Visit Nine – Ectoplasm and Tuning Forks at the Wellcome Library and the British Library

The Wellcome Collection is a place after my own heart — according to their website, they are ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’, a museum whose amazingly curated exhibitions I’ve been visiting religiously ever since stumbling upon one of them about a year ago. Built around the artefact collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, their trademark blend of science and art sits in an interdisciplinary area I’m particularly interested in. As a result, I was very excited to be able to explore the Wellcome Library as well with my fellow graduate trainees.

Upon arrival we were met by Ed Bishop, Library Assistant at the Wellcome, who started by giving us a virtual tour of their website. There is a wealth of material freely available online, we found out, from 16th-century recipe books to a 1967 animation commissioned by the Ministry of Health to discourage young teenagers from smoking (which you can watch here). He told us about how much physical material they have as well – some of it open-shelf, most of it available to be fetched from closed stacks – and how it also tends to be mined for the museum exhibitions.

He then gave us a quick tour of the actual library, its titles as eclectic as I’d expected, organised according to their own (equally eclectic!) classification system. The library is open to everyone (although you do need to sign up for a reader’s permit first), but due to space limitations they said they have had to turn people away, especially this time of the year, when students are preparing for exams.

The visit ended in the Reading Room, a sort of hybrid space meant to mark the transition between the library and the museum. I found this very inspiring, especially its interactive emphasis which I think a lot of libraries lack at the moment. There were artworks to look at, cosy bean bags, post-it notes on which to write about your experience or draw a portrait of yourself. (This article’s featured image is my little masterpiece, made up of various magnetic body parts.) Among these, all sorts of fascinating books — Dante’s Divina Commedia, a work on the cultural history of the vagina, Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects, a ‘Scanimation’ version of The Wizard of Oz (see the end of this post for a video of this magical book) — which we all leafed through at length. And I couldn’t help wondering whether all the visual cues in the room inviting you to engage with an instrument, a mirror, an artwork also made us more inclined to touch the books, pick them up, engage with them.

Before our lunch break, I got to try another one of the Wellcome’s curiosities, their SPIRIT booth, which performed an ectoplasmic reading for me, followed by a portrait of me + two floating Victorian heads. Sadly it may be a bit too silly to post here.

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From the Wellcome, we went on to the British Library, where we were welcomed by the lovely Amelie Roper, who coordinated the entire visit. The general structure of the visit was a compromise of breadth over depth — six 20-minute snapshots of various aspects of the BL. I can’t imagine how they could’ve gone around this, other than making the entire event longer, but I think I wasn’t the only one left wanting to know more after each mini-tour.

First, Kevin Mehmet walked us around the site, while giving us some basic facts and figures about the BL. While I know the BL is a legal deposit library, like the Cambridge UL and the Oxford Bodleian (i.e., they receive a copy of every book published in the UK from publishers), I didn’t know that they’re the only legal deposit library who is not allowed to reject any of these books. This makes it the second largest library in the world, after the Library of Congress, holding over 150 million items, receiving 7000 readers and 8000 new books per day. The large majority of these (books, not readers) are now housed in the BL’s special Boston Spa centre, but the London building still has 6 underground floor for storage. Two other things that stood out from Kevin’s speech was the BL’s dream job of foreign literature cataloguer (each cataloguer needs to know at least 4 foreign languages, be familiar with the literature and culture of the countries they are in charge of, then decide what the library should purchase) and the fact that even the British Library struggles with budget cuts, much like the Ely or the Cambridge public libraries. The fetching time for their reading rooms needs to be under an hour, which I would’ve taken simply as great, efficient library service. Instead, we were told that this time is measured and averaged, then used in order to secure funding and prove that the librarians are indeed doing their jobs. It was painful to hear that the joy of reading has been turned into disquieting numerical targets.

After this, Amelie, Digital Music Curator, showed us some of the most interesting items of their Music Collections. Alongside strands of famous composers’ hair and manuscripts, we also got to see Beethoven’s tuning fork. It has, apparently, been tried recently, and is a tone higher than it should be.

Then Alia Carter gave us a short introduction to the Two Centuries of Indian Print digitisation project: in colonial times, Indian books were basically under the remit of the legal deposit act, which means they were all sent to the BL – quite a few of them are, in fact, unique to the BL collection. The project is currently in its pilot phase, of digitising 4,000 early printed Bengali books.

This was followed by a visit down in the library basement. Not too different from any storage facility (a maze of large cardboard boxes with labels on them), it did have a remarkable conveyor belt system which makes book fetching much easier. It reminded me of the Harry Potter house elves, living quietly under Hogwarts, making sure everything functions smoothly. Upstairs in the Reading Room, all you need to do is put in a request for a book, then this large machinery downstairs is set in motion to bring you your book.

Back in the meeting room, Jason Webber talked us through the BL’s web archiving. Much like the Legal Deposit Act, a 2013 law gave them permission to archive all UK websites. The most interesting part of this was SHINE, a mix between the Wayback Machine (the famous internet archive) and Google Trends. SHINE allows you to search for any ‘trending’ terms in the UK between 1996 and 2013. Happily, ‘cat’ wins over ‘dog; sadly, ‘Oxford’ wins over ‘Cambridge’.

Finally, Amelie pointed out some of the difficulties involved in her job as Digital Music Curator, and in collecting non-print items of interest in general. We looked at digital sheet music – a lot of which requires special software to access – videos and applications, and also entered the usual digital vs print debate for a bit. The main point here was that, as far as we know at the moment, print items are more likely to preserve through the years than digital files, which tend to become corrupted, impossible to access, etc. However, when you hold 150 million physical items, you probably want to be able to store just as many in, say, just a roomful of USB sticks. The BL policy at the moment is therefore that they will acquire the digital version of a book wherever possible – and I guess time will tell if that is the right decision.

To conclude, a video of me turning the pages of the Wizard of Oz Scanimation book:

 

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