps of the sky. The Royal Observatory is the home to the clock that indicates Greenwich Mean Time, as well as the Prime Meridian – the division between the left and right hemispheres of the earth, zero longitude.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – back to the ferry ride. Might be my favorite form of public transportation yet – cool and breezy and quick as a waterbug. Impractical in the city, of course, but at least you get some air circulation. We arrived very early for our scheduled tour of the National Maritime Museum Library, and so we grabbed a delicious little breakfast in a place called Café Rouge. The tour itself was interesting, though I’ll admit that I’ve never had much particular interest in sea-related histories or piracy. The National Maritime Museum houses all relevant documents and artifacts (including full ships and boats) related to naval history… and the Library is, of course, charged with retaining all of the two-dimensional aspects of this collection: from Royal Navy ship rosters and records to the rise of piracy of the high seas, from voyages and explorations of new territories to astronomical and sea charts, from naval architecture to a great many genealogical sources. They keep charts, manuscripts, journals, maps, both modern and rare. The library is currently between two manifestations; it has been in the space it currently occupies since the museum opened in the 1930’s, but a new building will be going up for them in the next year. This new space will have sufficient storage for them to have nearly all of their collections with them and available for viewing by the three to four thousand visitors they receive a year. The library seems to be seizing the move as an opportunity to upgrade many systems from manual to digital – at the moment, requests for materials are recorded by hand, but in the new building, they will have an online ordering system, which will allow a lot of behind-the-scenes tracking of materials requests with barcodes and printed tickets. Currently, the minimum age requirement to use the library is 16, but this is another practice that will change in the new building. I was gratified to hear that the library has employed an archive learning specialist who will be charged with reaching out to new audiences and making the collections more accessible to those who might find them relevant or interesting. Due to the move, the library is on very restricted hours at this point (only open three days a week), and space is limited for readers to use, so they have been employing a sort of booking system by email, handled by librarians. If the bigger space continues to be highly sought after in the new building, I imagine that some sort of simple online reservation form could be very useful in terms of freeing up librarian time currently spent scheduling readers.
Beyond talking to us about the logistical concerns of running a publicly accessible library with such a large complement of rare books (they have 8000 books published before the 1850’s) and the ways that they are working to streamline their processes with electronic tools, they were also kind enough to show us examples of some of their items. We saw old atlases (California was once thought to be an island), read old correspondence between a naval husband (with a mistress and child in the New World) and his wife back in England, and a book that was written, illustrated, printed, and bound entirely on an Antarctic voyage.
Though this was all very interesting, and I much appreciated the archivists taking time out of their days to show it all to us, I think it’s really been cemented for me that I have no interest in pursuing archives as a profession. I am grateful that there are so many who do, since I do think it’s vital to have such records preserved and kept… but my passions and interest do not lie here.
After the library tour, a few of us went over to the Queen’s House to take a look around – the Tulip Staircase was just gorgeous, but of course, no pictures allowed. But I found this online so you can see just how elegant it is:
At that point, we started the steep climb up to the Royal Observatory. We were all out of breath by the top, but the view was phenomenal. The pictures that I took couldn’t do it justice, unfortunately, but I tried. We wandered through the astronomy exhibits and then made our way to the Prime Meridian. I was struck and impressed by how orderly everyone was about waiting to take their picture. And it wasn’t just the British queuing up in a polite way; it was all manner of tourists from all around the world. It’s nice to see that large groups of people can manage themselves with respect on occasion, without pushing and shoving and cutting in line – it was a small thing, but I still appreciated it. After we all took our pictures with one foot in the left hemisphere and one foot in the right, we grabbed lunch and headed back down to the ferry.
Carrie and Nicole and I then braved Oxford Street at rush hour, in search of sweaters for our upcoming Scotland trip – four hours later, we dragged ourselves off the train at Waterloo, a full twelve hours after leaving our dorm that morning. Exhausted and sick of being jostled by huge crowds of rabid shoppers, we grabbed a drink at Stamford Arms and then Nicole and I tried to catch up with our blogging for class.
Today is a late start, a small favor for which I am very happy. We will be heading to London Library at 1pm, and now, I’m going to go get a few errands taken care of. Catch you on the flip side, folks!
I signed up to go on a day trip to Canterbury and Dover on Saturday – about an hour and a half drive from London. I was quite a sleepy kid on the bus ride out to the coast, but what I saw of the countryside before I passed out was quite lovely! 🙂 Our first stop was Dover, where we got to explore Dover Castle! It was quite sea-misty, which nearly obscured our view of the famed White Cliffs of Dover… but I managed to get a couple of decent photos.
Dover Castle was lovely – it was really interesting and fun to see a castle that isn’t tumbled down in ruins… it was built in the 12th century, so its continued existence is particularly impressive. A mere 21 miles across the Channel to France, the castle was also utilized as a key strategic point in World War II. We stood on the circles where anti-aircraft artillery had once been placed, walked out on Admiral’s Look Out (where we would have been able to see France had it not been so foggy), climbed up to the top of the castle keep… very cool place.
During our time there, I happened upon a little green space that quickly became my favorite part of the place and day – I sat there for only 20 minutes or so, enjoying the shade and little white flowers, and just breathed in the sea air and green all around me. My moment of zen for the day. 🙂
After Dover, we moseyed on over to Canterbury! Our first concern was eating, of course… as it so often seems to be. We got breakfast in a cafe called Chambers of Canterbury, which had some fantastic orange walls… and I had myself a delicious iced chai tea latte. We decided to head over and explore Canterbury Cathedral.
Beautiful, beautiful building. Gorgeous ceilings, high symmetries, ringing bells that harmonized with their own echoes. It had that hush of reverence about it, the smell of cold stone and sacred spaces. There is so much calm in churches, and though there will always be those tourists who trample over tradition without realizing, by and large people seem to sense the need for care and fall into the quiescence without complaint. I sat along the side of the cloister garth (a grassy section in the middle of the cathedral) just sinking into the old stone and timeless vibrations.
We spent a little more time wandering the streets of Canterbury, getting a little lost and digging through clothes on sales racks, and then made our way back along the little river to the bus. More sleeping ensued on the way home, so I’m sad to say I didn’t get much in the way of photos of the English countryside. But suffice it to say, it was very green and rolling, quite like what a storybook would tell you.
The rest of the weekend sort of slipped out of my hands… I stayed up late on Saturday night in bed, finishing Her Fearful Symmetry (and boy, did that book ever take a disturbing turn or two). Sunday was a lazy day: I woke up late-ish, walked over to the Fire Brigade station (in search of a t-shirt for a certain brother of mine) only to find it closed on Sundays. Caught the tube over to the Strand and bought a small suitcase for my upcoming trip to Scotland and Ireland. Upon my return to the dorm, I did a very necessary load of laundry. So nice to have clean clothes again – and doing laundry is just such a pleasant activity to me, I appreciated the time to zone out and do Sudoku.
I think I’m just destined to remain a day behind on these blog entries… I’ll try to get up in the morning and write up my experiences today in Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. We don’t have a class activity until 1pm, thank goodness for sleeping in! After our trip to the London Library (which I’m excited for), I’m heading back to Camden Town with Nicole and Carrie to stand in line for Florence + The Machine tickets. Cross your fingers for us getting in – we are pretty much dying to go!
Okay, all ye brave and faithful readers – I’m off in the general direction of bed. Miss you all.
At last, we are at the weekend! I find myself wondering if I will retain these odd turns of phrase; sometimes I feel like I’m walking down a beach full of language pebbles, picking up the ones that are shaped or colored in a way that appeals to me, and slipping them into my pocket. What will I do with them all when I get home? Pour them into a jar of funny words for display in my kitchen? Make them into jewelry and wear them with affectation? There aren’t many of them yet, and some are quite small. “At the weekend” instead of “on the weekend.” Instead of “line,” it’s “queue.” I do feel some infinitesimal hesitation in that space before speech, however; paying such attention to the odd-shaped bits of speech seems to have had an overall affect on my language choice. Their language is mine too, really – a cousin perhaps, or closer. Their speech sounds more refined to my American ear, even teenage chatter about boys and cell phones sounds weightier and more carefully considered in the British accent. And then there are the museums and libraries, full of articulate people, exquisitely worded explanations, beautiful old phrasings. It’s not quite self-consciousness I feel, but it’s something akin – I know so many delectable words, is all. I have so many little gems up in my head, but I wonder if they haven’t been archived, filed away in some dull room due to lack of use. They used to roll around with my thoughts, delighting me with their unexpected antics and combinations. I used to carry around a journal for overflow, and there were times when I couldn’t walk another step, drive another mile, without stopping to pour onto the page these restless words. I used to take a joy in language that has dimmed and receded in the face of academia; but being in school is not entirely to blame. Some of the responsibility must lay squarely with me, and my choice of mental priorities. This is the first time in over a year that I’ve carried a journal and used it throughout my day. I would mourn the loss of that practice, if it weren’t for the most thrilling part: I can resume it whenever I choose. Those words are still in here; I haven’t lost my particular breed of poetry and word play. I just need to come back to it.
I have no fingertip access here, to the internet or television. I can use my computer to write or listen to music in my room, but I keep no movies on the hard drive. My cell phone has become essentially an iPod. These restrictions have been good for me, I think. I am by no means “unplugged,” as free wireless is available to me just across the street. But I feel less frenetic, my attention has fewer demands upon it, and I can do just one thing at a time without feeling guilty that I’m not accomplishing enough.
At any rate, this weekend has been delicious in its freedom, with some much-needed empty time and space to breathe outside of class requirements. On Friday, I slept until my body was done sleeping. I woke at 10:00am and felt completely jet-lag-free for the first time. I’m still combating these weird new allergies, and struggling to remember to stay hydrated, but having enough sleep is really irreplaceable. I showered, wandered down to Sainsbury’s and bought some lunch, and ate it in St. John’s churchyard while reading Her Fearful Symmetry (as luck would have it, a ghost story set in London). The grassy space filled up gradually with people on their lunch break taking advantage of what is apparently strange weather for them: sunny and warm.
I did have one class obligation for the day, and we spent the afternoon hearing a curator speak and then wandering at the Museum of London. I find the moments of mass destruction in London’s history to be strangely fascinating: The Great Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz during WWII. The various ways Londoners reacted to these calamities, especially the testimonies from World War II, are oftentimes quite inspirational. I sat in a dark room with a projector in the Museum, listening to snippets of accounts from people remembering the Blitz. One man described spending his first night in a tube station with several others, including a few soldiers. When the bombs got close, a few people started to scream and wail, at which point, the three young soldiers stood up and called them all to attention – they said, “come on now, this will be happening every night,” and encouraged them to be courageous, to keep their spirits up. The soldiers then started singing, “Irish Eyes are Smiling.” I sat there in the dark, listening to a single male voice sing tremulously against the distant sound of explosions, and realized I was crying. London has been through a lot, if I may understate the history. People hold a great depth of pride in this city, and I am getting glimpses of that love, that loyalty, that protectiveness. It reminds me a bit of New York, this feeling of strength in diversity, of a group of people surviving something together and coming out bound tighter than ever before, despite all differences.
Carrie and I made an unsuccessful attempt to get stand-by tickets for Mumford and Sons that night in Camden Town… We’re going to try again, better prepared, for Florence + The Machine on Tuesday; assuming we get done at the London Library early enough. After a couple drinks at the local pub, Stamford Arms, I was in bed by midnight.
The weather has continued to be hot and humid… but I live for those scattered moments of clouded sky and breezy coolness. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’ve become a bit enamored of the BBC’s description of this kind of in-and-out weather… hence the title to this entry. 🙂
Random item of note: in England, the purple Skittle is flavored with black currant.
Strange and delicious.
Okay, next entry, Saturday in Dover and Canterbury!
Two posts in one day! Are you excited, or maybe sick of hearing me yap? 🙂 Today provided another beautifully cool morning, followed by a hot and humid afternoon. We got up a little extra early, and then had an extra confusing time of getting our rather large group through the tubes to our intended destination. One rather excellent upshoot to the aforementioned confusion was the fact that we ended up in a vaguely familiar place at King’s Cross Station…
Yep. I probably don’t really need to say much. It’s honestly rather hard to avoid going on something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage around this city… we’re also going to tour Bodleian Library in Oxford next Friday for class, a site which happens to have been used for many of the Hogwarts interiors. The geometric staircase in St. Paul’s Cathedral was used as the ascent to Professor Trelawney’s class in Prisoner of Azkaban. (Sadly, I won’t post that picture, as we were only permitted to take photos on the condition that we not post them on the internet.) Anyway, this little wall is sort of tucked away from the hustle and bustle of King’s Cross itself, so as to keep the excited Harry Potter people out of the way of commuters. …For the record, we were by no means the oldest people snapping our pictures in front of it. 🙂
Once we caught up with the rest of the class, at last, we began our tours of the British Library! This building, as I mentioned in the last post, was designed and built to house the materials that used to “live” in the British Museum’s Round Reading Room, from 1857-1998. Due to the expanding collection size, as well as the lack of adequate environmental controls for preservation of the books, the British Library was conceived. They expanded an old coal storage building right next to King’s Cross/St. Pancreas stations, due in large part to the wealth of underground storage space.
The British Library actually receives a copy of every single item published in the entire UK, ever. They keep a record of every single newspaper, pamphlet, book, even IKEA advertisements. The librarian who provided our tour, Heather Morely, mentioned that they receive around 8,000 new publications every single day. They do not discriminate in deciding what they keep – since they do not know what will be interesting and worthy of scholarly attention in the future, they just keep everything – for example, in recent years, people have come in to look at old advertisements to garner market trends through research of the past. Publishing companies are required by law to provide a quality copy of every single book printed to the British Library for free. The British Library has about 200 million books, all searchable through an online public access catalog. Contrary to the mission of the British Museum, however, the British Library has thrown the weight of its budget and operating decisions behind preservation over access. The public can still access the materials, but in order to get a Reader Pass and access to the Reading Rooms, a person must go through a lengthy and official procedure of request. One must show that the materials they would like to access cannot be obtained through any other source or library, must provide identification, and be interviewed by a staff member. Once the Reader Pass is issued, the patron is granted access to the Reading Rooms, which is where the really cool stuff happens.
Beneath the British Library, as I mentioned, is an enormous basement storage space. It is environmentally-controlled, maintained at no higher than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The books are not sorted by Dewey or any other cataloging schema – to conserve space, the books are organized by size. Running right between two halves of the sealed and reinforced Library basements is the Northern Line of the Underground. When someone requests a document, whether it’s a book, map, or other item, a ticket prints out, the book is pulled and then it is placed into a system of wheeled bins – a barcode is scanned to direct the book to the correct destination, and it travels through walls and floors to arrive into the waiting Reader’s hands. Of course, the rare and delicate books are hand-delivered, but I thought this was a pretty ingenious system. Though it might seem to be common sense that pens, highlighters, food, drinks, gum, and anything else that could conceivably damage an irreplaceable and antique book would be banned from all Reading Rooms… we were told a story of a PhD student that I still can’t quite comprehend. She highlighted in one of the British Library’s rare volumes. She was charged 11,000 pounds toward the restoration of the book – and I can only hope was banned for life.
In addition to archiving the UK’s printed records for posterity, the British Library is also engaged in an oral history project – people from all regions and of all ages come into the Library and are recorded speaking, so that scholars can track dialect and accent changes. Johnny Depp has actually used this resource for accent study. The Library also has a collection of eight million stamps, called the Philatelic Collection. The British Library is the only place where the records from the English who lived in African colonies can be viewed: birth certificates, marriages, christenings, death certificates. In the center of the Library, in a shining square centerpiece, is housed the King’s Library. This is a collection of 100,000 books, collected and donated by George III. George III was not a big reader – he collected books, not based on content, but based on the beauty of their bindings. The stipulation of the donation to the British Library is that the collection remain together, despite its wide and unrelated breadth of subjects. It is truly a sight to see, and difficult to capture in a picture:
And oh, the Treasures section. Today, I saw the original Beowulf manuscript. This alone made me catch my breath. I saw original Beatles lyrics scribbled on coasters and the back of a child’s birthday card. I saw Virginia Woolf’s notebook for her work on Mrs. Dalloway. I saw the handwriting of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy. I saw the Gutenberg Bible. This place is a literary Mecca.
We had a lovely little lunch at a pub called The Rocket, listened to some old school 90’s music (remember that Jennifer Lopez video where she dances with gypsies?). We meandered our way back southward to the dorms, stopping for a little shopping along the way… Tonight’s dinner was my first Indian food of the trip! It was pretty good, I think. Definitely satisfying. Many of our compatriots in the British Studies Program are embarking in the next hour for an overnight drive to Paris, where they will spend the weekend. I’m excited to hear about their adventures, but I’m happy with my decision to stay closer to London. There’s still so much I want to do and see here… and furthermore, I want to be cautious of wearing myself out with TOO much activity. Tomorrow, I’m going to let my body sleep until it wants to wake up, for the first time in recent memory. Hopefully that will let me shake the last lingering vestiges of jet-lag. I’d like to do some wandering tomorrow, and we have a small group tour of the Museum of London scheduled in the afternoon, for those few of us not going to Paris or Stonehenge. Saturday, I will be going on a day trip to Canterbury and Dover, which I am really jazzed about. Sunday will hopefully be another wandering-with-the-camera kind of day… maybe perusing the Tate Modern, and possibly seeing Henry IV at the Globe Theatre in the afternoon, but we’ll see. Next week, we’ll resume our daily class outings – we’ll be heading to Greenwich, Oxford, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. The LIS class will head to Edinburgh, Scotland next Sunday for three days of tours and class events. Still working on plans for the remainder, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated.
Hmm, I think it might be getting near time for bed?
I think I really need to start writing these entries out each evening… It’s difficult to reach back into my brain for what happened this morning, let alone yesterday!
This is why I take so many pictures, though, to assist with my mercurial memory. Yes, the British Museum! We made our way through our first truly “London-ish” morning of light rain and cool clouds to this beautiful building in the Bloomsbury area. While museums and archives don’t fall within my field of academic interest, I approached the day with a certain level of general excitement. The British Museum offers free admission, and seems to have public access in mind as one of its primary objectives. With a collection of seven million objects from all around the world, the British Museum offers a perspective on the arc of human existence that is difficult to find anywhere else.
With that distinction duly acknowledged, I couldn’t help but wonder what a good number of the originating cultures might think about the British possession of their historical treasures. In some cases, I felt downright sad, looking at human remains or spiritual objects displayed for the queues of inquiring eyes. I’d like to think that every effort has been made to take the relevant customs into account when designing each display, that every attempt at respecting the connected belief systems has been made. I don’t mean to impugn the British Museum in any way, of course – I’m sure their staff approach the collection with the utmost respect and care… hard to imagine someone working in a museum who doesn’t possess some fundamental sense of awe about things historical. Given the imperial history of Britain, however, I imagine that not all of the objects in their possession are unchallengeably within their purview. For example, I spent a few weeks in Greece in 2007 – during my time in Athens, I toured many museums and stood next to the colossal Parthenon. It was relayed to us by each tour guide we had, in no uncertain terms, that the British essentially stole many vital and precious parts of Greek history during various excavations. One particularly sore spot was the sculptures that originally sat atop the Parthenon, part of a larger collection known as the Elgin Marbles, after the man who brought them back to England. These are held at the British Museum in London, and while I felt so lucky to have been able to see them… I had to laugh a bit at the tone of the posted signage: “Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the building has always been a matter of discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions spared them from further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution.” I can almost see the faces of the Greek museum tour guides were they to read the (quite frankly) condescending rationalization.
Of course, as I am not intimately aware of all of the history between the two nations, I have merely my own sense of discomfort to deal with. There were a great many differences between the British Museum, and the multitude of museums I saw in Greece. The Greek are proud and intensely protective of their treasured items, and acutely aware of the dangers presented by tourists; there was no photography allowed, no possibility of touching items, and even a volunteer guard posted in every single room to ensure cooperation with the rules. In comparison, the British Museum’s openness originally struck me as containing much more spectacle, and much less reverence. The history of the world is told here through objects taken from all corners of the globe – but it felt much more clinical and scientific. As much as there is truth to the idea of the British Museum as a “worldwide-oriented cultural collection,” these pieces are not truly part of the British history. The methods by which many of them were obtained matter to me, and so I found it difficult to truly admire the facility.
I did my best, however, to push past this initial indignation, and I did come to appreciate the fact that public access to history is a vital component to understanding our place in the human community. The British Museum does a fantastic job of providing that access – someone can walk in off the street and see the Rosetta Stone. They could see the mummies of Egypt and learn about the construction of the Parthenon. They can explore early North American indigenous cultures and see treasures from Japan and China. (I did note that the museum has quite a small collection from India – this surprised me, considering the colonial history with this nation, not to mention the large Indian presence in the London population.) Overall, I think that the British Museum had to deal with a very real and dynamic struggle between preservation and access, and they have come down on the side of access. I saw a great many beautiful things, a million lovely details.
At that point, after a couple hours roaming the upper floors, we moved downstairs into the main museum archives for our guided tour. Stephanie Clarke was adorable and interesting, even as she expressed worry that her talk might be boring, she brought excitement into the world of archives for me. I may still not be interested in pursuing it as a career, but I have a great deal more understanding and respect for the field than I did before. She showed us examples of the papers that the main archive is responsible for keeping, explained how they often get inquiries from the public (research questions, genealogical searches, etc.) which they research and provide answers to. There are books of all the letters sent out from the Board of Trustees, collections of all the meeting minutes, and over 8000 photographs. She showed us an exploded shell that landed in the gallery during World War II, and followed up with pictures of the destruction wreaked by that event.
The British Museum actually used to include the beginnings of the British Library in the Round Reading Room, as well as the entire natural history collection that has since separated to become the Natural History Museum. In order to use the Reading Room, even today, it is required that a person have a legitimate need and purpose to do so, and they must provide an official request and all appropriate documents – these documents are retained in the museum archives as far back as 1795. We saw the signature of Karl Marx on the Reading Room records, as well as the application T.S. Eliot made for a Reader’s Card… signature, letter of request and recommendation, and all. Some very cool connections to the past here!
By now, despite the best efforts of my lovely Toms, my feet began to rebel at the long hours of forced labor and pointed me home soon after the tour concluded. After some free food at Stamford Arms, I got myself to bed at the startlingly early hour of 9:45pm. The sun wasn’t yet entirely gone from the sky, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care.