Digging around the London Archaeological Archives and Research Centre

Map of London at LAARC

Map of London at LAARC

Fourth Class Blog Post:

This morning, we headed to the London Archaeological Archives and Research Centre, LAARC for short, at the Mortimer Wheeler House in Hackney.  Since the 1980s, the building was an archive and mostly used for storage and in 2002, they opened their facilities for research.  Though open for research, one cannot just stroll in – he or she must make an appointment.  The building houses three major distinct sections: the Museum of London Archaeology, the London Archaeological Archive Research Centre, and the Social and Working History Collection.

We first toured the Museum of London Archaeology section where we saw the facilities where they receive, clean, and store materials from excavations.  It was nice to get a sense of the process instead of thinking about it as a concept.  Sometimes one does not think about the work and effort that goes to just cleaning an artifact, let alone preserving it.

Next, we visited the LAARC, which holds a vast array of items excavated from all over London.  We saw items from Roman to medieval times.  As is the case with most traditional LIS centers, the LAARC faces issues of storage.  There just is not enough space!  I can imagine that space is more of an issue in London than in other cities because land is scarcer and more expensive.  If the LAARC ever runs out of space, they could have an annex, but creating an annex can raise more issues.  Since the LAARC holds fragile items, transport can be tricky and/or not recommended.  I cannot imagine that they can build a very accessible annex because land is scarce, so they might have to build an annex quite far away, which might mean that it might take longer for them to transport items.

Storage at LAARC

Storage at LAARC

One way they save space is by going through their older archives to condense boxes and update records.  LAARC relies heavily on volunteers who rationalize (make pragmatic decisions on what to keep and what to toss).  This process can take a long time because there is just so much stuff.  The archives have about 200,000 boxes with a variable amount of items in each box.

As another measure to save on space, they organize their items by year excavated instead of by subject, material type, or time period.  This idea of storing by the year excavated allows them to maximize space instead of having to guess how much space to devote to Victorian or medieval London.  This method reminds me of how USC’s annex and the British Library store their books by size rather than Dewey Decimal Classification or Library of Congress Classification.  Each information center must make the most practical decisions for their needs instead of blindly adhering to accepted standards.  That type of thinking promotes innovation and can really help cater to specific information centers and audiences.

We also got to see really cool items.  In the picture below you can see a footstep embedded in the orange-colored stone.  It is mind blowing to think that someone a really long time ago stepped down and made such an impression.  It is definitely very humbling and makes me think about cause and effect and snapshots in time.  We also got to see a medieval ice skate that people created out of animal bone.  Apparently the Thames used to freeze over and one could skate/glide over it.  I would never have guess that was the purpose of that particular artifact.  I guessed that it was a back scratcher!

Cool artifacts at the LAARC

Cool artifacts at the LAARC

At the end of our tour, we visited the Social and Working History Collection.  We were not allowed to take pictures there, but it was really cool because we saw the room where they store toys and items of communication.  The highlight of that section was probably the switchboard they used at Buckingham Palace in the 50s/60s.  I probably could have roamed around a little bit more because they had such interesting curiosities.  A lot of the items stored there are used for exhibits at the Museum of London and possibly other institutions (contingent on loan).

Overall, I really enjoyed the visit because it was very revealing and relevant to the LIS field, though not everyone would group them together.  LIS institutions and the LAARC both have a lot of the same issues of storage, archiving, and preservation, so it was great to look at those issues from another perspective.

Until next time, stay cool, friends!



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.