Wednesday, June 23, 2010

London Calling Librarians

This guest post comes from Dana Goblaskas a former student of mine who works at the MIT library. Dana stuck out to me from the start because of her intellectual curiosity and because she was into pop music history, punk, and indie rock. Pluses in my book. Here she tells of her two-week trip across the water as a participant in University College London’s Librarianship Summer School.

Dana Goblaskas

As a self-proclaimed history nerd and an Anglophile, it’s hard for me to be giddier than when I’m immersed in the tangible history of England. And if I can earn credits toward my degree for that immersion, well, let’s just say the happy dances abound.

Last month, I took part in the inaugural session of University College London’s Librarianship Summer School, co-sponsored by the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Studies. The two-week seminar examined the past, present, and future of Britain’s libraries and the field of librarianship, and featured daily field trips to museums, libraries, and archives throughout the city and beyond. Lectures by librarians, historians, and UCL faculty provided background for what my classmates and I saw during tours, and behind-the-scenes peeks into the workings of such places as the British Library and Bodleian Library at Oxford set our future-librarians’ hearts a-racing.

For the history nerd in me, there was plenty of “past” to learn about and see firsthand. Lectures about medieval manuscripts and eccentric pioneers of cataloging were coupled with glimpses inside Wren’s Library at Trinity College Cambridge (built in 1695), the Natural History Museum, and viewings of treasures like the Domesday Book at the National Archives.

Perhaps even more exciting than getting to drink all that in was seeing how much effort these institutions are presently putting into making their historical collections available to the world. With help from foundations like JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), many of the places I visited were in the midst of massive digitization, indexing, or retrospective cataloging projects. Inspired by the popularity of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? TV program, several libraries and archives were focusing on increasing public accessibility to the parts of their collections that could be used for genealogical research.

As for the future of Britain’s libraries, I think they’re heading in the right direction. Facing questions about libraries’ continuing relevance to society head-on, they are adapting to the communities around them and showing that they’re in it for the long run. A new “chain” of libraries called Idea Store is springing up around London, abandoning confusing catalog classifications and offering a wide variety of classes to support continuing education in their neighborhoods. The libraries in the London borough of Haringey recently won a grant that placed free medical clinics and wellness centers alongside their book stacks.

And in addition to focusing on expanding digital content and accessibility, some institutions are appealing to the public to help develop their collections. Projects such as Transcribe Bentham at UCL and Oxford’s First World War Poetry Archive rely on crowd-sourcing to create and identify materials, as well as on social networking tools like Twitter and Flickr to get the word out to wider circles of volunteers.

Coming back down to reality after two weeks spent doing not much more than hanging around inside and gawking at cool old libraries—or cool new libraries—was a little difficult. But coming back with great experiences, thousands of pictures, and a head full of ideas lessened the blow of the transition. And I’m excited by the prospect of so much more incredible content being made widely available. Now I just have to finish my research paper to earn those credits, and I think the happy dances will abound once again.

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