British Library Day Nine: Shadowing, Aleph presentation, Collection Support


This morning I was with Paul again, this time in Science 3. I should note that the number refers to the floor level, not the number of reading rooms the area holds; so science has a reading room on level two and a reading room on level three. This reading room was supposed to be a little busier, as apparently it is common for Thursday to be ‘Chemistry Day’ meaning a lot of researchers come in about chemistry. Unfortunately we didn’t have even one query while we were up there.

Instead, Paul discussed a reader order from the day before, which had failed because the item couldn’t be found. This was most likely an error with data (apparently a common issue, with different people treating objects differently in the system etc), but the patron was sent to the medical library down the road for a copy of what they were after.

They’d also finally found the book that patron from last week was looking for and put it aside.

We went through the email inbox, which contained a response to a query Paul had moved to people in a different department, and a higher level, because it wasn’t something he was prepared or qualified to deal with (exhibition collaboration etc). He’d been speaking to the lady for quite some time, and seemed a bit upset that the reply from the other team didn’t acknowledge whether they had actually contacted the lady,  and just said ‘this looks like it could be interesting’. Apparently one problem with a big organisation like the library, especially with the recent job restructuring, is that it is hard for people to pinpoint whose responsibility something is.

We had a brief tea break and then were off to a presentation on Aleph, the BL’s behind-the-scenes search and retrieval system. It should tell you something about how difficult it seems to be that while I have now been in 5 reading rooms, not one person has used this in front of me to find something rather than look it up in the catalogue or an index. Aleph, however, is also the system which allows items to be seen before arrival, and allows the changing of a record. This system is where the cataloguers live, and unfortunately it’s a bit ugly (though half of that was probably my eyes being unable to focus as I’d bought the wrong glasses with me and was also hit by a wave of exhaustion – back home I probably would have gone to see the doctor by this point, but I’ll muddle through, and I’m putting it down to extended jet-lag because with noisy neighbours I have been unable to recover, or maybe a lack of minerals or something).

Aleph is not directly linked to the Explore Opac, and anything changed or added appears after an overnight system update. Without being a user of the system much of the presentation would have gone over my head even if I wasn’t tired, but I found it interesting how much the presenter explained different Boolean options to a group of librarians who I would have  thought would already know it  (granted, they were slightly different options than usual and able to be used in some places and not others). I did learn that, in Aleph at least, truncation marks can be used at the start of a word not just the end, which would be particularly useful in science due to all the chemical prefixes. I wonder whether it will work in regular databases…

The presentation was about an hour and half, and there was a demonstration at the end. The system seemed to take longer when more hits were returned, which makes sense, but meant for a bit of sitting and staring when one search returned 17000 results!

After lunch I got to spend some time with Henry in Collection Support (which is what is written in my timetable, but he introduced himself as being part of bookbinding and boxing – they share the office with others so I think collectively the office might be collection support). Henry and his team are small (4 people) and mostly their job is administrative. One member of the team is qualified to assess the level of treatment an item should go under, and the others arrange for booking the work, tracking it and transport etc. Most of the bookbinding and boxing gets contracted out to other companies, though if an item needs more work or  is especially valuable, it may be transferred back to the BL conservation team (who I was yet to visit) to handle instead.

There are several different types of binding, and I wish now I had taken notes, but sometimes the situation doesn’t allow this to arise… Let’s see. There was the pamphlet binding, where the item is too slim for a spine, but will be bound in hard-cover (I forget the special hardcover all the books have but it is archival quality) and there was semi-leather binding which is usually reserved for open access books so they match on the shelf because it is too expensive otherwise. The boxes are generally just made to fit the item required, however there are these envelope like covers which I am going to say are called slip-boxes, which have a hard component, but also softer leaves to fold over an item which may only be one sheet of paper.

Each item which is rebound will now have the shelfmark embossed in gold on the spine along with title etc, and each box will also have the shelfmark at the very least. So they have to be careful about reissuing shelfmarks!

Since the department has to log all the jobs before they are sent out to be rebound or boxed (it can take up to 4 months for items to make their way back to shelves) I was taken through the process from beginning to end. Elaine was logging some jobs from a packed trolley full of books, and I watched for a few minutes as she explained how she was getting the information. Then I got to try a few!

First you need to search for the shelf-mark in the system, and confirm the book matches the slip with it, as well as the catalogue entry. This was harder than it seems, with several books being in a foreign language, and with my being unable to read dates in roman numerals – however all books matched in the end. There was a lovely ‘scrapbook’ which was a collection of short stories and plates, bound in gorgeous red leather. Not what we are used to calling a scrapbook, that’s for sure.

Then we made a duplicate record and copied the shelfmark in (I do not know why exactly) and copied this new reference number into the ledger. When this was done, a new order was created, and the shelfmark needed to be added as an identifier, with all periods removed. I checked how the book was acquired (red stamp for purchase, blue for legal deposit, green/yellow for donation) and entered that as well. Then the book needed to be measured against a pre-drawn scale to determine the price of the boxing. This is entirely based on length.We did a few of these orders together before I was called off to watch the boxing process. It’s pretty simple, and nothing I was unfamiliar with from my work as a stock controller. The most interesting bit was the crates which had interlocking lids.

Henry then took me into the locked cage in the office, where most of the material is held prior to assessment and being sent off. We had a look at a few sad specimans, and Henry showed me one book where the cover was missing. I had just noticed that cover though and pointed it out on the shelf so he put them back together and said I could come and work there. Just a throwaway line, but it still made me feel good.

Henry agreed with me that the saddest part of his job is seeing all these books in such a sorry state, but then said at least he gets to see them come back repaired and ‘new’ again. I asked about the limit on how many times a book could be rebound and apparently there isn’t one really. And a rebinding might last another hundred years.

Henry then introduced me to Kimiko, who was part of the preventative conservation team which shared the office. Her official title is Environmental Monitoring Officer and her job involves some pretty technical equipment.

A lot of what Kimiko was saying to me was very familiar, having just finished my Records Management and Archive Administration class a few weeks beforehand. She monitors temperature, humidity and sunlight in various areas including the exhibition spaces. Each display case is temperature controlled, and while budget cuts have affected how strict the rules are about how much variance is acceptable, the temperature and humidity are still tightly monitored, and any problem is quickly reported. Kimiko showed me the regular spikes in UV lighting around midday, and the ranges of temperatures for the last month, as well as one of the monitoring devices which are scattered around the library collecting data.

The other members on Kimiko’s team have different responsibilities, including pest monitoring, and dust monitoring. The second is interesting considering the library had to cut back on cleaning due to budget cuts and is now quite worried about the long-term effects of dust build-up, especially in storage areas. The reading rooms are still cleaned regularly as this is where the public exposure happens. The other members of the team are also on a rotating ‘on-call’ roster for emergency response and disaster recovery for the library.

After this overview, Henry gave both Kimiko and I a bit of a show and tell of some pretty items. Kimiko used to be in the full-time conservation team, and knows a lot about different book elements, artists and makers. It’s pretty impressive. One of the books was a limited edition bespoke Shakespeare printing, with wood-print engravings, on hand-made paper. It was gorgeous. So were the other items and the other one that really stands out was a bible which was encased in a box which was put together as a sort of puzzle. A puzzle I was very careful when sliding open! The cover when revealed was a checked pattern in leather, with leather on the inner cover as well; quirky and impressive. The other books were more traditional for the most part, but the workmanship was something to behold.

As I was saying at the time, only rich people would have had money for books and so they were made to reflect their value – items to display the importance of the owner as much as to impart information. It was a wonderful afternoon and I would have been happy to stay there, surrounded by books.

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