Thursday, 7 August 2008

Communist Museum, Prague

Taking advantage of my trip to Prague, I made it a point to visit the Museum of Communism. The museum is tucked away off from Wenceslas Square between, and this is not a joke, a MacDonald's and a Casino. As a person interested in history and politics I thought that the museum would be an interesting look into the lives of Czech's behind the Iron Curtain. The museum does a good job of balancing the absurd with truths of communist rule.

The exhibition is divided into three themes: dream, reality, and nightmare. The visitor is first presented with gigantic statues and busts of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Placards on the wall explain the initial praise of the liberating Red Army following the war and the communist party's eventual rule of the country. The 'dream' section offers a glimpse into the hopes of the Czech people and their belief that communism will bring them an improved quality of life. There several books displayed in this section filled with communist propaganda. Following the 'dream', the 'nightmare' exhibit represents a vision of life under communism. The placards explain that shops usually lacked basic goods and customers could expect to wait in long lines for little selection. This section also displays examples of the constant communist propaganda forced upon the public. The final portion of the museum depicts some of the terrible civil rights violations perpetrated against the Czech people and their resiliency in the face of this treatment. A video showing footage of protests Velvet Revolution, a non-violent protest against the communist government, demonstrates the violence inherent with a totalitarian government.
The film was an excellent tool in truly displaying the tactics used by the communists to ensure obedience. Records such as this are extremely important in preserving the past and offer very specific and literal imagery of events. Guerilla videos such as this are becoming more common and should be regarded and preserved as historical record.

Franz Kafka Museum, Prague

Perhaps one of the most surreal museums I visited in my travels was in Prague in the Czech Republic. The Franz Kafka Museum is located right around the corner from the Charles Bridge on the Vltava River and is an experience. Kafka was born in Prague and lived and worked there most of his life. Because I was visiting the city, and because one of my favorite books in high school was The Metamorphosis, written by Kafka, I decided to visit the museum.

From the very beginning of the tour the visitor is transported into a surreal environment. Letters written by Kafka to family members are displayed under what appears to be rippling water. There are also the sounds of dripping water and static noise. Despite the unconventional setup the exhibit moves in a linear pattern. The historical sources and manuscripts follow a young Kafka throughout his life and work as a bureaucrat. They outline the troubled relationship between father and son and offer insight into the authors numerous love affairs. Most of the documents are facsimiles and many of the originals are housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The exhibit moves from the life of Kafka and concentrates next on the publication of his books. The cover page in the picture above is the original published in 1916 in German. Kafka, Czech by birth, wrote and published almost entirely in German. I was fortunate enough to see a letter written by the author at the Bodleian library in his native Czech, a rare occurrence.
The last portion of the exhibit attempts to take you inside Kafka's novels themselves. The picture of the red staircase, shown above, marks the descent into a world of alienation and surrealism. The visitor is presented with long hallways of filing cabinets and the sound of a telephone ringing endlessly. Kafka worked as an insurance agent for many years and his writing reflects his frustration with his work. Also represented in the exhibit is Kafka's belief that life should be looked at from different angles in order to get a different perspective and gain insight. This is represented by the mirrored room above.
I found this exhibit to be truly extraordinary. I've never before seen an exhibit which challenges the viewer to step inside an authors mind in this way. Also, I have never seen documents displayed in such a nontraditional way. I would definitely reccommend this museum to anyone who is remotely interested in Kafka or surrealism.

Imperial War Museum

I chose to visit the Imperial War Museum on my first day of independent study. I have always been interested in history and the First and Second World Wars in particular. I thought that this would be a great opportunity to see these wars through a different frame and perhaps gain another perspective.
The museum was short, rainy, walk from the dorms on Stamford St. and very easy to find. Just outside the entrance to the building is displayed a fragment of the Berlin Wall, shown above. I was impressed at how well it was preserved and by the artwork displayed on the facade. The entrance hall to the museum is filled with artillery and aircraft from both of the World Wars. I was proud to see that one of our own Sherman tanks was displayed in the museum, attached with a favorable description.
The first exhibit I entered achieved my goal of gaining a different perspective of Britain and the Second World War. The exhibit was centered around London during Hitler's Blitz campaign of bombing. The focus was not just on general citizens of London but the children. As an American we sometimes forget that London was severely damaged during the war and thousands of civilians lost their lives. From the beginning, I noticed, the museum utilized sound recordings in the exhibits to underscore events or add depth to an item. This made me begin to think about recorded sound as an aid to exhibitions and its importance as historical record.
I was really impressed by two portions of the World War exhibits. Both contained artifacts from the wars such as uniforms and weapons but both made an attempt to put their observer into the environment. In the exhibit World War I, visitors were given the opportunity to walk through a trench on the Western front. There were life sized models dressed as soldiers occupying various foxholes and performing different duties. Meanwhile, the sound of mortars and gunfire echo overhead. It was a very effective way of illustrating life in the trenches. The World War II exhibit put the visitor inside a bomb shelter while the above surface was being shelled. The room actually shook and vibrated from the exploding shells overhead. This too was an effective interactive exhibit which put the visitor, as best it could, in the war.
The last exhibit I visited for the day was the most moving to view, the Holocaust exhibit. A difficult subject to cover, the museum did a great job of incorporating sound and film recordings in order to capture the atmosphere leading up to the actions taken by the Nazis. These historical documents were used to give depth to the exhibit and I found it to be very successful.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Wednesday, July 16: Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum Library

The class took a different form of transportation for our visit today, boat. The destination, was the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We jumped on the boat beneath the London Eye and traveled down the Thames. After a quick breakfast we were ready to meet our contact at the Caird Library.

Hannah met the group on the second floor of the museum and gave us a quick introduction to the library. She told us that the library was founded in the 1930's after an enormous donation was made by James Caird, whom the library is named after. We were also informed that the Caird library is the largest research library on maritime history in the world. In the libraries collection is: 100,000 books, 20,000 pamphlets, 20,000 bound periodicals, and 8,000 rare books. Some of the items in the special collections date as far back as the 15th century.

The library allows users anyone above the age of 16 to use the library. It is a reference library only and books cannot be removed from museum. The library has developed on online catalogue and is preparing to update the model in order to make it available to the public. Hannah mentioned that the library recieves between 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a year. Most of these are authors conducting research for books or articles.

The group was then taken quickly through the library and taken to a conference room in the rear of the building. In the conference room where we were met by Renea, a digital servic librarian, and Mike, part of the manuscripts team. Both librarians had selected so items in the collection to talk with us about. Renea chose several books commenting on various aspects of life at sea. One item which was particularly interesting was a 'How-to' book about becoming a sailor. A section even instructed a man how to start a fight with another seaman. Mike's items were primarly manuscripts, logs, or letters. A favorite item in this collection was a captain's log book describing the local flora and fauna. The captain happened to be an apt artist and drew many of these animals in the journal.

I found that both Renea and Mike were very excited about their job and both seemed to enjoy sharing their items with the class. I think that this was due in part because of their involvment in the library and its selection of items. Renea mentioned that she had just recently wrote a request for book and had had it approved. This is the type of environment I would like to work in.

Tuesday, July 15: National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum

On today's trip the group visited the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum is located just South of Hyde Park. The class entered the museum through a tube tunnel that runs by the museum. The V&A has six levels with thousands of pieces of art from all around the world. Included in this collection are many manuscripts, prints, correspondance and books which the National Art Library is responsible. The library itself is comprised of three large reading rooms. The first is a public reading room, the second is dedicated to special collections, and the third is closed for rennovations. The library is a reference library and the safety of the collections is a priority. This is immediatley noticable upon entering the first reading room by the presence of a guard.

The class met our tour guide at the large entrance doors to the library. She walked us through to the special collections rooms and took us behind-the-scenes. We were able to walk through the various floors floors or bookstacks. The collection is constantly growing and the library has a large budget for acquistions. Some of the more famous pieces in the collection include Charles Dickens personal letters, Beatrix Potter, and Leonardo Da Vinci's note books.

The second half of the tour took place across the facility in another bookstack. The class was presented with about 20 different pieces in the library's collection. Each book or print was different from the next and was representative of the diversity of the library's collection. Some of the items displayed for us included an elevator design book, books of art, and a first print edited by Dickens.

I found this library to have a very diverse collection. I have never before seen such a wide variety of books.

Monday, July 14 Museum of London

Our first trip in our first full week was to the Museum of London. The museum is a close walk from the Barbican Center and St. Paul's Cathedral. The Museum of London was created in 1976 by combining the collections of the Guildhall Museum and the London Museum. Just recently the museum became part of a larger group of organizations interested in preserving the history of London. The Museum in Docklands, Museum of London Archeology, and the London Archeological Archive and Research Center are all under the title of Museum of London.

The class was greeted by Jon Cotton, a curator at the museum. Mr. Cotton gave a brief lecture on the history of the museum and their goal as an organization. Their goal is to preserve the history of London throughout the ages and exhibit it in a way for all to understand. It seemed that Mr. Cotton's specialization was on pre-historic London. He explained to us that "pre-history" includes the time period before the written word and recorded history existed. London was inhabited by our earliest ancestors during this time and Mr. Cotton's goal is to educate to public about this fact. One of the more exciting artifacts he chose to illustrate this point was a piece of a clay jar. He pointed out that the jar had been decorated by inserting a fingernail into the wet clay making an impression. This artifact held an exciting connection between past and present.

Mr. Cotton went on to explain the construction of the new pre-historic exhibit. He and some of his colleagues met with contracted carpenters to get ideas for the new space. The group traveled to several museums and discussed what they liked and didn't like about exhibits. The design of the pre-historic exhibit is modeled on four principles. Mr. Cotton believes these to be essential to understanding this time period in London. They are: climate, River Thames, people, and the legacy.

Following the presentation our class was asked to walk through the exhibit. I found that it was organized in a very linear way and incorporated all of the aspects Mr. Cotton believed to be important. I also thought that the exhibit incorporated enough interactive information to keep a viewer interested.

At the conclusion of our class session we were able to explore the museum on our own. While on my on tour I found one artifact to be a far more compelling reminder of the past than any other. This was the remains of the Roman city wall still standing after 2000 years.

Thursday, July 10: Barbican Library

The Barbican Library is located in the larger Barbican Center in the City Of London. The Center itself is a venue for art exhibitions of all kinds. The building has 6 floors with several concert halls and theatres. The library is located near the front of the building and occupies two floors. It is a lending library and it serves the citizens of the City of London.

When our group arrived at the Barbican we were given a tour of the children's reading room. The children's area is located at the rear of the library. The library employs one full-time children's librarian and at least two part-time workers. The children's librarian explained their role in the community and discussed some of the reading programs offered. It seems the library is involved in various reading development plans for young readers fom infancy to tweens.

After a short break for tea and bisquits our tour continued. The Barbican Library has a large music collection which includes CDs, DVDs, sheet music, periodicals, and reference materials. The library has even purchased a piano for those interested in practicing their chops. All of these materials are available to patrons to take out. They can also sit at one of the listening stations, provided by the library, to hear their music. The staff meets regularly to make suggestions on expanding the collection. The collection is broad in scope and has several CDs in the various musical genres.

Finally, we were given a quick overview, by a very enthusiastic librarian, of the adult reading room. The lay-out of this section is a bit akward as it has huge columns in the center of the room. Our guide also mentioned problems with lighting which had just recently been addressed. Most of the patrons that use the adult reading room live or work in the area. We were told that the library is highly used during lunch by local workers.

This was a good view of a lending library in a metropolitan environment. This library was partiuclary interesting for me due to its music collection. I plan on using the Barbican as a source when writing about music archives and the collection of music in libraries.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Tuesday, July 22: University of Strathclyde & Library at The Bridge

The last scheduled class session took us to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The univeristy offers a postgraduate degree in Information and Library Studies. Our class was addressed by several of the universities staff but the discussion was lead primarly by David McMenemy. Mr. Mcmenemy also asked a doctoral student to present her research and a member of the IT staff to demonstrate their online database.
The student working for her doctorate performed her research on the way libraries are assessed and measured for the public good. It was her opinion that the current methods of examination are flawed and that is difficult to calculate how valuable a library is to certain communities. She suggested that a more progressive and all encompassing survey be taken to recieve a more accurate representation of use by varying groups. Her study looked at the role of the library in rural and urban environments and even those affected by natural disasters. One of her case studies followed the citizens New Orleans and their use of libraries after hurrican Katrina. The most surprising part of the presentation was that no one had conducted research similar to this in Scotland. Mr. McMenemy also indicated that there were few studies in the field of library science in his country. He also encouraged the class to send their research papers to him in order to print them in an academic journal the program publishes. Perhaps if my own research paper is strong enough I will send them a copy.
Following the guest lectures Mr. Mcmenemy wanted to show us a few libraries of importance in the area. Unfortunately we were running behind schedule and were only able to see one of the libraries. And what a library it was; The Library at the Bridge opened in 2006 in effort to bolster the community in Glasgow which had been deterioating in recent years. The library was established as a place for arts, culture, and learning. It literally is a bridge between leisure and education standing between the community swimming facility and its college. The building has space for a public reading room, auditorium, dance and recording studio, and a cafe. The library is challenging the traditional idea of what a library should be and it appears to be working. The fact sheet given to us by our guide indicates that visitation, reference questions, and library cards have all increased dramatically from previous years. The Bridge has also appeared consistently in the top 6 best libraries in the city since its redesign.
I have never seen a library which incorporates so many leisure and artistic activities. The Bridge is truly at the cutting edge of public libraries. I think it may become necessary for more libraries to adopt a model similar to this in order to envigorate public interest in libraries. Also, if the Bridge is any indication, city governments and councils should consider projects like this when a community is faced with declining population and quality of life.

Friday, July 18: Stratford-upon-Avon and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The last trip for the week was to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library in Stratford-upon-Avon. On this trip our group was joined by some of the other students as we had tickets to see a play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company that evening. The bus ride was fairly quick and we arrived in the town early. The class walked to the Shakespeare Museum where Shakespeares home stood originally. The library is adjacent to the museum and its stacks are located in the basement.
The Trust was estblished after the purchase of the Shakespeare family home. The library was an extension of the Trust and is responsible for the managment of two collections. The first, Shakespeare Collection consists of printed collections of the Trust and an archive for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The second, is comprised of local historical documents including those related to Shakespeare and his family.
Our tour began in one of the reading rooms of the library. Sylvia explained how the library ran and its signifigance to the memory of Shakespeare and the RSC as well as to the community. She mentioned how local students used the library to support small research papers as well as Shakespeare historians and enthusiasts. The library is also used to trace family histories as they have many historical documents relating to the history of the town. An important fact that Sylvia mentioned was that the Trust, which includes the library, is not subsidized by the government in any way and relies on donations for funding. I was surprised to hear this because of Shakespeares importance as a writer and historical figure. It would seem that the government would help bolster an organization responsible for the preservation of such a noteable British subject.
The tour was continued by Jo Wilding in a nearby conference room. Jo had selected several items from the collection for us to look at. In the items she selected were photographs from past RSC performances, books printed during Shakespeare's life, and a copy of Shakespeares first folio printed after his death. This items were exhilerating to look at and we were quite lucky to have the experience. Jo extended our tour by taking us down into the various locked stacks below the museum. She showed us a copy of Shakespeare's quatro as well as some of the archived material from the RSC.
I found this trip to be interesting because it was one of the first small specialized libraries we visited. The difference between the Trust library and the enormous Bodleian was astounding. It was hard not to compare the two as we had seen them back-to-back. A library whose work is as vital as the Trust library should recieve funding from a government agency.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Thursday, July 17: Oxford and the Bodleian Library

Today's visit was to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The group took a train from Paddington station to Oxford and then got on a tour bus for the city. We drove around for a while listening to the guided tour of the area, and got some history of the numerous colleges at Oxford. The group got off the tour outside of the original Bodleian Library. Once we arrived we were ushered in very quickly and split into to groups.
Our tour began in the large room at the center of the bottom floor of the library known as the Divinty School. The guide explained to us that this room was intially used as an examination room for students. However, the exams taken back then would have been drastically different from those we know today. Students were questioned for hours and asked to argue their case in front of an observer. This was all done in Latin, by the way. The ceiling of the hall was covered in carvings depicting religious scenes, crests, and other symbols.
The group was then taken to the room behind the Divinty School called the Convocation Room. This room, pictured above, is used as a cermonial meeting room. Alumni of the college meet here when a new president of the college is to be decided. Some students recieve diplomas in this room. This is usually reserved for recipients of honorary degrees.
The Bodleian Library itself is located atop the two rooms mentioned previously. The library was built in its current location in the beginning of the 17th Century. A library had existed prior to the Bodleian but it had been declining in recent years. Thomas Bodley decided to donate some of his personal collection and resources to restoring the library. He also encouraged others to donate to the library and expand it further. The library is now one of the six legal deposit libraries in the UK. The collection has around 8 million items at several locations around Oxford. One of these is the New Bodleian library located acrossed the street from the old.
I was intrigued by one point the guide made in particular, the libraries plans for digitizing the collection. He stated that it was the library's goal to completely digitize the entire collection. I thought this was interesting because most of the libraries we had visited previously had not enough employees or budget to complete such a task. The Bodleian Library is fortunate enough to have the Oxford Digital Library to help with the transfer. This group was established in order to digitize the collection and it recieves most of its funding from donors.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Tuesday, July 8: British Library

Our second excursion found as at the British Library near King's Cross station. This library is national library for the United Kingdom and includes more than 150 million pieces in its collection. The library contionually adds to its collection and each year expands its collection size. Several types of media are acquired by the library including, but not limited to, books, newspapers, magazines, manuscripts, CDs, DVDs, databases, and philatelic items (stamps). The goal of the library is to provide all citizens the opportunity to access information and to preserve these items for future generations.

The library is short walking distance from the tube station. There is a large courtyard occupying the entrance to the building. According to the library professional we toured with this is one of the larger open spaces alotted to an organization in the city. The building itself was designed by a former British Naval Officer and is designed with to have the appearance of a ship.

The library has four levels and each of these contains several reading rooms for specific subjects. Each reading room has reference staff who specialize in the area of study. The 1st floor has reading rooms for humanities, rare books and music, business, and social sciences. These subject categories are broader in scope and within each reading room contain more narrowly defined fields. For instance, the humanties reading room is comprised of subjects such as american studies, celtic studies, drama, media studies, and philisophy.

Reading rooms are only accesible to citizens who register and recieve a library card. Two forms of ID are recquired with a proof of signature and address. With a library card patrons are able to access millions of documents in the collection. The library staff recommends that patrons have items they would like to research already picked out. This is because of the time it takes to retrieve items from basement storage. Users are encouraged to find items over the internet and order them prior to their visit to the library.

When a patron has selected an item they must fill out an inquiry and meet with a member of the staff. The staff member then processes the request and the item is retrieved from the basement stacks. The library also stores collections at offsite locations. On average an item ordered that is onsite is delivered in an hour. Items requested which are stored offsite can take from 2 hours to two days depending on the location. This is why the staff recommends patrons select items in advance.

The British Library is also home to some special collections.

Monday, July 7: First stop, St. Paul's Cathedral

The first journey for our class was to St. Paul's Cathedral at the center of the city. We arrived at the cathedral after a bit of debate in front of the tube station. The dome of the cathedral dominates the skyline from a distance, but it is slightly harder to find when standing near the building as it is blocked by sky scrappers.

The cathedral, as it stands today, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1710. There have been other cathedrals dedicated to St. Paul that occupied this same location; the earliest dating back to 604AD. A decision was made to reconstruct the cathedral after its destruction in the Great Fire of 1666.

Our class was fortunate enough to be given a private tour of the Library and Triforium. Joe Wisdom, a member of the library staff, guided the class through several of the cathedral's private rooms. The first of these rooms was a private staircase used by the Bishop of London. According to Mr. Wisdom the Bishop used these steps to access either the cathedral or the library and corridors above. The staircase is supported by cantilever and rise three stories to the library and triforium above.

The triforium our class was able to view held a large scale wooden model. This model was designed by Christopher Wren and was the architects original plan for the cathedral. However, Wren's initial view contained an even larger dome and considered by more influential powers to be too Roman and ornate. The room also contained schematics for the cathedral. Most of these were not original copies this is because the room lacked the necessary conditions for the preservation of these documents. Mr. Wisdom informed us before leaving that this room was originally intended to be the library. This point was illustrated by the inclusion of several texts carved into the marble beams in the room.

Joe took us next to the cathedral library. The room itself was almost identical in size to the other triforium but furnished with wooden bookcases. The collection is comprised of theological texts and those pertaining to Christopher Wren. Mr. Wisdom explained that the room was not ideal for preservation and that many of the volumes were in disrepair. The collection is organized by the size of text with the largest at the bottom. In this way space can be used more efficiently. The cathedral's collection is used primarily by researchers interested in the history of the cathedral, Christopher Wren, or theolgical texts.

I found the tour to be a great look at a specialized library and the concerns and troubles which face an institution such as this.

I'd also like to add that if incarnation does in fact exist I would like to return as Joe Wisdom.