Monday, 10 August 2015

British Library: Advocating for cultural heritage

Dateline: July 1, 2015
Place: British Library
Time: 9:30 - 11:30 a.m.
Temperature: 34° C

Song of the day: Memories by Barbra Streisand

The British Library is a working research library that offers scholars access to a wide variety of collections and a space that is designed as a space in which to make great discoveries. With a mandate to promote "the world's knowledge," by finding new ways to generate and share information as well as continuing traditional activities, the library is both inspiring and worrisome (British Library, 2015). 

Worrisome, because Library and Archives Canada (LAC) seems to be falling behind on both fronts. Inspiring in that, as a Canadian librarian, I realize I could advocate for change at home.

Library and Archives Canada (left, Wikipedia) and the British Library (right, British Library)
Our first view of the British Library is of a large square, open and filled with people coming and going, sitting and chatting. It's like a bustling village common where the community can meet, this sense of it being in a place to mingle, mix and work extends into the the library itself.

However, although this tiered, brick building is clearly an active public space, librarian Andy Macdonald explains that the took over thirty years to complete and caused a "war," i.e., considerable controversy. According to Andy, work on the library began in 1962 and by the time the building was opened in 1998 the budget was "massively overspent."

Sir Colin St. John Wilson,
architect of the British Library
Finances were not the only issue as there were also objections to the actual design (MacCarthy, 2008). Apparently, architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson wanted to create a space that would be both inspirational and practical for the research voyage. 

Andy shows us a model of the building, which sits on the mezzanine level of the library, and it does seem to resemble a ship--perhaps to help researchers "set sail" to make intellectual discoveries (see the photo on the right in the collage above--the structure on the right-hand side, nearest the St. Pancras hotel, does ressemble a ship)

However, St. John Wilson also intended the building to be functional and it is a practical space in that readers can easily see "precisely" where they are (McCarthy, 2008). However, critics publicly objected to the space (including Prince Charles), in part because the space was so different from the traditional round reading room at the British Museum--a research area replaced by the new library (McCarthy, 2008).

My colleague Pamela J. Walker, who works at the British Library every summer, remembers this debate. She misses the round reading room but now thinks that the library is a much better working space." A place for the two sides to research: quiet contemplation and active digging. 

Still actively acquiring published materials (8,000 per day) and collections (including the centrepiece library of King George III on splendid display in the centre of the building) are consulted by thousands of researchers such as me every year. However, the library is not just involved in such traditional activities that preserve cultural heritage. Staff are also engaged in new projects, such as the digitization of British newspapers (major and regional) that contribute to the realization of various strategic priorities such as guaranteeing access for future generations and leading to grow the world's knowledge base.

The King's Library Tower: the books of King George III (left) and King George II (right, Wikipedia).
In contrast to the vibrancy of the British Library as a research library, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) seems lacking in energy and no wonder, given that over the past few years resources and programs have been cut. Certainly the building on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa is not nearly as attractive nor welcoming. Plus, major changes in direction and significant budget cuts appear to be hampering the institution's ability to play a similar role. Certainly, as a research library, the holdings are less accessible. The interlibrary loan program was cancelled several years ago and LAC does not seem to systematically acquire materials published in or about Canada any longer.

Although new programs are supposed to fill such gaps and make LAC relevant to Canadians in the future, some key initiatives seem to be stalled. For example, Canada's Auditor General reported that although $15 million had been spent on a digital repository to hold a backlog of records, the new system has never been used.

One of the key roles of librarians is to act as advocates for the public good. Having been in the British Library, I realize that I need to find a way to contribute to the efforts of librarians and other parties (such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Royal Society of Canada) from across Canada are calling for a change to in public policy to "save" LAC. 

I live in Ottawa, so could try to get involved with the Canadian Library Association, which has advocated for LAC in the past.  It feels like a mountain--our current government seems anti-information--but perhaps I can find a molehill to climb.

British Library. (n.d.) British Library. Retrieved from

Library and Archives Canada. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 15, 2015

King George III. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 13, 2015 from

McCarthy, F. (2008,  February 23). A house for the mind. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Sir Colin St. John Wilson 1922-2007. (May 16, 2007). Building Design Online. Retrieved 
     August 10, 2015 from

No comments:

Post a Comment