“From Record Management to Data Management: RDA and New Application Models….” by Mauro Guerrini and Tiziana Possemato

It’s (semi) official: MARC is dead, although the MARC Advisory Committee continues to maintain the format ,and MARC records are added to the massive pile every day.  The library profession is looking ahead and imagining a bright future of interconnectedness and interoperability, a concept/goal known obliquely as the Semantic Web. The term “Semantic web” was defined in a 2001 article in Scientific American as “an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.”

But how will we get to this golden era of seamless resource and data linkage? The authors mention some promising software built for the new era of cataloguing and metadata.

The intellectual doom of MARC dawned with the emergence of RDA (Resource Description and Access) from the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, as a standard for assigning metadata to resources in the digital age. The profession realized that the “flat,” one-dimensional format of MARC records was inadequate in expressing the relationships between bibliographic entities foreseen in the RDA and FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records).

The current state of library catalog data is an ill-fit with the goal of the semantic web. That’s an unavoidable artifact of MARC. MARC records don’t translate to the web — the records are treated as blocks of text by search engines. The authors say that details of catalogs must be “of the web and no longer just on the web….Libraries must upgrade not only their technology but also their conceptual framework.”

The fields of MARC records, which identify and document specific pieces of metadata are constructions connected with the resource and provide descriptive data about it. But that’s not sufficient in the world of the Semantic Web — data must not only be able to be processed by computers, but to be interpreted by them as well. The structures of successful metadata create meanings from the underlying resources they describe, and vitally, their relationships with other resources.

The Library of Congress hailed the Resource Description Framework (RDF) as a basic data model, serving to ratify the transition from the traditional web to the Semantic Web. I think of MARC like a flat-file database, in one dimension, and the new RDF-inspired software as a relational database, which can slice and dice data searches into many facets.

Authors Guerrini and Possemato examine some software solutions to the challenge of the Semantic Web (including RIMMF,BIBFRAME and OliSuite/WeCat) which offer ways to conceptualize sharable metadata that is consistent with RDA.

BIBFRAME offers a simple data model, inspired by FRBR. Some of the new guidelines include: a high level of analysis and identification of the data; an emphasis on relationships; widespread use of controlled vocabularies. That allows sharing of the description outside the library community and also allow sharing the task of attributing metadata among different cataloging agencies.

The new digital world marks the end of the old-fashioned, flat “record.” The future of information will be more like a series of statements linked by identifiers. To me it can all be summarized by the word “linking,” a grand collocation of things that share traits, parsed into ever-tinier “facets.”

In the future, the authors say, this data linkage will be characterized by: a greater division of single aspects (elements of description) in structuring information; the use of controlled vocabularies; perhaps most important, the creation of as wide a network as possible of connections between different entities, to ensure each is connected to others with different specified relationship terms.

How will we get there?

RDF in Many Metadata Formats (RIMMF) is an RDA-oriented software that’s fairly new (2015). It’s a data visualization tool that can help cataloguers train themselves to think conceptually in terms of RDA/FRBR rather than the flat-file format of MARC.

OliSuite/WeCat (a European-born system) software will help users make the transition from the MARC format into something more compatible with RDA concepts — an open-source, “object-oriented” metadata system that identifies and describes elements and not records, a la the Semantic Web concept.

It’s all part of the transition from the MARC-dominated era to the golden vision of the Semantic Web.

It was nice to see the reappearance of RDA and FRBR concepts, after learning about them in LS500 (I think) – some modes of conceptualizing cataloguing seem to have their few moment in the spotlight and then  wither away, but perhaps these have staying power. I would have appreciated more visible screenshots in English as part of the demonstration of how RIMMF, et al., actually work.


LS566 Article Summary #4: “Digital image description: a review of best practices in cultural institutions.”

This 2012 article by two professors at McGill University, Elaine Menard and Margaret Smithglass, is evidently the opening act in an attempt to develop bilingual taxonomy for the description of digital images. The authors evaluated 150 resources for organizing and describing visual images, split into two parts.

First, they examined the use of controlled vocabularies and prescribed metadata in 70 image collections held by libraries, museums, image search engines, and commercial web sites.

Then they examined user tagging in 80 other image-sharing resources, and compared and contrasted the results of the differing philosophies, which can be roughly broken into “controlled vocabularies” (used by the traditional cultural organizations) and “uncontrolled vocabularies” (“tagging,” or “user-generated annotations,” from the general public).

They were trying to discern best practices in describing digital image collections, which are a common denominator in the holdings of cultural institutions. Best practices can give patrons effective access to less accessible institution resources like maps, videos, rare books, musical texts, photographs of artefacts etc. — non-text items that have traditionally been harder to access. Online museums can provide access to pieces rarely displayed, so in effect their full collections can be on exhibit 24 hours, from anywhere in the world.

The article takes a while to address its ostensible subject of bilingual taxonomy — enhancing image retrieval in multilingual contexts — so long that I wondered if “bilingual taxonomy” was their way of describing “controlled” and “uncontrolled” vocabularies. But apparently this is only the first phase in a process, a review of best practices in general, so the discussion of metadata in different languages will come later.

I was interested to learn that LCSH have been expanded to accommodate vocabularies unique to disciplines, like Getty’s AAT, enabling collocation of material that’s essential to scholarly work.

The authors found that libraries and museums used similar methodologies. Most all of them covered standard elements in their item records: title, date, creator, subject, original source and collection. They have consistent descriptive methodology because of need for interoperability.

The second part of the research dealt with 80 image-sharing systems online, broken down into three groups: image uploaders, image hosts, and stock photography.

The organization of digital images still far from being standardized.

For image description, some resources offered predetermined categories, like the travel-oriented image upload site Shutterfly. Image hosting sites, on the other hand, often didn’t provide a tagging option and there was little in the way of metadata. Used mostly for storage and access, these sites turned out useless for the study.

Stock photography web sites are commercial, and so offer the most structured and professional user interface. They have both predetermined categories and tagging. Some users search by color, shape, image size, indicating a visually sophisticated audience. The best practices employed by these sites are a useful model for future image taxonomies.

The authors recognize the “eternal debate” about best practices, specifically traditional “controlled vocabularies” versus free indexing via tagging and clouds. CV ensures retrieval of all resources that address the same topic, with synonyms indexed under the same term. But the old way has its weaknesses: New topics are not always well represented, and subject headings can be too broad. “Uncontrolled” has the advantages of specificity, and the faster inclusion of new concepts. The disadvantage is a lack of a consistent description strategy.

They cite a study showing that image retrieval is more consistent when both approaches are used, as this offers more indexing terms and can also improve retrieval efficiency. This approach may require more indexing time, but the self-indexing (a sort of volunteer army) aspect by users would help reduce potential costs.

I was confused by the early mentions of “bilingual” when the paper didn’t seem interested in the subject, but as a survey of best practices in digital imagery description the article was informative. I liked the unpacking of tagging as “user-generated annotations.”

Article 3#: Metadata Creation Practices in Digital Repositories and Collections: Schemata, Selection Criteria, and Interoperability

This 2010 survey article by Jung-ran Park & Yuji Tosaka provides an overview of the state of play on metadata creation and interoperability, and which metadata schemas and vocabulary controls have proven most popular and why, using data compiled via a national survey of metadata professionals.

The authors found the old-fashioned MARC schema ruled, despite the proliferation of other schemes, many used by museum collections and image collections rather than those that deal mostly with texts. AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition) was the most popular content standard, and LCSH the most popular source for subject-controlled vocabulary.

Dublin Core (DC), which we are focusing on in LS566, is the second-most widely used schema, followed by EAD, MODS (or Metadata Object Description Schema) VRA (Visual Resource Association), which have their fans at museums and various other institutions, based on the format of the resources of that particular institution. VRA is popular among image-based resources, while MODS is seen as a compromise between the perhaps overly simplified Dublin Core and the complexity of MaRC records. Also, institutions mostly stuck to a single scheme (i.e. Dublin Core) for resource description, though it isn’t strictly necessary.

The article contrasted the relative popularity of Qualified Dublin Core versus Unqualified Dublin Core. This wasn’t explained in the text, but QDC is apparently an extension of DC, which is considered too simplistic by some. (Then I read that QDC may actually be superseded by another format, so I’ll wait before delving too deeply.)

Predictably, a memory institution goes with a particular metadata standard based on the needs of their specific collection – the nature, or format, of the collection.

As the world becomes more tightly connected digitally, interoperability will be the key going forward, but the ability for different institutions to exchange data and render it readable remains a major challenge today. Locally created metadata often can’t stand up to the “harvesting and ingesting” process of OAIster, resulting in confusing data, and local metadata guidelines, with their own peculiar definitions, often can’t be successfully shared. That’s significant, because homegrown content standards and guidelines constituted one of the major metadata choices of survey participants, brewed up to accommodate the perceived needs of local users.

Half of the survey respondents “exposed” at least some of their institution’s metadata to search engines and union catalogs such as OCLC WorldCat, which one-third did the same through OAI (Open Archives Initiative, meant to foster metadata interoperability). The hesitation to hook up with OAI and expose their locally grown metadata to the web were often financial and technical based, along with copyright concerns regarding their local collection.

In the literature review, Park and Tosaka cite previous similar surveys, where MARC was seen as well as the most widely used schema, while the results bore out the idea that research institutions of all sorts rely on a relatively small group of metadata schema. While there’s a general understanding in the field that metadata must obtain interoperability and make “local” metadata accessible across a variety of digital repositories, the lack of a way to integrate the various kinds of schema hobbles successful interoperability.

Those local repositories often don’t have documentation of how they arrive at their particular guidelines, hindering their ability to pass that information on to other institutions. While locally created metadata elements accommodate local needs and requirements, they may also hinder metadata interoperability across digital repositories and collections.

The survey was carried out via the web using both structured and open-ended questions. There was a high incompletion rate for the study, which the authors attributed to the questions possibly being outside the perceived scope of expertise of respondents, and the length of the survey. Most respondents hailed from academic libraries.

Another challenging article. I haven’t picked up the acronyms (so many acronyms!) yet, but the author’s findings were clear regarding the popularity of MaRC, the relative dominance of a few metadata schema, and the reluctance of some institutions to let OAI harvest their metadata, as well as describing the challenges that local metadata guidelines, tailored to local institutional needs, pose regarding metadata interoperability in the digital age.

I am also blurry on the distinction between a metadata schema and a content standard, though there surely is one, as the survey results indicate there is a difference, as MaRC came out on top in the survey for metadata, and AACR2 for content.

Article Summary: “The seven levels of identification” by Juha Hakala

Hakala (2006) aims to give an overview of the current state of play of identifying objects in digital libraries. It’s become much harder in recent decades. Once upon a time, in those halcyon days of the early 1990s, “bibliographic identifiers” were the only game in town, used almost solely for texts. Nothing else seemed necessary. Then the web came along, and with it digitization and more systems and more resources that require identifiers, like images.

This article was a lesson in terminology. Notes for my own edification:

ISSN is ISBN (or International Standard Book Number) for serials and journals. NISO = National Information Standards Organization.)

Hakala creatively sliced his analysis into seven levels, the scope moving from wider to narrower. Summing up the major points of each level:

Organizations: He expressed worries that ISIL (the International Standard Identifier for Libraries and Related Organizations) would not make it to those “related organizations,” being too closely tied to libraries. (The term “ISIL” is also in bad form these days, being an alternative name for ISIS!). A Google search may bear out those concerns, as not many results were generated and the official Danish site seems rather static.

People, authors, creators: The U.S. is more advanced in authority control, especially in large research libraries, while Europe lacks a central authority registry. International naming customs differ by country, making use of standard identifiers for authors necessary.

Collections and Services: Search engines are still (not in 2006 and not today) unable to reach the “deep web” of databases and the collections embedded in them. Google is a document-driven application. Personal note: “Deep web” is not to be confused with the “dark web,” often a haven of illegal activity.

Works and Expressions: There is a gap between FRBR-(Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) indoctrinated librarians and publishers, who have different definitions of terms like “works” and “expressions.” This part did sound familiar from a previous class (LS500, perhaps).

Manifestations. This is the second-most granular FRBR level, one above “item” — like the same edition of a book, but not an individual copy of the book itself. With so many more objects (including image files and digital works) to catalog, that means more manifestations. So many more things required digital identifiers that ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, was running out of identification numbers, and so expanded the field from 10 digits to 13.

As hinted before, manifestation identifiers are challenged by the problem of scale (there are a lot more things out there these days that need to be identified).

Component parts: Metadata for pieces of larger works, such as journal articles and album tracks, present a scalability challenge. Identifying all these pieces would be complex, perhaps too complex for users and the sanity of cataloguers. It may require automatic identifier extraction to make such granular identification viable, to become self-sustainable, with the vital metadata derived automatically from the object itself.

Search attributes: After focusing on how to identify the resources out there, Hakala shifts to the finding aspect. URI, or Uniform Resource Identifiers (a type of URL, or web address) provides simple and extensible means for identifying a resource via the Web.

Hakala rightfully concluded that “Outlining the full scope of the identifiers and identifier systems we will use in the future is a challenging task.” There are more systems and a greater diversity of resources to deal with in the digital age. Now (or at least in 2006) it is a crapshoot, betting on which new identification system will triumph and which will wither away. To make betting on the wrong horse less likely, participants from all relevant interest organizations must be on board, including librarians, publishers, and system developers.

This piece was a heavy lift, and I wish I had a better handle on the acronyms — what they spell out and what they signify — but the author’s seven-slice strategy to discussing the issue of digital identifiers was helpful and gave me at least a blurry understanding of the scope of the challenge. And even if it all goes to pieces, it seems Hakala has a promising career in bodybuilding to fall back on.

(Note: The preceding clip may be a casualty of failed authority control on the student’s part.)

Article Summary: “Transferring Cataloging Legacies into Descriptive Metadata Creation in Digital Projects: Catalogers’ Perspective”

The emergence of digital collections in libraries and other institutions poses a clear challenge to catalogers, who must prove their worth in the face of this new and varied species of information technology. This article tries to point the way forward, reminding catalogers — perhaps feeling shaken and beleaguered these days — of the skills they bring to these new tasks, which will require unbinding themselves from texts and bibliographies to handle other facets of items, and the unique and various types of metadata records they require.

Authors Junli Diao and Mirtha A. Hernández admit that much of metadata creation is seen as a tedious chore and can sound dishearteningly like data entry. To me the work actually sounds interesting — using logic and imagination to slot hard-to-pigeonhole items and judgment calls into categories.

The authors emphasize the traditional importance of quality control in the library field. From the Library of Congress card catalog system to the present day OPAC’s, catalogers have strove to create error-free, consistent, and comprehensive bibliographic records. The same goals obviously apply to creating metadata. The article emphasizes the strengths traditional catalogers bring to a task that may not be as different as feared. Catalogers already know how to create accurate descriptions and comprehend complex documentations.

They kept the encouragement coming: “[DeZelar-Tiedman] listed four credentials that catalogers should take pride in when participating in digital projects: ‘experience designing and populating databases; understanding of taxonomies and controlled vocabularies; an analytical and detail-oriented nature; and philosophical understanding of the importance of balancing the need for standards with the demands of interoperability.’”

The authors emphasized the necessity of creative thinking, and dismissed the stereotype of cataloguers as detail-oriented drudges applying pro forma rules and inputting dry statistics like page count. But cataloguers do risk being hamstrung by the old bibliographic mindset of traditional cataloging, “the enframement of the space of 3-by-5 cataloging cards, which…still shape the infrastructure of ILS.”

I considered the article a friendly warning to catalogers: Be prepared to think differently, in modes beyond the traditional two dimensions of texts that already come equipped with discoverable bibliographic data and in a familiar format. The wider digital world includes unique materials like postcards, images, and manuscripts, items previously hidden in special collections but now potentially available to a wide audience over the Internet via digitization. Another wrinkle: Those items don’t necessarily come with obvious data regarding their provenance, origin, or context, which may have to be inferred by cataloguers through clues like notes and signatures to ensure efficient discovery by users.

I found the authors’ points convincing and welcoming, if not wholly reassuring. I couldn’t shake the feeling they were straining via euphemism to convince cataloguers they still had worth in the brave new world of metadata, which would give me pause before pursuing the potentially “deprofessionalized occupation” of cataloging as a career. When they write that “cataloging legacies are carried forward and integrated into descriptive metadata creation,” the word “legacies” is redolent of the past.

Saving the Best for Last: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Some last minute schedule-jiggling meant our last stop on the educational library tour was St. Paul’s Cathedral, the baroque masterpiece by architect Christopher Wren, the architect who lived 1632-1723. Wren built his masterwork on the site of the previous St. Paul that had perished in the Great Fire, with construction funded by a coal tax and felicitated by bright Portland Stone from the “King’s Quarry” in the county of Dorset.

After several plans were rejected as overly modest, Wren began work in 1675 and finished in 1710, which sounds kind of speedy on consideration. It’s also poignant that it was the great architect Inigo Jones who had redesigned the west end of the gothic former St. Paul in 1660, but the fire would soon wipe out his vision.

The cathedral’s history is as vast and deep as that of the city it represents, the site of many famous weddings and funerals over the centuries. A place of Christian worship has occupied the spot since the year 604 (yes, only three digits in that year). Oliver Cromwell barracked soldiers at old St. Paul during the Protectorate phase (1653-1658). And of course it stood as vital support to British morale during the Second World War. The stained glass was blown out on one side by the Luftwaffe, and the cathedral took two direct hits, in 1940 and 1941, though somehow there were no casualties and the cathedral stayed mostly open throughout the war.

The idea for the library on the site was hatched by one John Evelyn (a cohort of the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys) who suggested a national library at the west end of St. Paul. However, the library initially held fewer books than expected because of the Great Fire.

Elizabeth, our lively and humorous hostess, took us to the Triforium (with a view of the vast nave) and into a private alcove where mosaics were tested. The art was done by William Blake Richmond, named for the famous mystical religious artist, whose mosaics decorated the vaults of the choir. We saw his “cartoons” (preliminary drawings) of the  Annunciation, a bit of a fretful-looking King David, and Jesus telling the parable of the wheat.

We saw the bust of George Cruikshanks, Charles Dickens’ illustrator, who had the honor (?) of being so well-respected that he was dug up from his tomb and reburied in St. Paul’s. She told stories of the cathedral history with relish. She explained that St. Paul’s is still a working church with daily services. 

Off the alcove was a room I did not catch the name of (I wrote down Lapsarian, which is churchy but doesn’t seem to be correct) where a collection of marble was stored, including half a lion’s head, that had been salvaged or discovered via excavation from the ruins of the the old St. Paul. 

Then we went to the dim, high-ceilinged reading room to meet the dryly witty Cathedral Librarian, Jo Wisdom. In a musty-smelling room filled with old theological tomes, Wisdom laid out the library’s holdings: Strong in theology and church history, obviously, and bits of related things like philosophy, and holy topography; i.e.,  travels to the Holy Land. The official religion of Great Britain is Reformed and Catholic.

When asked about how “heretical” books were treated at this religious library, and how various denominations had been catalogued over the centuries, under different rulers with different beliefs, Wisdom argued that such shunning and separation of books “wasn’t the English way,” perhaps referring to religious tolerance in England. It’s rather touching in this secular age — especially in England, where Christianity is pretty much inert — to see people who take religion seriously.

As always, the talk turned to cataloguing and digitizing. For the St. Paul’s library, he brought good news and bad. The good news: The database contains 85% of collection. The bad news is that there are some challenges to work through before it gets online and in front of the public. Still, Wisdom said the library was available to all who had a use for it.

Going off on an interesting tangent, Wisdom related how the Victorians may have unwittingly hurt the profession of librarians/archivists when it “professionalized” everything, stamping everyone with a particular specific title, resulting in curators, archivists, museum directors, librarians…inhabiting their own knowledge silos and not working together sufficiently, even though they share a common cultural language.

The room we spoke in was shelved in the early 18th century, with the “big books shelved at the bottom” and relying on an author catalog for finding them. The library doesn’t do restoration, Wisdom emphasized; they were not trying to make things look like they did in the 18th century. Berated himself for “gassing far too long.”

Continuing the “wow” tour, Elizabeth showed us a dizzying geometric spiral staircase bolted into the wall with no other means of support, it looked tenuous, and frankly I was afraid to peer over the edge. The singular staircase has made several appearances in movies, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Elizabeth showed us colorful Victorian fonts and pulpits, add-ons to Wren’s vision, now in storage, and updated us on the status of the big bells, like Great Paul, the largest bell at St. Paul’s and the largest ever made in Britain. (It’s currently broken.). There are several big bells, like Great Tom that strikes the hours and marks the deaths of members of the Royal Family or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Perhaps most impressive was the model of St. Paul, in a room of its own, a miniature version of the original accepted design (though Wren created a loophole that let him be generous with alterations) at 1:24 scale. Even the tiles had an elaborate floor plan drawn by another draftsman, also on display.


The view from near the top was worth the many hundreds of spiral steps it took to get there. After three separate flights I was certainly feeling “closer to God” (or perhaps it was a heart attack coming on) but the trip literally couldn’t have ended on a higher note, as can be seen below:


Running Hot and Cold at the Royal Geographical Society

At the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore, librarian Eugene met us in the lobby and gave a well-organized and highly informative presentation on the historical stories the RGS library holds in its collection. Cannily, he told us tales of two explorations, one near the sweltering equator, the other at the South Pole. He got into the library business studying English, not geography, and maybe that was revealed in his narrative expertise.

The Society was established in 1830, during the golden age of British exploration, to promote scientific geography, and now holds some 250,000 books, 4,000 atlases, half a million images (mostly photographs) and thousands of objects. Those include the hat worn by journalist Harry Stanley and the worn-out boots and pith helmet worn by the trekker Dr. David Livingstone, the two men brought together by fate in deepest Africa.

We sat around a large table in the Foyle Reading Room filled with those kind of fascinating items, with one side of the table lined with objects telling the story of Stanley and Livingstone in Africa during the age of exploration, the other about the frustrating, often fatal race to the South Pole, Antarctica, in the early part of the 20th century. A “hot” side and a “cold” side, he joked.

The personalities came to life under the expert tale-telling, strengthened by the immediacy of the original items before us.

The race to the South Pole was launched by a conference in 1895 in London. Like Africa before it, the South Pole had an unknown blank at its heart. The Society raised money for an expedition, and the government eventually provided matching funds. We heard of the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton, who found a passage onto the polar plateau but ultimately was stopped short of the South Pole, and of commander Robert Scott, seen as aloof but who gained heroism when he died in his second failed race to the South Pole, beaten to his goal by the man credited by Eugene as being the best explorer of all, Roald Amundsen. The Norwegian reached the South Pole in December 1911, and one of his travel secrets–let’s just say it involves dog meat. As for the blank in the map, it turned out to be full of ice.

The Society has some fascinating photos preserved from that trek, showing the frozen tundra, and the dogs and humans who made the trek, including a haunting picture of Shackleton and his crew after the attempt in 1909, all left looking like on the tail-end of a 10-day bender. We also saw one-of-a-kind items like “The South Pole Times,” a journal of sorts full of poems and cartoons used to wile away the days when it was too bitter to work. Scott, who always carried a Bible, was shown as a parson complete with hat. His Bible, which he discarded on his second doomed expedition as an example to his men, was kept and later returned to the Royal Geographical Society.

Eugene graphically explained why a “sextant” (an instrument of celestial navigation) at the South Pole would have handles made of ivory and not brass. Because metal would stick to your skin at those temperatures and take it off if you tried to pull back. 

Besides expected sets of maps and globes, an enormous collection of current travel books to every conceivable destination lining the reading room walls. The collection also contains tangentially related objects, like a wooden bust of Henry Stanley. I was intrigued by a photograph of an African guide for English explorers smiling, unembarrassed by his rotten teeth. Why does no one in 19th-century photographs ever smile (exposure times, or perhaps bad teeth)?

The RGS often sends out to other museums the popular Stanley and Livingstone hats and shoes and other items, like the “artificial horizon,” which used any available pool of water and a little geometry to make the sextants work even when the sky is not visible (as in dense wilderness or built-up areas).

The librarian gave us a little glimpse into historical revisionism, when he noted that in Livingstone’s diary, he was captured as preoccupied with his quest for the source of the Nile River, and was unimpressed with the Lake Victoria waterfalls. But when it came time to write a book his first view had been retro-conned into being awe-inspiring. Also, we only have journalist Stanley’s word that his greeting to the trekker was, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Some of Stanley’s relevant diary pages had disappeared.

For a long time the map of Africa in general (and the location of the source of the Nile specifically) was largely blank, with filigrees of detail around the edges on the more well-explored coasts. The explorers filled in the center, writing the map as they went. Sadly, Dr. Livingstone never found the source of the Nile. It is now generally considered to be Lake Victoria (discovered by the troubled adventurer — is there any other kind? — John Hanning Speke, rival to Richard Burton).

When the explorer Livingstone died in Africa, his remains were brought back by his friends save his heart, which remained on the continent he loved. He lay in state at the Royal Geographical Society.

RGS is credited for encouraging the establishment of geography as a separate discipline. We were told how the library was trying to shake the perception of a stuffy middle-class clubbiness and appeal to other groups in the community. There are less than ten on staff of the library itself, which is open to scholars and researchers; the general public has to pay a fee of 10 pounds. I wish I could have seen one more room, but evidently they outsource many tasks like conservation (except for minor things like book-spine repair) and so there wasn’t other additional work to see.

He explained that some items are just too fragile to be lent out to other libraries, but their operating philosophy is to lend out when they can, because they want the objects seen, after making sure the other library or museum is sufficiently insured. In Great Britain it’s known as “government indemnity insurance.”

Speaking of fragile items, he explained his wearing of protective gloves. Many of the librarians and archivists we’ve talked to on our trip have eschewed them, because they don’t provide enough feel and make you clumsy among the delicate materials). For books he agrees with the new conventional wisdom, but for items the gloves were needed.

With superior story-telling matched with poignant items, the Royal Geographical Society was a highlight visit for me. A careful study of the maps drawn by actual explorers even helped me fill in a few weak spots in my own general knowledge.

No Bodleian, But Far from the Pitts in Oxford

Whilst winding our merry way to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, our group ran into a buzzsaw of Oxford tradition known as Encaenia, involving graduation, honorary degrees and very warm-looking black capes and frocks, and celebrated with lashings of whipped cream and silly string. Our group called an audible and instead made our morning jaunt to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which I thought of as the world’s coolest junk shop, with items from around the world and from various ages grouped not by cultural or geography but function, so that all the Cambodia masks, Japanese masks, Ethiopian masks, etc. were displayed together, with tools and guns and other weapons arranged the same way.  


The pudding, as you can surmise, lacked a theme, the setting was a bit murky to protect the items, and the museum overall has been left in a state of old-fashioned authenticity, with old-style explanatory cards for items still displayed in fonts unforgiving to modern eyes. But on the longest day of the year, and perhaps the hottest, the air conditioning to protect the collection was an unexpected bonus. 

The museum was one huge self-guided tour. “There is no start and no story to follow,” as a pamphlet accurately put it. That lack of guidance could be intimidating, but such an open plan also means the opportunity to stumble upon intriguing things you had no idea you had an interest in, like what ancient societies used for currency in the absence of paper bills and minted coins.

The museum was founded in 1884 by (deep breath) Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who donated 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford, on condition a museum be built to house them; he also stipulated the novel arrangement by form. According to the welcome pamphlet, it now has over half a million objects, various practical and quotidian items, as well as pictures and manuscripts. We spied many, many glass cases over the three levels.

I am overusing the word quirky on this blog, so I’ll just call the tiny exhibit of camel photos cute. Every UK museum apparently has an exhibit of netsuke (carved Japanese toggles before the days of pockets) and Pitt Rivers Museum had plenty, with a good solid paragraph of information on the placard for netsuke addicts. All the objects, even seemingly minor ones like beads, drawstrings, and the aforementioned netsuke, got their due. I was most interested in the collection of all types of currencies from different cultures, including various notched rocks and carved wood (hard to make change with these things).


While the Bodleian Library may occupy the heights of Western Culture, the Pitt Rivers Museum emphasizes the down-to-earth utilitarian objects humans of all races and various time periods used in their quotidian lives.

Bodleian, Schmodleian! Christ Church Library in Oxford

On the day our group went to Oxford the Bodleian Library was closed for an arcane British ritual (well, graduation day) but Christ Church provided everything a library lover could want. It’s one of six copyright libraries that are entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, though it isn’t obliged to take everything.

Boyish looking Steven, the head librarian, took us on an enthusiastic tour, exuding the kind of effortless mastery the British do better than anyone. Each of the colleges have their own library. All subjects are covered in the generalist collection of Christ Church, which provides essential textbooks but not the more specialized ones, which must be obtained from more specialized collections on campus. Christ Church prides itself on a 45-minute turnaround for item requests.

Steven emphasized the library’s cozy relationship with students, in opposition to the stereotype of a stuffy and forbidding British library. Oxford terms are very intense 8 weeks, which can mean lots of papers to write. One of 10 students drop out (or “degrade”) despite strong efforts by the school to keep students in. As an example of student service, the library swiftly acquires books from Amazon Prime or the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop, so there’s a very quick turnaround.

The Oxford colleges — there are dozens of them and run independently — are relatively small and compact — the library in fact makes up one of the four walls of the Christ Church quad. Students here have tried to get the library open 8am-1am, a sneak attack toward the goal of 24-hours a day. Steve explained the library just wasn’t designed to withstand that kind of constant occupation.


The library tries to get rid of books sometimes, but it can be tough, if someone donated them, or an Oxford persona wrote them. Also squeezed out by the need for showers for students, of all things. Not ideal, he noted dryly, with humidity and the chances for leaks posing risks.  

Steven is only the third librarian in 60 years, so clearly they tend to stay. He’s only been there a year but has the wisdom and knowledge of someone twice his age.

In what’s becoming a theme for these old collections, he noted that a lot remained uncatalogued of the older stuff, including texts on the history of the library itself. It was a challenge to get potential donors excited about ledgers recording the purchase of books in Latin!

The college charter did not include a library requirement, which was unusual, but one was eventually set up. Richard Allestree left his collection for use by Regius Professors of Divinity when he died in 1681, and we went up into a forbidden turret to examine the ancient collection, the imported tiles on the floor date to Saxon times. Theology is well-represented but there are other works as well. Steven showed us a medieval “pop-up” book of medicine for surgery. He emphasized that even these rare books comprise a “working library” not a museum and it is all accessible to students and researchers.


The history of the current library began in Cambridge. Oxford’s dean saw Christopher Wren’s Cambridge library and wanted one of his own. Sixty years later, it opened. Among the many fascinating items are first editions of Newton and Boyle, among other items of scientific scholarship. When the library received a motherlode of old prints and drawings via one large donation in the 18th century, they made a picture gallery just for them, which formed one of the first public galleries in England.

While we gaped over a beautiful Book of Hours, Steven explained the difference between an illuminated manuscript (gold leaf) and an illustrated one (colors). One of those colors, lapis lazuli, is a special hue of blue from Turkey, more expensive than gold at the time, which explains why Virgin Mary traditionally is portrayed with so much blue in her cloak.

He showed us a Bible draped in velvet chemise, provenance obscure but which is presumed to have a royal connection. This one even had the original silk stitched in to protect the image of God from the harm of facing pages when the book was closed. Had connections to Oxfordian author Lewis Carroll, and our group spied out the view of the garden where he first met the child Alice.


Steven the Christ Church librarian was very generous with his time and his enthusiasm was contagious, livening up the warm confines (it was the hottest June day in England in a generation) as he pulled fascinating items onto the table for us to gawp at.

I hope to access the amazing Bodleian collection on a separate trip to Oxford next week, but in the meantime Steven and the Christ Church collection ensured the group did not leave Oxford empty-handed.