Archive for November, 2018

Meeting the Undead, Sort of: Adventures in the British Library

Ava M.

The main entrance to the British Library, located on Euston Road, London (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We all know what it’s like spending time in a library, right?

Or do we?

What about another, perhaps more mysterious creature – the research library?

Research libraries are like their public cousins in that they both house books and other items, and that both types of library require a library card. There, though, the similarities abruptly vanish.

You see, at a research library like the British Library in London, you don’t simply browse the shelves, sign out your tome of choice, and go on your merry way. Really, the experience feels less like being in a library, and more like visiting a highly unusual museum.  The British Library contains everything from rare sound recordings to handwritten drafts from artists like JK Rowling (Google Arts & Culture), John Lennon (“New Beatles acquisition at the British Library”), and Samuel Beckett (“Notebook drafts of Waiting for Godot,”). But while many impressive treasures are there for your perusal, it can be quite the journey to reach them.

I was lucky enough to spend several days last year poring over personal letters by Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, and I’d like to recount some observations about what navigating this confusing, magical place is like, from getting a library card all the way to interacting with your prized requests. Enjoy this guide to the British Library.

Once you are inside the building, as you gear up to receive your shiny new library card, you’ll encounter your first hurdle. To claim your card, you must first get through an interview of sorts, explaining what you are hoping to research and why.

The interview process at the library became something of a talking point a few years ago. According to The Guardian, the British Library has only allowed adults under 21 to claim cards since 2004, a decision that sparked a heated multi-installment debate in the London Review of Books in 2013, with one disgruntled writer complaining bitterly about the annoying undergraduates in his midst, and the “adolescent antics” they performed. Such antics, it should be pointed out, did not seem to include much more than the simple act of, well, reading (Bury).

Regardless of whether you are one of these exasperating youngsters or not, once you are deemed responsible enough by the interviewers, your picture is taken and your government ID is verified, and you are sent on your way, far down into to the belly of the beast: the lockers.

Here, where you must stow anything not required for your research, the surprisingly energetic atmosphere of the British Library first begins to set in. As people emerge from the locker area, there’s a buzz of excitement in the air. After all, everyone is there to delve more deeply into their interests, to engage with material that they’ve come to this particular place to enjoy. Remember all the excited people down here, as you anxiously double- and triple-check that there are no forbidden pens, highlighters, cough candies, post-it notes or lip balm on your person. You will be one of these enthusiastic people soon.

A view inside of the British Library (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Once the lockers have been conquered, things get more personalized. Depending on what you’d like to view, you’ll make your way to one of the 11 available reading rooms in the library (“Using our Reading Rooms,” ). I spent much of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room, which includes everything from illuminated manuscripts to unfinished drafts of famed literature (“Using our Reading Rooms”).

The unique atmosphere of the library increases as you get closer and closer to viewing your long-anticipated documents. In the Manuscripts reading room in particular, a distinct hush settles over the entire space. Everything from requesting new items to making notes is done as quietly as possible. Even the security guards, there to check that you have not smuggled out a leaf of literature history in your bag, practically whisper.   The fact that a library has such an experienced thievery-detection team might unnerve you slightly, but you soldier on, clutching the huge see-through bag that holds your few remaining possessions, mere steps away from your goal.

With all this waiting, whispering and outlawing of pens, you might be wondering if this is all worth it. But let me tell you, the moment you finally receive your chosen items, set them in their protective tray, and begin to leaf through them is where the fun really begins.  For all your efforts, you will be rewarded with the chance to peruse priceless physical evidence of literary history right up close, with no traditional podiums or protective glass to stand in your way.  With no one to shape your perceptions beforehand, you can experience the silently thrilling detective work of sifting through the opinions, lives and work of long-dead and still-living literary greats, all in tangible paper form.

And despite the fairly stern, intimidating initial appearance of the library, the content you can find there is anything but stuffy. You never know what colourful item might help you to see an author you love in an entirely different light.  When I perused through Harold Pinter’s many letters to his old friend Henry Woolf, I was delighted to see a passage that challenged the idea of Pinter being a somewhat cool, remote figure, a playwright who says cryptic things like, “I tend to regard the audience as my enemies” (Gussow). In a letter to Woolf from 1957, Pinter bemoans his position as an actor in travelling reparatory theatre, and practically bursts with frustration: “Nine plays out of ten are crap. Managements are crap. And the audiences are the worst crap of all.” Clearly, Pinter’s dislike of audiences wasn’t just a post-fame phenomenon, it seems.

But perhaps the best feeling of all comes when, settled at your table, silent as a mouse, you come upon some scrap of paper, some cluster of sentences, that deepens your understanding of a beloved work. For example, Pinter famously declined to speak in much detail about his plays, but the British Library’s collection of letters from Pinter to his friends and loved ones often offers rare glimpses into his creative process. In a series of letters to his friend Mick Goldstein, the young Pinter mentions his second play, The Birthday Party, a work that would be panned by critics on arrival, only to leap back into the public eye years later. In a letter from April 1957, the sense of Pinter’s excitement about his new work is palpable, as he hints at the plot of the play and joyfully exclaims to Mick, “Playwriting just now has got me by the balls.” In a second letter, dated three months later, Pinter again enthuses about the play to Mick, specifically about the final scene in which protagonist Stanley Webber is hauled helplessly from his home. Here, Pinter’s enthusiasm for his new play is palpable, as when he says, “They come for him, you see, and they take him. In his pyjama jacket.”

One tiny scrap of writing like that, and a long-dead writer is vaulted back to life again. No wonder people seem so eager to cast aside their highlighters and venture inside the British Library.


Works Cited and Consulted

Abrams, Luke. “12 Awesome Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the British Library.” Time Out, 11 October 2016. Accessed November 14 2018.

Bury, Liz. “British Library hush is broken by a row over reading room rules.” The Guardian, 19 July 2013. Accessed November 16 2018.

Gussow, Mel. “A Conversation [Pause] With Harold Pinter.” New York Times, December 5 1971. Accessed November 16 2018.

“Harry Potter: A History of Magic.” Google Arts and Culture, date unknown. Accessed November 16 2018.

“New Beatles acquisition at the British Library.” British Library, 24 May 2013. Accessed November 20 2018.

“Notebook Drafts of Waiting for Godot.” British Library, date unknown. Accessed November 17 2018.

Laing, Olivia. “Quiet, please… In praise of the British Library.” The Guardian, 22 November 2015. Accessed November 14 2018.

“Using our Reading Rooms.” British Library, date unknown. Accessed November 17 2018.

Pinter, Harold. Letter to Henry Woolf. April 1957, Palace Theatre. Harold Pinter Archive, British Library, London, England, Add MS 89094/2. Manuscript.

Pinter, Harold. Letter to Michael Goldstein. April 1957, Playhouse Theatre. Harold Pinter Archive, British Library, London, England, Add MS 89083/1/1/3. Manuscript.

Pinter, Harold. Letter to Michael Goldstein. July 1957, Playhouse Theatre. Harold Pinter Archive, British Library, London, England, Add MS 89083/1/1/3. Manuscript.

Woolf, Henry. “A guest blog by Henry Woolf.” British Library, 3 October 2017. Accessed November 17 2018.


Industrial Perspective on the Wonderfulness of Paper

Ashley Lekach

Letter Paper Besides A4. Image: A. Lekach.

The year is 2018 and you (the person who is reading this blog post) are in dire need of paper to print off your essay that’s due within the hour. You may ask, what type of paper do I need? As an uninformed Canadian civilian, you are not sure; you simply rush to the market and grab the nearest pack of paper you can find. Unfortunately, you have grabbed a pack of A4 (8.3” x 11.7”) paper rather than the Letter paper size (8.5” x 11”) that is standard in North America. You fail your essay for not following the guidelines. Besides that, you also purchased paper that was not environmentally conscious; therefore, you feel even guiltier for your choices of the morning. Life is sad. You could, however, have avoided this tragedy if you had prior knowledge of the modern paper industry…

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Lost in the Library: Melvil Dewey and His Cataloguing System

 Marie C.

Who Needs Catalogues?

To me, libraries are the stuff of dreams. Room after room filled with shelf upon shelf upon shelf of books, journals, newspapers, and other publications on every topic imaginable. All of them there at my fingertips, completely accessible and just waiting to be read. A library like the British Library has a collection of over 150 million items, which cover over 625 km of shelves (About Us). This is a staggering wealth of information, and I’m almost drooling just thinking about it! But such amazing, massive collections of books and other materials can also become the stuff of nightmares… What if you can’t find a book? Or worse, what if you have so many books that you no longer have any concept of what you have and where you’ve stored it?

This is why library catalogues are crucial. Cataloguing systems in their various iterations have been around for as long as libraries, in forms that were often “strictly inventories of property” (Rouse & Rouse 236) rather than their more modern form, which “had a principal function to enable one to locate a book” (236), and which now also contain other useful bibliographic information which allows readers to identify and locate books and other resources based on the subjects that they contain. For this post, I am going to limit my discussion to what OCLC cites as “the most widely used classification system in the world”: the Dewey Decimal system.

Melvil Dewey

Public domain – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Life and Legacy of Melvil Dewey

Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, the man we now know as Melvil Dewey was a man obsessed with the metric system, captivated by the decimal, and an ardent supporter of a simplified spelling reform, having changed his own name from Melville to Melvil and briefly going by Dui rather than Dewey (How One Library Pioneer). He helped found the first permanent organization of librarians in 1876: the American Library Association (Lerner 173). At this point in time, multiple different classification systems were in use in libraries around the world, but classification and the role of the librarian had not yet developed the scientific approach with which we are now familiar. At the same time as the American Library Association was founded, Melvil also founded two other organizations: the American Metric Bureau and the Spelling Reform Association (Lerner 173). Evidently, his Metric Bureau did not have the desired effect on the American measurement system, however he did manage to impose his spelling simplification system on the Lake Placid Club, a “cooperative resort in the Adirondacks that he established in 1895” (Kendall 52). Dewey’s Wikipedia page provides some amusing results of his “simplr spelin”, citing the menu at the “Adirondak Loj”, which offers entrées featuring “Hadok … Masht potato, Butr, Steamd rys, Letis”, with “Ys cream” for dessert.

Dewey developed his classification system while attending Amherst College, and it was part of the discussion at the first meeting of the Library Association in 1876 (Lerner 174). He subsequently was appointed chief librarian of New York City’s Columbia College and began teaching classes on librarianship in 1887, part of a rising trend in providing specific education for librarians (Lerner 175). He was a prominent member of the library community throughout his career, acting as director of New York State Library from 1889 to 1906, founding a company called Library Bureau which stocked supplies for libraries, and also co-founding and editing Library Journal (How One library Pioneer).

Melvil Dewey is now considered the “Father of Modern Librarianship” (How One Library Pioneer), however, he was also a controversial figure. Assumed to have had Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, he struggled to get  along with others and “was a master at launching and beefing up organizations, but … often had difficulty running them” (Kendall 53). Although Dewey “came up with numerous innovations… he also managed to alienate many colleagues with his unpredictable and demanding behavior” (54). In 1905, he was forced to resign as New York State Librarian after a petition signed by a number of prominent individuals was circulated, a petition criticizing the explicit anti-Semitism evident in circulars issued by Dewey’s Lake Placid Club and its exclusion of Jewish people from its membership (Wiegand 361). He was also known to be a womanizer and worse. Although few women made formal complaints over the years, finally “four prominent librarians” (Kendall 54) made his unwelcome attention known to Association officials. This resulted in his exclusion from the Association and his withdrawal from the library world.

How Does Dewey’s System Work?

The Dewey Decimal Classification system, abbreviated hereafter as the ‘DDC’, uses arabic decimal numerals and organizes materials based on “ten main classes” which represent fields of study and disciplines intended to “cover the entire world of knowledge” (DDC Summaries). Each of these classes is subdivided into ten divisions, each of which contain ten sections. In this classification, each item in a collection is assigned a three-digit number in which the first digit represents the main class, the second represents the subdivision, and the third represents the section within the division. The three-digit number is followed by a decimal point, after which there are continued degrees of classification, still organized in divisions by ten. Specific subjects may fall under more than one division category, depending on contexts and uses. Thus far, the DDC has been edited 23 times as more topics are assigned numbers and added to the system, and it now also exists as an online resource (DDC Summaries).

Courtesy of Maggie Appleton

Currently, Melvil Dewey’s classification system is used primarily for many smaller collections and public libraries throughout the world, while larger and more academic collections often make use of Herbert Putnam’s Library of Congress classification, which was influenced by Dewey’s work. Despite the definite dark side to the man credited with such innovation, there is no doubt that the library we know and love would not be the same without his contributions.


Works Cited

“About Us.” The British Library.  n.d. British Library. Web. 30 Oct. 2018.

“Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) Summaries.” Dewey Services. OCLC. 2018. Web. 2 Nov. 2018.

“History.” American Library Association. ALA. June 9, 2008. Web. 4 Nov. 2018.

“How One Library Pioneer Profoundly Influenced Modern Librarianship.” Dewey Services. OCLC. 2018. Web. 2 Nov. 2018.

Kendall, Joshua. “Melvil Dewey, Compulsive Innovator: The Decimal Obsessions of an   Information Organizer.” American Libraries 45.3-4 (2014): 52-54. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov.  2018.

Lerner, Frederick Andrew. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the    Computer Age. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

“Melvil Dewey.” Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation. 28 Oct. 2018. Web. 1 Nov. 2018.

Rouse, Mary A. and Richard H. Rouse. “The Development of Research Tools in the Thirteenth   Century.” Authentic Witnesses. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991,          221-255. Print.

Wiegand, Wayne A. “‘Jew Attack’: The Story behind Melvil Dewey’s Resignation as New York State Librarian in 1905.” American Jewish History, vol. 83, no. 3. (1995): 359    379. JSTOR. 1 Nov. 2018.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Fun with Hieroglyphs

Cooper N.

One way or another, we have all seen or heard of Egyptian hieroglyphics and at least vaguely know what they are. If you mention the word “hieroglyph” to a person on the street, one basic definition will immediately come to mind: pictures. Hieroglyphs are basically a written language made up of pictures that ancient Egyptians used as one of the earliest forms of literacy. Each picture or symbol represents a very specific person, place, thing, action or even sound. These pictures can be found carved or painted on walls and stone tablets from ancient Egyptian ruins, and seem to depict some sort of message or story. But are these symbols as straightforward as they seem? Some of them are, such as a man, a cat, or a bull could be easily distinguished just by looking at their respective glyphs, but there are lots of variations of these that look mighty similar to one another and might not actually make sense until put into context. In this blog post, my aim is to enlighten my readers on the sheer vastness that the world of hieroglyphs holds, and that a simple picture may not be so simple at all.

Sir Alan H. Gardiner is an English Egyptologist and scholar who in the early 20th century organized and translated a series of what he found to be the most commonly found hieroglyphs. For the main premise of this post, I will be solely referring to Gardiner’s sign list as it adequately demonstrates just how many different meanings can be depicted from hieroglyphs that, to the modern human eye, may look very much the same. The list consists of 26 main categories, each one covering a specific subject and consisting of many different symbols that go even further in depth. For example, category A is titled “man and his occupations” and within this category there are 55 different symbols that depict certain actions or roles that men were commonly known for. As you may have guessed, many of these symbols look terribly similar to one another, to the point where it feels like you may be looking at one of those “spot the difference” brain-teasers. For example, take a look at these two hieroglyphs:


(Retrieved from: )

            They look extremely similar, and one could make the inference that they both possibly refer to an elderly man. If that’s the case, then these two symbols should be able to be used interchangeably, right? I’m afraid not, since the glyph on the left with the cane (A19) refers to an elderly man being weak and fragile, whereas the other one with the pronged staff (A20) refers to a wise elder. Even though they look the same at first glance, they definitely have separate definitions that would change the meaning of whatever message they are a part of.

There is such a wide variety of symbols that it is no wonder why it has taken thousands of years to decipher them. Under section A alone we can see many examples of hieroglyphs that I couldn’t even guess the meaning of. Like this sequence of hieroglyphs A27 – A33 just look like a group of people dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller:

(Retrieved from: )

But upon some research, one would learn that these men are not dancing to an 80’s pop hit, but instead these glyphs (in the respective order) refer to things such as “to transition,” “in high spirits,” “head over heels,” “to praise,” “to turn away,” “to dance,” and “to travel.” At least one of these symbols is about dancing, so maybe my judgement isn’t completely off after all.

Once we get down to section D, which is “parts of the human body,” we are delighted with 63 symbols, 75% of which certainly do not look like any human body parts I am aware of. Some can be distinguishable however, like D4 is definitely an eye:

(Retrieved from: )

…But then D5 – D7 also look like eyes?

(Retrieved from: )

            It is true that all of these symbols are referring to eyes, the only difference being that D5 is wearing makeup, D6 has a painted upper eyelid, and D7 has a painted lower eyelid. And then we have D8:

(Retrieved from: )

Which doesn’t even look that much like an eye to me, but it is referring to a “closing eye.” I had no idea that there would be so many different kinds of eyeballs, but hey, the Egyptians must have had their reasons for all of these specific variations.

            All in all, the topic concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs has been a rather fun and interesting one to explore. As someone that has never properly done any research on this subject before, I had no idea just how vast the categories of symbols could go, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. A symbol of a man is not just any man, and an eye might not just be any eye. A dozen different variations exist with very slight differences, each one carrying with it a completely different meaning that would change the overall message. These ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs truly give a whole new meaning to the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”