Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Becoming a reader at UK libraries

Dateline:  July 2015
Places: Lambeth Palace Library, British Library, National Library of Scotland, 
              University of Edinburgh Library
Time: Over time
Temperature: From 18° C - 36° C
Song of the day:  Off to see the Wizard by Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man 
                              and the Scarecrow

While I understand the need to register users in non-lending libraries, the process of becoming a reader in British libraries has felt a bit like having an audience in front of Oz, the Great and Power ... a bit intimidating as I justify my need to gain access to certain resources.

I applied at four libraries and although the process now feels more routine, I am still struck by procedural continuum, from highly open to very closed. Carleton University is on the "highly open" end of the spectrum as opposed to the University of Edinburgh, which could be described as being at the other end.

Just to provide some context, at Carleton, the process of consulting the general collections is quite simple:
  • If someone wants to take a look at a particular book, he/she can simply walk into the library (during business hours), use one of the quick reference catalogues available on the main floor and then proceed to the stacks to take the book off the shelf and browse for others.
  • To use the proprietary databases, a reader has to be on campus but can easily ask the students at the IT Help Desk for a temporary login and password to use any computer in the library to do searches and download online copies of articles. Alternatively, they can take a bound copy of a print journal off the shelf.
  • And using our Archives and Research Collections (ARC) services? All a reader has to do is email Lloyd Keane, our archives and rare book coordinator, with the information about the materials he/she would like to use, and Lloyd will set an appointment and have items ready when the reader arrives--no address required. As Lloyd said to me in a recent email, "We try to eliminate the barriers."
  • Of course, there are restrictions on what can be borrowed from the library and access to video games (which are really expensive to replace and very tempting to some patrons) is particularly restricted. However, in general our are pretty inclusive, at least for folks who live in Ottawa as well as visiting scholars.
I am a reader at four UK libraries now-- the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Maritime Museum and the University of Edinburgh--and, to varying degrees, the process for setting up reader privileges seems more involved at these institutions.
I'm not sure how well I could be identified using the Lambeth Palace Library photo ...
 what if I change my glasses? Pretty grim ... and 
for the Edinburgh University Libraries card, I had to supply my own photo.
The basic process seems to involve several key steps:
  • Apply for a reader's pass or ticket, either online (a pre-registration) or in person. Sometimes, like at the Lambeth Palace Library or the British Library, materials have to ordered in advance--it seems that this is in part a way of demonstrating the validity of one's access to a collection--and sometimes not, like at the National Library of Scotland.
         (Identification is crucial: at least two pieces of photo id must be presented and 
         one of these has to include a current address. My friend Pamela Walker suggested I
         also take along a hydro bill and a letter of reference when applying at the British
         Library (BL). I must admit that the officer processing my application at the BL was the
         most thorough in terms of asking about my research topic.)
  • Get the photo id card. Except for the University of Edinburgh, all the institutions took my photo for the card. However, in Edinburgh I had to produce my own photo (so found a Timpson's in Waverley Station that does passport photos ... now I have 5 extra snaps of myself).
  • Request materials for viewing. Again, I didn't always have to request the material ahead of time. At the National Maritime Museum, Penny Allen (the librarian who helped me and is a fellow Canadian!) was happy to take over 30 minutes to explain the system to me and help me identify some documents to view.
  • In all cases, although I didn't have to request materials ahead of time, there was a delay in receiving the materials I wanted to see. In fact, in most cases if a request is made after mid-afternoon, a reader has to come back the next day to view the materials, especially those stored off site.
  • Viewing materials means using the reader ticket as an electronic pass card. At all the libraries except Lambeth, there are electronic gates and the card is needed to get and out of the library. I was also surprised to discover that at both the University of Edinburgh and King's College, the same access system is in place, which is very different from Carleton where anyone can walk in during "office hours."
While I understand why these processes are in place for non-lending (reference) libraries which hold valuable collections of rare materials, the procedures still encourage some reflection on the recurring theme of access, which is clearly contextual in nature. 

I am surprised that university libraries have a different approach to use than Carleton as I expected to have more freedom to move in and out of the various buildings and to be able to use the computers and wifi system. I realize that I have been assuming that universities are publicly funded and therefore, well, open to the public. But this could definitely be an erroneous assumption.

Today I had the opportunity to ask a reference librarian at the Maughn Library why that library limits who can freely enter and she said, "History--it always is in this country."

This library is on the main campus of Edinburgh University and a bit hard to find but overlooks a lovely park while the Maughn Library (right) faces a quiet garden. Library as contemplative space?

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