Books About Books; Libraries About Libraries

‘Books About Books; Libraries About Libraries’ in From Small Beginnings. London: UCL, 2019, pp. 4-9.

“A library implies an act of faith,” wrote Victor Hugo. This short essay introduces a public exhibition of objects of that faith and demystifies what librarians do to ensure researchers have what they need ready and waiting for them.

Exhibition website.

Illustrated catalogue and essays.

The library is a growing organism

All librarians have (or should have) the words of S R Ranganathan engraved on their hearts; some may even have them tattooed in other places. His Five Laws of Library Science, first published in 1931, are given as follows:

Books are for use;
Every reader their book;
Every book its reader;
Save the time of the reader;
The library is a growing organism.

Clearly this exhibition provides a vivid case study of the final law. It traces the growth of UCL Libraries from the Small Library in the Wilkins Building that existed in 1828 to the twenty-first century, when UCL academics and students are fortunate to have access to both physical and online resources. These include more than 500,000 e-books and 75,000 e-journals (to quote the figures given by Rozz Evans, Head of Collection Strategy, in section 2 of this catalogue).

Having started with the last of Ranganathan’s laws, it seemed obvious that while keeping it at the core we should expand out to explore the rest. In so doing we have focused on the activities undertaken by librarians and information managers – some of them out in the open, such as answering reader enquiries, and others more hidden, such as acquisitions and cataloguing. How do libraries find the right materials, purchase them and ensure they reach the right readers in a timely and time-saving fashion? To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: if you know the answers to all that, then you will be a librarian, my friend – or at least know a little of what librarians get up to.

Books are for use

As is always the case with first principles, they permeate everything. However, section 2 of this catalogue highlights objects intimately connected with the identification and acquisition of materials and the ways in which libraries make them accessible to their users. You can see the first accessions register for the library and note its date: 1830. Although the first Librarian, the then Rev. F A Cox, was appointed in July 1827, and his salary of £200 a year is recorded from October 1828, when UCL opened, the first register of accessions only opens on 1 January 1830.

Accessions registers performed a function now carried out by computer systems. Yet they are gold dust to historians not only of libraries, but of the History of Ideas. While catalogues reveal what a library holds, accessions registers tell us when they obtained a particular book – and that, in turn, can tell us when different ideas became considered important to convey to students. In deciding what to obtain, libraries have to think about lots of different factors, but the principal aim is to ensure that the items will be used.

As far as we know, most of the early books at UCL were donations from benefactors, and it makes sense that it should have taken the new university a couple of years to formalise its acquisitions process. In any case, we cannot say which was the first book added to the Small Library. However, we can see from the accessions register that the first book it records is Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus (London, 1820), a five-volume set of the catalogue of the King’s Library at the British Museum. Many libraries in the early nineteenth century used this and other major printed catalogues to source materials for purchase and to assist them in their own cataloguing operations.

Every reader their book; every book its reader

UCL scholars in Bloomsbury have always enjoyed the privilege of being within easy walking distance of the British Museum. The first accessioned book would thus also have been a useful reference tool for some of them – checking holdings at the neighbouring library and possibly even filling out one of the request slips in advance. Skipping forward a century, to the 1920s, you can see some of Karl Pearson’s requests for the British Museum and for UCL’s own reading room (p.23). As highlighted in section 3 of the catalogue, we live in far more permissive times. The rules on the back of these slips would have been quite daunting – especially the final one that declares: ‘the borrower being responsible for the book so long as the ticket remains uncancelled.’ Today we are used to receiving friendly courtesy emails from libraries requesting that we renew our books online if we have not finished with them – a mere administrative task for us to complete.

The case study in section 6 of this catalogue, focusing on Tlaloc, includes a wonderful account of the lengths to which librarians will go to source the right materials for their users. In the archive we can trace the developing relationship between Geoffrey Soars in his role as librarian and Cavan McCarthy as journal editor. Even today there are many materials such as zines and some international works that cannot simply be ordered at the click of a mouse over the internet. Those of us who use such materials are saved potentially hours of searching by the efforts of librarians, who provide us with materials swiftly and easily.

Similarly, a lot of work is carried out to ensure that when we are working in a library we find only the books that really are relevant to us. A small hint of the complexities of structuring information can be seen in Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), explained by Tabitha Tuckett in section 3 of this catalogue. Complex algorithms run behind all the searches that we make today, providing us with the best matches the system can manage.

Save the time of the reader

Everything in a library is targeted towards making the user experience as straightforward as possible. Section 7 of this catalogue provides a case study of materials from the Institute of Education. In these you can see how space is planned down to the last detail, including model book carts for use in planning children’s schoolroom libraries and photographs documenting how libraries are actually used. Far more than rooms, libraries are constantly evolving – whether through dramatic events such as the war damage highlighted in section 1 of this catalogue or benevolent acts of donation that allow scholars to study the books owned by a particular private individual before they entered the library’s collections. In section 5 of this catalogue Erika Delbecque highlights some of the important collections commemorated by bookplates, while section 3 focuses on marginalia – an activity encouraged in early classical times as a way to share ideas.

Then you shall be a librarian, my friend

Sometimes the activities of librarians and our related professionals come as
a surprise to people. Many of the students we recruit to the MA Library and Information Studies in the Department of Information Studies first discovered their desire to become a librarian when a shelving job during their degree opened their eyes to the wide range of roles available. Section 4 of the catalogue highlights items connected to the School of Librarianship, Archives and Information Studies, now the Department of Information Studies. The School was founded at the instigation of the Library Association with a grant from the Carnegie Trust UK; it opened its doors to students in September 1919. As we prepared for this exhibition, and for our upcoming centenary celebrations, it has been fascinating to read the questions students were set in the first exams in 1920.

Many UCL Libraries staff have studied at SLAIS / DIS over the years, and it is pleasing to see this relationship represented here by Vanessa Freedman’s Sir John MacAlister Medal. Now our Subject Liaison Librarian (shared with Jewish Studies), Vanessa provides valuable support for staff and students, including participating in teaching activities. Several UCL Libraries colleagues work directly with our students, and the close relationships we share are, we hope, continued by our alumni when they take up new roles at UCL, in London and worldwide.

We hope that this exhibition and catalogue provide you with a flavour of the world of libraries at UCL and beyond. In the current climate we are regularly asked if there is still a place for people with information skills in the workplace. The answer is
yes: librarians and archivists are everywhere – in law firms, banks and government think-tanks, as well as inside institutions such as UCL’s. As Victor Hugo wrote in
À qui la faute?’ (1872), ‘a library implies an act of faith’; earlier in the same poem he observes that ‘these books were always put there for your sake’. We hope the objects in this exhibition are both interesting in themselves and provide you with some context for the ways in which they came to be here, at UCL, for you.

Anne Welsh, 2019.

Writing Portfolio.