In December of 2015 I took a break from business meetings and conferences and went over to visit the King’s Library at the British Museum. I had not been there in a while, but I knew that the 60,000 book collection of King George III was moved there in 1823. It is in a beautiful series of three rooms and contained many wonderful items including illuminated manuscripts. The connecting rooms were built on a grand scale: 300 feet long, 41 feet high and 30 feet wide, with a curved ceiling.
What I failed to remember was that when the British Museum and Library split in 1997 the collection was moved to the new British Library at St Pancras. In the King’s Library at the British Museum now is a nicely done exhibit on the Age of Enlightenment. But the cases along the walls were still full of books! What are they? I walked along, reading the spines until I came to some volumes of great interest to me for a book chapter I was writing on the history of Hubbells in England. I took pictures of the books, then of the case they were in, and tried to figure out how I could get permission to look inside them. The Age of Enlightenment exhibit is in the room and fills many of the cases, but some of the cases turned out to be filled with material from the House of Commons Archives. So let’s see: British Museum, Age of Enlightenment, and the House of Commons, while the library has been moved elsewhere…I felt a mystery was in the offing.
I wrote to a friend at the British Library for help and direction. When he looked at the intersections between these collections and exhibits, he said “That’s a toughie!” but he gave some possible avenues to follow. So I sent out several inquiries, along with my photos. Finally, four months later, the Librarian at the Anthropology Library at the British Museum said that she talked with the curator of the exhibit and they would be willing to go in after hours, open the cases, bring the books to her library, and I could review them there. Hallelujah! She really went above and beyond the librarian call of duty!
I filled in all the paperwork to get a “reader’s card”, made copies of my documentation, ascertained the hours I could be present, and wrote that since my plane arrived at 9:00 a.m. I would be there at noon. As luck would have it my plane was delayed 3 hours and I arrived at Heathrow well after I was already supposed to be at the library. I emailed as we landed, and then hurried into London, dropped my bags and rushed over to the museum, through security, down the stairs and to a bank-teller-type window by 3:00 p.m. with my papers (and brain) in frustrated disarray! I told them my name and began to get all the papers delivered, they said “Oh Yes, Mrs. Hlava, we have your materials right here.” Sure enough there they were, all those wonderful books, awaiting me on the table with full archival supplies thoughtfully laid out beside them.
I had searched the library catalogs for these books; I knew the titles. Some I found in Google Scholar. I learned that the publisher, The Harleian Society, had gone through some changes and most of its publications were out of print. Fortunately, I knew the titles of the books and I could search from there. But, as it turns out, I could NOT find them in the British Library catalog, or most other catalogs for that matter. I did not know that the full 117 volumes in the series were cataloged by the publisher name instead of by title, so not a single one of the titles would be listed in any of the online catalogs.
One of the titles of interest was “The Visitation of the county of Worcester made in the year 1569 : with other pedigrees relating to that county from Richard Mundy’s collection” by Phillimore, W. P. W. (William Phillimore Watts), 1853-1913; Mundy, Richard, published 1888. It seemed like I should be able to search for that by title, and in Google Scholar I could – but they had only some of the books of interest to me. How the devil could I tell the librarian which volumes I needed if I could not find them in a catalog? It turns out that all 117 items in this particular series, all with widely varying titles, are not cataloged by title, but rather as part of the Harley library collection. The Harley library collection contains the manuscripts owned by Robert Harley and Edward Harley, earls of Oxford, as well as the later supporting material published by the society, which now forms one of the most outstanding collections in the British Library. Looking under the publisher’s name, the Harleian Society, which I had gleaned from my searches on Google Scholar, I still would not have found the collection since the special collection is named after the Earls Harley and not the publisher name!
Can you imagine my frustration? Without the help of the keepers of the keys I could not have 1) gotten access to the books although I could clearly see and photograph them, 2) searched for the items as the library catalog records were of no help; neither were the finding aids so painstakingly created, nor the regular catalog record giving enough information to allow me to find the thread I needed. The subject heading themselves, which were things like “Heraldry” and “Genealogy”, give us no real clue as to the contents of the item, but only a clue to where it might be stored. The individual titles were not captured at all in the card catalog records – they had only the publisher name as a series title.
Those of us in the library and information science profession sometimes wonder why people bypass the library and go directly to Google! Well, they need good subject metadata, since so often some other means must be used to follow a bibliographic thread and actually find the information needed. Online databases, taxonomies, and metadata have been actively in use since the 1980s, yet many of the store houses still cling stubbornly to their subject headings and don’t use them to aid the searcher.
Libraries need to wake up and smell the metadata.