British Library Day Five: Colindale Newspaper Reading Room

28/06/2013

I started the day with a trip to the library’s newspaper archive, which is the oldest building currently owned by the library, and I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I’d been hearing all the time about how this building is going to close down soon and the reading room is to be integrated into the St Pancras location, becoming a news and media centre. So I will be the last RMIT student to visit the centre.

They are actually starting the move next week, though officially this reading room doesn’t close until… September… and some of the items have already been moved to make a loading bay for the delivery trucks. The new storage facility is being built on the library’s land at Boston Spa, and will have more specialised preservation than the current situation (which is more like a warehouse, with un-shuttered windows etc.) and will be in a low oxygen state, with an automated retrieval system for when items are requested. Regular patrons will have to get used to requesting items in advance, because thus far most of the collection has been held on site with same-day delivery.

My host Stewart (a Scotsman) was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the breadth and history of the collection, and devoted the two and a half(ish) hours I was there to showing me around and answering any questions which arose (including my curiosity about when to use England, when to use Britain, and when to use UK when talking about the country).

The Colindale building was bombed in the second world war (presumably just incidentally and not targeted) and the L shaped building which currently stands was left intact, almost untouched, though the front building was completely destroyed. There was also rain that night, so little was recovered, highlighting the precarious nature of record keeping. In keeping with this theme, a whole ‘outhouse’ storage building is currently fenced off due to asbestos and none of the collection in there is accessible until it has been cleaned out, and the items themselves cleaned as well.

I found talk about the cleaning of newspaper to be quite interesting, and the fact that paper quality is worse now than it was, when they used to use paper with cotton fibre. The type of paper used also varied widely due to what was available in at the time. In the secure area, they have stored some newspapers from various wars which were printed on brown wrapping paper, and in the US civil war, on the back of wallpaper. It just shows how dedicated to their craft these newspaper people were.

I asked about the types of research people did using the collection, and while family history came up again the uses were wide and varied: from researching fashion and other trends for design or for period drama, to lawyers gathering evidence. Really, the list goes on and on, and Stewart was saying that the only research that doesn’t really occur is scientific research, which makes sense.

I got to see my first microfilm and reader (I’m sure I’ve seen a reader before, actually, but not known what they were) and Stewart was very surprised at the fact I hadn’t used one: when you consider my age, and the lack of need I’ve had though, it not unusual at all.

Also in the secure area they had a collection of comics (not especially valuable compared to the rest but apparently a high theft and vandalism target). Mickey Mouse, Avengers and Hulk comics dating way back, are some examples of stock held in the archive. I didn’t get to look inside, but my friend will be pretty jealous when I tell him 😀

Stewart was a bit worried about the new reading room having the front allocated for socialising, as he was concerned about losing reading space, or collection space, but until things start moving (the week after my visit) they won’t know for sure. We talked a bit about whether patrons actually wanted these things, or if libraries just thought they did, and were keen to be seen as innovative.

After a long and varied talk session, when I left it was about lunch time. I ate on my way to the library, and was doing some work on my journal when Lynn approached me and said the meeting for that afternoon which I was supposed to observe had been cancelled, and it was my choice whether I leave then, keep working on my journal or shadow on the science desk (which was said to be superbly quiet). I felt a bit guilty but I decided to leave, still being quite exhausted from little sleep (which unfortunately hadn’t improved) and needing to get up at 4am to get to the train station the next morning for a trip to Paris.

PS. I apologise for getting these posts out so late – some of the events I am talking about above will already have been implemented by now, and certainly the Colindale space is gone.

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