Monday, July 12, 2010

Library Visit: The E-Library and Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum is situated just a bit off of the Thames in Greenwich, just east of London, on property that used to house the Royal Naval College. The museum itself and its library have been open since 1937, when they were first made public through the devotion of benefactor Sir James Caird. Thus, the Caird Library.

Being situated in Greenwich within close proximity of things both naval and astronomical, it should come as no surprise that some of the major areas of collections within the library itself are navigation, astronomy, exploration, naval architecture, and both the Merchant and Royal Navies. Also significant parts of the collections are immigration (Britain's an island, thus immigrants come by water...) and piracy. The types of resources that the library maintains within these subject areas run the gamut from manuscripts and rare books and materials to charts, journals, ephemera, and archival documents.

(They really do have a variety of things. As a part of our tour, two librarians showed us a book of United States Navy codes won in a naval battle years ago, a medical guidebook that witnessed the mutiny on the Bounty, and what is essentially a Dear Jane letter from Nelson to his wife.)

Being a publicly-funded library, the Caird currently does not really have the funds to acquire materials outside of those that they can add to their "working" collection; that is, the resources that are there specifically to be used and provide up-to-date information. Really, most of the holdings within the library itself can be constituted roughly as "working"; these are the items from 1850 to the present that, from my understanding, form the main and reference aspects of the collection. The rare and unique materials are something else entirely.

The rest of the collections are housed off-site in one of two different locations, which means that requests for items may not be satisfied for four or five days. That, however, is under the current manual system. The Museum is in the process of constructing a new library area behind the exhibitions building; this area would hold all of the library's resources, reducing retrieval times to about one hour. As this move is made, the library plans to go digital in terms of processing and tracking retrievals, helping to speed along the process as well.

While preparing for this renovation, the Caird Library is only open three days each week instead of the usual six. As a result, they are seeing fewer in-person library users and more written enquiries. Happily, the E-Library, which is currently housed in a more visible museum area, is open at any time the Museum is. The E-Library consists of about eight computer terminals that are stocked with a number of relevant databases and the library catalogue, allowing visitors to the E-Library to at least get a start on their research if they are unable to enter the Caird. This E-Library is also fit up as a sort of library reception area, with comfortable seating and an information desk. It was too early in the morning to be busy when our tour took place, but I would imagine the E-Library proves to be a very useful resource to museum visitors.

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