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In the basement with the leak diverters

I’m starting to feel like an pyromaniac, as I’m once again returning to the theme of library destruction.  With collection items  vulnerable to fire, flood and infestation, the possibility of disaster is something librarians need to think about, and indeed plan for: one survey showed that a massive 30% of libraries and archives had experienced some kind of disaster in the last 5 years. But hopefully this post will have a more positive spin than previous tales of woe, as my library is taking a very pro-active approach to disaster planning. This is undoubtedly one of the benefits of having an in-house conservation team who, along with our consultants Harwell, have arranged a series of sessions for staff in the theory and practice of disaster management.

Setting up the leak diverter

So it was that I found myself on one of the hottest days of the year, deep in a climate controlled basement playing with gaining practical knowledge of our big yellow leak diverters. First a word on the mixed bag of colleagues I was with – one of the fundamentals of the new approach is that the group of trainees should be as varied as possible. This is a lesson learnt from less fortunate libraries who have trained a bunch of conservators and collection managers  in disaster response only to find them all safely tucked up in bed when the flood/fire/plague of frogs was unleashed. So our group included not just the usual suspects, but also junior retrieval and security staff who visit the stacks regularly, as well as staff that work out-of-hours and some (like me) who just looked keen.

Planning to enable a quick response to emerging issues was the main theme. Reducing the extent and quantity of the damage is key and quick really needs to be quick – in a case study from the National Library of Scotland, a sprinkler system was said to have discharged 40,000 litres of water in 8 minutes. A prompt response, in most cases involving an external service provider, extends to the days after damage occurs. In the summer floods of 2007 the Hull library that managed to crate, list and freeze its affected items within 36 hours avoided the mould damage that would’ve meant page-by-page cleaning of its collection items, and this damage starts to occur in 3 short days.

Training was theoretical and practical. And with collections of books, archives, artwork, film and video spread across 14 collection stores, we certainly left with something to think about.

LIKE ideas 2012

Last week was all about real-life-networking-whilst-talking-about-social-networking at the LIKE ideas conference. I was lucky enough to receive an early careers award sponsored place for the conference and dinner courtesy of Sue Hill and from the number of people who recommended the LIKE crowd to me as ‘a nice bunch’ I suspected I was in for a good time. I wasn’t disappointed.

Diving into the Colorado River at "Parker Strip," a favorite swimming spot of southern Californians and Arizonians, April 1973

Social media – insert ‘taking the plunge’ caption here

The slides from the conference are all online, so I’ll just highlight a few of the themes that I think relate to my work in an academic / special collections library.  Unfortunately (and ironically) the slides don’t give much of an impression of how engaging the speakers were, so you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

Noeleen Schenk’s presentation on research communities was probably the most relevant to our users.  Her talk focused on the ways researchers were supplementing traditional networking, information gathering and dissemination using social networking technology. Take a look at her research lifecycle slide for some insight into how researchers are integrating these tools into all the stages of their practice – and Noeleen was keen to stress was that relationships built up in this way could cross disciplines in a far more natural way than has traditionally been the case.

Bertie Bosrédon from breast cancer care talked about the way that organization has encouraged its staff to become online advocates. Staff who were already keen uses of twitter were trained as social media champions and given tips on how to use their own media accounts to promote the charity – for example monthly emails suggest upcoming events they might like to tweet about. He was keen to point out that all of this is entirely voluntary and something the staff had really enjoyed getting involved in.

Andrew and Simon from Kingsley Napier were there to take us back down to earth – their talk on social media law stressed the importance of keeping work and private social networking separate – even making sure staff don’t log in to twitter using work email addresses for fear of litigation over the opinions they express online. Nevertheless, their fascinating talk was the surprise hit of the afternoon (yes, really!).

After all that, if was off to the pub for  dinner and a chance to mull it all over with some fellow info-pros. I even took home a couple of business cards – and a tiny paper duck. Turns out this networking stuff (online and otherwise) isn’t so bad after all…

29th June 2012

Royal College of Physicians Library visit

Another day, another medicinal garden – this time at the beautiful home of the Royal College of Physicians Library where rare books librarian Katie Flanagan showed a group of fellow professionals from ALISS around. It was a genuinely varied trip, taking in both the modern and the historic – on one hand the library is home to cutting edge collections and document supply which caters for members, fellows and staff (including the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). On the other, it houses extensive collections of historic material which reflect the varied (and occasionally esoteric) interests of its members.

WW2 shrapnel damage in the RCP’s historic collection

Following on from this week’s theme of library destruction we heard a rare tale of woe – the original library, formed in 1518, was almost completely destroyed in the great fire of London (only a year after the  College had been robbed of the majority of its silver collection). All but 100 books were lost. The current rare books collection is based on the library of the Marquess of Dorchester who donated his private library of 3,400 books to make up for the losses.

25th June 2012

Lost Libraries of London walking tour

A Friday night out with a bunch of librarians looking at places where books used to be was always going to be a niche activity. But the knowledge and enthusiasm of the lovely Alice Ford-Smith more than made up for the loss of a couple of hours drinking time. The evening commenced with a tour of the cathedral-like Gray’s Inn library, which lost the major part of its collection during the blitz and was completely re-built after the war. Destruction and dispersal were the themes of the evening, which was not for the faint hearted bibliophile. Our tour ranged in date from the loss of the library of old St Pauls in the great fire of London (which was said to smoulder for a week) through the disbanded libraries of eighteenth century coffee houses right up to the present day – and the much-loved St Brides  library which faces an uncertain future. Our stops ranged from the official to the commercial and we even took in the site of public book burnings outside Stationers Hall. Nevertheless the tone of the tour was upbeat and contained my favourite fact of the week – that Dr Johnson treated his books so badly that when his library of 2000 volumes was auctioned after his death it raised a measly £300. Surely a comfort to those of us who can’t seem to kick the habit of turning our page corners down.

22nd June 2012

“Epidemic Print” at Cambridge University Library

10th May 2012
 
 

The full title of this masterclass was “Epidemic print: medical incunabula and their readers”. For the class, Peter Jones (Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge) had selected 20 incunabula for us to view, which were grouped thematically around particular topics. After a short introduction he led us through the texts, deftly drawing out themes as he went along. The size of the group was kept small so that we would have a chance to view the books, look through them and ask questions during and after the class.

First up was a group of works demonstrating the link between plague and printing. Of course, epidemic illness was a major problem in large metropolitan centres in the later fifteenth century, and the fear of plague brought with it a desire to obtain medical advice. In each and every town affected by epidemic disease, a printing press was established, although the advice distributed was seldom specific or up-to-date. From plague tracts we moved on to the most common form of medical printing, the medical calendar. Closely related to portable almanacs, these broadsides were designed to be displayed: they were often printed in red and black and illustrated with medical and religious motifs. Calendars contained zodiac-based medical advice, including advice about the best times of the year to be bled, to take medicine and to undergo medical interventions. Ephemeral texts such as these bucked the trend for Latin medical works, and those printed in the local vernacular appealed to a much broader market.

From here we moved on to household medical books and  herbals.  These included the so-called Mainz herbal of 1484, and a Hortus (or Ortus) Sanitatis ,  of which the Wellcome Library has copies .  We then examined academic medical textbooks including  Savonarola’s 1486 Practica medicinae  a venician Articella and the extremely beautiful Fasciculus medicine (pictured).

Peter Jones pointed out that, in the majority of cases, medical books that made it into print weren’t works by living authors, but rather by deceased authors with long established reputations. Before the 1470s no books by living authors were printed at all, whilst many of those shown to us were compiled from fourteenth- and even thirteenth-century manuscript exemplars. Indeed, thirteenth-century texts such as Simon of Genoa’s Clavis sanitationis were still circulating and being used in the later fifteenth century. Above all, surviving copies of medical incunabula show a high degree of annotation by owners, evidencing the practical purpose of these books.

Society of Apothecaries short course

11th – 13th April 2012

One of the unreported battlegrounds in academic librarianship centres around the need to employ practitioners with specialist subject knowledge. A qualified librarian, the theory goes, should be willing and able to answer enquiries on any subject – otherwise what has their lengthy and expensive training been for?  As sensible as this might sound, in my experience it often leaves staff to cobble together a ‘good enough’ level of subject specialism while on the job – often through trial and error and whilst having to maintain an adequate enquiry service for readers. So it was a refreshing change for myself and a colleague to be sent on a short history of medicine course to get us up to speed in this very specialist field.

The course took place over three days  – mornings were spent listening to talks from a selection of great and good  medical historians, while in the afternoons we had the chance to stretch our legs on visits to sites of interest. Highlights were too numerous to list, but it was a treat to see the consummate orator Bill Bynum in full flow as well as Carole Rawcliffe (on Medieval medicine); our own Helen Wakely (on 17th Century domestic medicine) and Simon Chaplin (18th Century anatomy). Richard Barnett gave a neat overview of the problems and pitfalls of studying 20th century medicine and led a lively discussion afterwards. Visits included the Hunterian museum, the beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden and the gruesome Old Operating Theatre at St Thomas’, which some of the medical students enjoyed a little too much for comfort…

A consuming read

Fans of epicurean anniversaries will have noted that 1st April marked the birthday of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), one of the fathers of modern gastronomy and author of Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste).  Savarin earned his living as a lawyer and a magistrate, but it was as a gourmand that made his name. His Physiologie  is a series of meditations on the proper appreciation of food which remains in print some 187 years after its original publication. Like any true enthusiast Savarin doesn’t limit his scope. His prose mixes the minute with the universal, the philosophical with the anecdotal, and he is as comfortable contemplating the art of a proper death as he is admiring the magnificent truffle: “let no one ever confess that he dined where truffles were not” extolls Savarin. And who are we to disagree?

So what better way to commemorate a literary gourmand born on April fools’ day than with a feast of books? After all, as Sir Francis Bacon saidSome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”.  And, for a few intrepid bibliophiles at least, the anniversary is a chance to push back the back the bounds of metaphor and unite with a common goal – the creation and consumption of edible texts. On and around 1st April each year, edible books festivals take place at libraries all over the world. But amongst this literary gluttony, some one needs to strike a note of caution. So here for your delectation, is the Librarydot roundup of evidence that eating books is a bad idea. Bon appétit!

1.  Books don’t taste very nice

Ezekiel might’ve found God’s scroll to taste like honey, but bibliophagy (that’s book eating to you and me) has more often been used as a punishment. See for example Isaac Volmar, whose seventeenth century satire against the Duke of Saxony displeased the Duke so much that he forced Volmar to eat it raw.  In the same century Philip Oldenburger, a German pamphleteer, was condemned not only to eat his work, but to be whipped continually until he had finished it. Danish Author Theodore Reinking fared slightly better. Imprisoned on the publication of his 1644 tract Dania ad exteros de perfidia Suecorum (From the Danes to the world on the treachery of the Swedes), he was given a choice – face beheading for treachery or eat his beloved book. Theodore chose the gluttons’ route: he had his book boiled in a broth, downed it and lived to see another day.

2.  They’re not very good for you

In spite of the popularity of book-eating as a metaphor, books actually have negligible nutritional value.  In spite of this, various communities ingest the written word as a form of healing. In traditional Tibetan medicine, for example, mantras written on small pieces of paper are consumed as a form of medicine, while it was said that Christian Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia was so devout that he took to eating his favourite passages of scripture as a cure for illness. The apparently spurious tale had him dying of a ruptured intestine halfway through the second book of Kings.

3.  They could be very bad for you indeed.

If these warnings from history haven’t dulled your appetite, take heed – there’s a small but still significant chance that your literary snack has been laced with poison. The Arabian Nights, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and TV’s CSI are a few who have made use of this literary trope. Even if you’re not a fictitious character (and most of us aren’t), it’s best to avoid licking your fingers before you turn pages and always wash your hands after reading.

Overall, it might be better to follow Jack Kerouac’s lead and leave book consumption to your pets. Jack famously typed the manuscript of his most important novel, On The Road, on a scroll of tracing paper so that once he started typing he didn’t have to stop. This scroll has been preserved, but its very last section – containing Kerouac’s original ending – is torn away. Legend has it that the final part was eaten by a dog belonging to one of Kerouac’s friends. Sure enough in pencil at the end of the manuscript Kerouac has written:

 ‘Dog ate (Potchky — a dog)’.

Wiener library visit

One of the great things about working in a special collections library is the enthusiasm librarians have for sharing experiences with other libraries. It’s always good fun to have a peep at what other services are up to and not to have to cover up the fact you’re there to borrow good ideas for your own practice. My library is in the process of reassessing how we make our archives and special collection items available to our readers, and I’ve been asked to take part on behalf of the discovery and engagement team. This means lots of trips to other services, large and small, and an excuse to visit all of those libraries you’ve never got round to popping in to.

First up is the refurbished Wiener library in its new building on Russell Square. The library is open to all and a new exhibition space on the ground floor welcomes visitors, and can be converted into a larger space for evening events. Upstairs the main reading room is incredibly light thanks to its large windows overlooking Russell Square. The central space, where the enquiry desk is, feels more intimate with a mezzanine level providing extra shelving.

What’s really impressive is how the designers have played with the purpose of the spaces; integrating bookshelves into the exhibition downstairs and using in-line display cases amongst the library shelving upstairs to show archive material. These draw browsers further into the collection and contribute to the impressive 80% of casual visitors who go on to make use of the collections. With a serene, considered space like this to work in, one can see why.

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