British Library Day Three: Rare Books and Music, Plus an Overview of Reference Services

26/06/13

Today I spent the morning in the Rare Books and Music reading room, which was exciting.

Chris took me through the music collection and a few specific procedures when I started shadowing on the music desk (technically the rare books and music teams had merged, but people still tend to favour one speciality, and regular readers are used to the old set up). He was extremely well prepared for shadowing, and had an agenda. Apparently shadowing is something the library regularly does with new and even established staff to promote inter-team understanding and co-operation, or to introduce new staff to their role. I had been asked the previous day a few times whether I was starting work, and this now made a lot more sense.

The reference desk we were on was one that had to be manned at all times, as it was in the position of overlooking three long tables set aside for the reading of restricted material. Generally rare, vulnerable or especially valuable items, the restricted items have to be used under the (loose) supervision of a staff member. In the event of a fire, staff are let back into the building before patrons, and these are the first items whose location will be checked to make sure nothing was taken during evacuation.

Unfortunately I was exhausted this morning, and much of the information about the music collection went over my head (though given I don’t know much about music this may have happened anyway). This may become a trend for my placement, unfortunately, as my building neighbours seem to like being noisy until the small hours of the morning, leading to a distinct lack of sleep for me. I’ve complained to reception, but I doubt it will do much good. Something I do remember  is that the entire music collection isn’t even catalogued. Chris was saying they have thousands of items in storage which haven’t been touched. Once, a group went through and removed for the collection anything they thought important enough, giving it basic cataloguing and putting the items in folders/boxed grouped by type of music, and by composer – however anything could still be down there. I couldn’t decide if that was exciting because there are new things to discover, or sad because they might stay locked in storage forever.

The first query Chris handled was helping someone who was having trouble ordering an item. It was displaying as if it might be restricted, but all the shelf-marks indicated that it shouldn’t be. It took a call to that collection curator and to another person (who I found out much later was in Electronic Services) before he was able to sort it out; a cataloguing or computer glitch. Chris explained the ordering process to me and showed me the software package attached where staff could track orders etc. Later, when ordering some items for another gentleman (who had ordered them in for another day but hadn’t made it in) Chris also showed me how restricted items required different log in codes, and explained how they were trying to move away from individual codes and to networked systems for the other work. However he still had a lot on his personal drive and had to go back and forth.

At the desk there was what is believed to be the first recorded music in Britain. It had been taken off display in the treasures exhibit by the curator especially so someone could have a closer look (I assume this was backed up by high academic need). The book itself was kept inside a ‘fake book’ box, which was gorgeous in and of itself, even if just designed to protect the item from damage. All restricted items are kept at this desk, closest to the supervised section. Unfortunately no-one came to collect the item while I was there, but several other items did go out – including an old football song.

Both music and rare books have kept some print catalogues and directories. I was shown the music one, but it was in rare books that it was used while I was there, directing a patron to holdings which were more than likely in the manuscript collection. I moved across to there after a morning break, and met Christian.

On the rare books desk Christian and I talked about various topic in rare books including handling (no white gloves, might damage print) and the nature of enquiries (short vs long) as well as communication issues. Also, accents and translation issues, as well as preventing damage to items by patrons.

We had a query about 17th century recipes, which was interesting. It ended up being referred to other references, and I think possibly to the humanities and manuscript reading rooms (but I can’t quite remember) Christian did show the patron where to look in the catalogues, and some hints how to start the research, which she took notes on.

One patron, an older gentleman, came back to the desk several times about the same issue. While researching, he had come across reference to a particular article/drawing (think there were both but he was after the article) but upon looking up the book it was cited in, couldn’t find it in any of several volumes. Christian went chasing up different editions, and even searched for the main terms in Google books, then doing a ‘find word’ search to pinpoint page number in a promising looking book. The patron was soon back again, however, as this didn’t work. Christian gave him a few more things to look at, but I never found out if it worked in the end because I had to leave.

I found out, and was surprised by, the fact that the library doesn’t have off-site access to e-resources, because they can’t afford to provide it when vendors are charging them as a commercial entity, not an institutional one. Something I discussed further with Claire later.

After lunch, I had a meeting with Claire in the café, and she gave me an overview of the corporate/managerial structure of the library, and where reference services sit in the big picture. It was pretty interesting, and she gave me the presentation she was using as reference so I wouldn’t have to keep asking her to pause so I could take notes.

We spoke about quite a few other issues in between this more formal talk, and discussed the nature of reference services now being very closely tied to customer service and communication. Hopefully this means my years in retail will come in handy. We also spoke about new developments in the field, like the idea of roving reference librarians, and the new media centre which the Colindale collection will move into.

Like mostly everyone I’ve met, Claire is very personable, and it makes it so much easier for me to jump in and be social which is not usually my first instinct.

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