Researching at the British Library

British Library Sign

British Library Sign

First Research-Related Post:

I knew that I had to go back to the British Library because they have two collections of Marie Stopes materials.  I ended up going there twice for research purposes and could probably benefit greatly from a handful or more visits, but alas a month in London means that time is limited.

British Library Entrance

British Library Entrance

I pre-registered for my reader’s card online and it was relatively quick to actually obtain the card.  I had a list of items that I required, but I could not easily request these items from the British Library catalogue for reasons I did not understand at the time.   I explained my predicament to the lady processing my card (one of the requirements of obtaining the reader’s card is to provide a list of required books to prove that you have a valid need of the card).  She quickly looked up my materials and suggested that I get some help from a reference librarian in the Rare Books Reading Room.

Upon my arrival to the reading room, I headed straight to the reference librarian who was very helpful and explained how I could narrow the collection.  I learned that I needed to add a wildcard to a modified version of the shelf location (she had to omit the spaces and full stops) in order to get a concise list of the actual items in one of the collections.  That was not exactly intuitive for me, so I’m glad that the librarian was there to help me.

For the other collection, I couldn’t access it that day because they were not exactly sure where it was located.  I had to email the Rare Books Librarian, who in turn referred me to a social science curator.  From her, I learned that the items for that archive do not exist in the online catalogue, therefore I had to sort through their card catalogue (which was the first time that I ever legitimately used one).  Some of the items are actually largely unsorted in boxes and quite fragile.

If anyone wants to follow along my journey, you can click here to see the two collections named (you do have to scroll down for the two Stopes, Marie Charlotte Carmichael listings).  Note that they do not have hyperlinks or any indication of how to access the materials.  Here is the catalogue results list for “marie stopes,” which does not include any limiters that indicate either of the collections.  This disconnect really threw me for a loop, so speaking with the reference librarian really cleared things up for me.

My struggles learning how to use the British Library really surprised me.  I assumed that it would be extremely intuitive because I can only imagine the large number of readers they have, but perhaps it is the peculiarity of the items I am researching.  I cannot imagine that everyone has the same amount of difficulties trying to access the materials they need.  From my experience and the constant reinforcement that cataloguers in the UK are mostly temporary and almost never full-time positions, I do not really understand how the LIS field in the UK survives on temp cataloguers.  It appears to me that they need to put more emphasis on the record, so that users can better understand it.

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Touring the British Library

Note inside the British Library

Note inside the British Library

Third Class Blog Post:

Our plan for the day was to tour the British Library.  First, we took the tube to King’s Cross Station where we stopped to take a class photo at Platform 9 3/4.  We got there at a great time because we didn’t have to queue for long.  There’s a little gift shop adjacent to the platform, so I popped in to look.

Class photo at King's Cross

Thanks to Dr. Welsh for the photo of our class at King’s Cross

At the British Library, we visited the gift shop.  I’ve come to realize that there is probably always going to be a gift shop everywhere we visit and I must actively avoid buying all the things.  So far, so good.

Our tour guide, a librarian named Kevin, gave us some background information about the British Library.  Its American equivalent would be the Library of Congress.  I can hardly cope with the sheer amount of work they do at the British Library because it is a legal deposit library, meaning that this library receives a copy of every printed item in the UK and Ireland directly from the publisher.  Its three main obligations are to collect published output within three months, maintain said materials, and make those items available.  That is a lot of processing across multiple departments – acquisitions, technical services, and cataloguing come to mind first.

One of the most interesting aspects of the British Library was the storage and retrieval of items.  I have toured the University of South Carolina’s annex, where I first learned about shelving by size rather than traditional call numbers to maximize space, which is something they also do at the British Library.  Libraries almost don’t seem like libraries without a Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress call number (to me at least).  Since the British Library is a legal deposit library, storage is a vital.

Some people might be confused by the system at the British Library because the items are not browseable, that is if someone who is interested in researching the Monarch butterfly wants a book about Monarch butterflies, they cannot manually find and retrieve the book him- or herself.  They have off-site storage, but it does take an average of 48 hours to deliver the book.  Some of the books are stored underground, which is actually the largest subterranean facility in Europe.  Apparently the largest subterranean facility in the world is a prison in Colorado.  I definitely think that says something about differing social values in our respective countries.

I digress.  Since one cannot browse the shelf for 595.789 (the Dewey Decimal call number for Monarch butterflies), a reader may request items in the online catalogue.  An automated book retrieval system receives the information and then a mechanical book delivery system delivers the items.  This system makes for a relatively quick and easy retrieval system.  The order-to-pick up process must be under an hour and 10 minutes to maintain federal funding.  That is a lot of pressure to keep the system working properly.  Engineers check the systems every Sunday to ensure that things run smoothly.

This system somewhat reminds me of the BookBot at the Hunt Library because of its use of automation and storage.  The BookBot uses technology to better service and the Hunt Library also shelves items by size to save space.  I think that both libraries are quite innovative in the ways they solve problems of storage and service.  I love learning about ways libraries evolve to meet changing needs.  I think that ability to adapt is crucial to a library’s successful survival.

Since the readers/patrons/users cannot retrieve the books or other materials themselves, they must send their items to a reading room.  Though the books are not shelved by subject, the reading rooms are still categorized by subject matter (humanities, science, rare, etc.).  This system allows readers to have access to subject-appropriate reference librarians.  I never thought about structuring reference work this way because I have never witnessed it or worked in such a huge library before.

These types of services and setups are alternative systems that I do not recall reading about in any of our introductory and/or reference textbooks.  We read about single service points, roving, and reference work versus reference transactions, but I do not recall information about alternative shelving systems, automated book retrievals, and their subsequent effects on reference work.  This visit was most illuminating, as I learned about other ways libraries function.

Royal Geographical Society

Royal Geographical Society

After our trip to the British Library, the gals and I headed to an exhibit at the Royal Geographic Society.  I’m glad that we visited because it ended the next day.  The photographs highlighted a variety of environmental issues around the world such as pollution, infanticide, and climate change.  It is amazing how much a photograph can say about the topic at hand.  Much to consider, friends.