what is Layers of London? my views about this amazing project / LIS dissertation, part v

Present ‘Layers of London’ beta version website [click on image to access]
In my dissertation I’m addressing the question of how do we go about building a collection of documents on public libraries of London, to & from their staff and users, through interviews. As an essential part of practicing oral history in the digital humanities, I’m recording these interviews with the aim of housing them as a collection in the Layers of London website/web archive. In this post, I present: 1. what Layers of London is; 2. the way I see it, with references to my readings; and 3; why I chose it as repository for the oral narratives collection I’m trying to build.

The Layers of London project has currently two websites: an introductory/provisional one, which briefly presents what the project is about, and the first, beta version of what will soon be the official Layers of London website. From the ‘Welcome to the Layers of London project website!’ blog post by the project director Matthew Davies, we learn that:

‘This will eventually be one of the largest public engagement projects on London’s history, unique because it involves digital technology to engage people with heritage for the whole of London, over more than 2,000 years of history. What makes it even more unique is that most of the content for our new website will be provided by the public, created by public engagement and schools programmes and by “crowd-sourcing”.

Eventually anyone will be able to upload verified historical content to the website, linking it to one of the many “layers” of maps that we will be putting online – from the Romans through to the 21st century. In this way, people will be able to create their own “layers” of heritage, connected to their own parts of London, their own communities, streets and buildings.’

In a platform built from a series of layers, consisting of various historical maps of London including the Bomb Damage maps, RAF mid-20th-century aerial photographs, and maps from the 16th and 17th century, anyone will be able to add pins to these layers/maps with virtually anything: images, videos, transcripts, links, oral history etc.


Above, screenshots from present Layers of London beta website, showing a pin added to the Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The first one shows the pin’s content: an image, some description, metadata and links; the second one shows the pin on top of the merged layers of Google Maps and the Morgan Map of 1682; you can adjust transparency of the layers (or ‘overlays’) to see changes and permanencies. Eventually more ‘overlays’ will be added, like the London Bomb Damage Maps and the Charles Booth’s London Poverty Map.

A few great references helped me make sense of Layers of London and define better what it is and what it does. As a project that aims at attracting the general public’s involvement and engage people from all backgrounds in taking part, it makes sense that the project’s website doesn’t drown in academic talk or too much scholarly content, as not to shoo the interested away. But there is a lot to say about Layers of London nature and principle in terms of the digital humanities, new archiving practices, the Internet revolution in publishing, among many other fascinating issues. Here, I’ll highlight what I believe Layers of London is, based on four references:

It is an archive as apparatus, as in:
Giannachi, G. (2016). Archive everything: Mapping the everyday. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

‘The 21st century archive is no longer a space of neutrality, where the subject is put into parenthesis; rather it is the place where the subject intervenes, speaks up, takes on the act of remembering, often sharing very personal memories, and so changing the way that a given history is recorded and understood. This kind of distributed, often communal (or community-generated), archive is the stage of multiple, individual and collective, often interconnected memory processes, where inter-documents are continuously produced and shared, and where, as part of that process, new (hi)stories are written that affect how particular moments in time are perceived in the environment we live in. It is in the apparatus of the archive that subjects become historians of their own lives.’

First of all, Layers of London is an archival website that collects people’s interventions on itself; collects the stories and memories of the community, by the community, to the community. We can also identify Layers of London in this other description Giannachi provides, of archival websites that specifically use the ‘pinned map’ approach:

‘pinpointing memories and stories to locations, a tradition inherited from memorial culture, and using maps as a means to prompt the telling of personalised stories in relation to these locations, is … an increasingly popular and rewarding strategy to generate engagement with local history in that they can facilitate the creation of a sense of presence (and so also of belonging) within that history among a particular community.’

It is an archival website in the humanities, as in
Gross, A. and Harmon, J. (2016). The Internet revolution in the sciences and humanities. New York: Oxford University Press.

‘After and extensive search of archival websites in the sciences and humanities, we devised a system of classification to make sense of the diversity that now exists. We divided these sites according to their predominant purpose: to provide resources for scholarship; to store data for scientific research, to store scientific and scholarly papers and related materials, to create new knowledge through volunteer participation; and to codify existing knowledge.’

Layers of London is definitely a website ‘that provide resources for scholarship’, but if we consider that so much of human communication now happens in websites, then virtually any and every website is a potential resource for scholarship. Anyway, the easy layering of maps in itself is already an amazing tool for historical inquiry.

Also, it can be said that it is already ‘storing data for scientific research’—that’s what I’m aiming with housing ‘The Public Libraries of London’ collection there. And there’s also an option to ‘add a dataset’ to pins on Layers map. And it is definitely ‘creating new knowledge through volunteer participation’; that’s one of the website’s greatest aims, if not THE main aim.

All this to say that trying to ‘classify’ Layers of London is not easy, and that it is and does many things at the same time. Certainly, it is in tune with the current trends in the digital humanities and in the uses of the Internet by & for scholarship.

It represents the many shifts in scholarly publishing authorship, as in
Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence: publishing, technology, and the future of the academy. New York: New York University Press.

‘Although the digital has already begun to have significant effects on our work, both in the ways that we write and the ways that our writing moves throughout the academy and the broader public sphere, a full acknowledgement of the benefits of digital authorship practices for our writing, much less any further acceptance of the digital as a primary more of our work, will require significant shifts in our thinking about ourselves in the act of writing—what we’re doing, how and with whom we’re doing it, and the relationship between ourselves and the texts we produce.’

shift ‘From individual to collaborative’: Layers of London is big, and wouldnt’t even have been possible to be developed by a single person alone; it is part of these very recent efforts in the humanities to produce & work collaboratively, shifting the focus away from the single author who researches alone, to explore possibilities of larger projects that take advantage of the Internet and collaboration between scholars, each with their expertise; shift ‘From originality to remix’: Layers of London’s layers are historical maps that, layered, are able to reveal new histories and incite new inquiries; people’s pins, with recontextualised photos and other documents, can gain new meaning when mapped, compared, collected along others’ materials; shift ‘From intellectual property to the gift economy’: on Layers of London you are encouraged to share, and simply attribute if you’re sharing something that is not yours; Creative Commons licenses work perfectly in this collective, internetworked environment. Oral histories and personal narratives, once so sensitive and complicated, can now run free in websites and be accessed by anyone if a Creative Commons license is applied; shift ‘From text to… something more’: different from most humanities output up until very recently, Layers of London is not a monograph, published in a journal or book; rather it’s a website, with no ‘final version’, no peer review or editor, no end.

It is a HyperCity and a thick mapping project, as in
Presner, T., Shepard, D. and Kawano, Y. (2014). HyperCities: Thick mapping in the digital humanities. metaLABprojects. Cambridge, Massachussets, and London: Harvard University Press.

‘The prefix “hyper” refers to multiplicity, abundance, and heterogeneity. A hypertext is more than a written text; hypermedia is more than a single medium; and HyperCities are more than the physical spaces of cities. … A HyperCity is a real city overlaid with thick information networks that not only catalyze the present but also go back in time to document the past and go forward to project future possibilities.’

HyperCities is a project by the metaLAB of Harvard; it is not a single project but rather a continuing investigation and collection of ‘thick mapping’ initiatives from around the world; ‘HyperCities: Thick mapping in the digital humanities’ is the book about this investigation. I believe Layers of London is exactly an ‘hypercity’, an exercise of thick mapping fully commited to the digital humanities:

‘The investigation moves from aggregations  of data and high-altitude visualizations to the singularity of the human voice that personalizes and punctures any abstracted totality.’

‘HyperCities is about the possibility of telling stories, of narrating places, and of producing new configurations of knowledge in which every past, present, and future is a place. In this sense, mapping history is about curating places, conjuring and caring for ghosts.’

‘On its most basic level, “thick mapping” refers to the processes of collecting, aggregating, and visualizing ever more layers of geographic or place-specific data.’

‘Thickness means extensibility and polyvocality: diachronic and synchronic, temporally layered, and polyvalent ways of authoring, knowing, and making meaning. … By eschewing any kind of universalism, it is a kind of analysis that is intrinsically incomplete, always under contestation, and never reaching any kind of final, underlying truth.’

‘HyperCities is not primarily a “technological” or “computational” problem but foremost a “humanities” problem, namely one of memory, narrative, archival practices, knowledge design, and, finally, ethics.’

And why have I chosen Layers of London as house for the collection of narratives I’m building about the public library? Because of all of the above, and the following:

because it’s open: Layers of London is/will be a website without any kind of paywall or restriction for participation; anyone can upload a contribution to the maps, as personal as it may be—I love a description of an appendix operation performed at the Guy’s Hospital in the 1930s, from a man’s diary.

because it’s being developed by an academic institution and enabled by external funding, which guarantees stability of the URLs, and also gives credibility when trying to reach out to people’s participation; it also means that there will always be activity on and around the website, as scholars, researchers and students become aware of it.

it supports instant access, viewing and listening to contents, just by clicking on pins and play buttons; you don’t need any kind of identification or special reason to go about exploring the maps and pins (you do need a very simple log in to upload materials to the map). Can’t be simpler than that to access content.

the collection of interviews and people’s voices becomes part of a wider & deeper, or thicker, London,
and can be seen, accessed and considered in virtually infinite different contexts: against an eighteenth century map; along architectural plans of buildings or other narratives of people about their local community: possibilities are unlimited. 


to the 2017 CityLIS new folks: welcome references, recommendations & tips

I’m a full-time MSc Library Science 2016-2017 student, which means at the moment I’m working on my dissertation, to be handed by the end of September—scary but fun times. As a break from the research I decided to gather a few Library & Information Science references in this blog post, aiming at the new colleagues joining CityLIS this 17′ Autumn; it is also a bit of a reflective moment for me, to look back at this year that has passed so quickly, and try to come up with not too long a list of readings & other things that I think could be quite useful to anyone starting their MSc LIS at City.

Attention: this list is highly subjective! Loads of personals interests in it, but I’ve also tried to think more broadly and include a little bit of everything. Also worth noting that I am an architect from Brazil trying to get into librarianship, so I did not have any background when I started at CityLIS; so if you’re already a library worker with some knowledge of things, then you might already know or even read things from this list. And I’m also interested in libraries in particular, even though of course the world of LIS goes beyond them, so if you’re interested in information management in big corporations, well, you won’t find much stuff for you here. Anyway, this is supposed to be introductory, and something that I would definitely have appreciated knowing/reading about when I was starting myself. So here we go:

Books!—because we all love them, right?

Books that nicely introduce you to the world of LIS

Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2012). Introduction to information science. London: Facet. Yep, starting by the book of our dear lecturers, and that’s because it is genuinely a great resource. I found myself going back to it for every single assignment I would write. Is is an ‘introduction’ indeed, but more than that is also presents lots of discussions and critical commentaries, and very useful lists of references about the many LIS themes. There are many copies of it in the City Library, but the one I bought for myself ended up completely highlighted and annotated, and I used it throughout the whole course/year—so I would definitely recommend buying one for yourself if you can. If you become a CILIP member (we CityLIS students can easily join), some discount on Facet books apply!

Link to the book in the CityLibrary
Facet publishing website: http://www.facetpublishing.co.uk
CILIP on Twitter: @CILIPinfo


Buckland, M. (2017). Information and society. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: The MIT Press. The MIT Press is a publisher to watch, as they are always coming up with good stuff of LIS interest; this book is a true little gem, and part of a fine ‘Essential Knowledge Series’ that is actually very helpful; I also like the Metadata and the Open Access titles; the Computing: a concise history also looks great but haven’t read yet. But Information and society gives a great, short & sweet introduction to LIS and to the discussions around the relationship between, well… information and society! The foreword is by our dear David Bawden.

The MIT Press on Twitter: @mitpress
Link to MIT Press books on Internet Studies/Information/Communication
Link to MIT Press book on Humanities  (note the annotated Frankenstein edition!)


Gleick, J. (2011). The Information: A history, a theory, a flood. London: Fourth Estate is a big, amazingly readable book that ‘tells the story of how human beings use, transmit and keep what they know. From African talking drums to Wikipedia, from Morse code to the ‘bit’, it is a fascinating account of the modern age’s defining idea and a brilliant exploration of how information has repeatedly revolutionised our lives’ (from the back of the paperback edition)—I don’t see how it can be more appealing than that! I was reading this one when my CityLIS classes started, and I surely felt as I was more tuned in and ‘kept up with’ the many LIS themes that were being discussed in class by having been reading this book.

Link to Gleick presenting the book at a Talks at Google on YouTube
The book record in the CityLibrary


Wright, A. (2014). Cataloging the world: Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age. Oxford: Oxford University Press presents a fascinating history of not only Otlet and the Mundaneum, but of cataloging and indexing and organising practices as modern phenomena, introductory of the ‘information age’. Contains loads of relevant LIS characters and events and it was obviously very well researched. The book also has a pretty website.

Link to this book in the CityLibrary
Link to a presentation of the book by Wright on YouTube

Books on Library History

I love history and I think the biggest frustration of my life is that I did not graduate as an historian but as an architect… I try to work my way around it; my undergrad dissertation was about Chinese modernity, and for my LIS dissertation I’m trying to build an archival resource that can be useful to library history studies.

Anyway, I know that lots of CityLIS friends like history as well and many are great enough be historians themselves, so I thought a couple of library history references would be nice. Note: no history-of-libraries-of-all-times-and-places here; this is specific stuff because I think specificity makes nice history (more about my views of library history here). These ones are about the history of the public library.

part of our lives

Wiegand, W. (2015). Part of our lives: a people’s history of the American public library. Oxford: Oxford University Press is a, well, history of the American public library as institution written from the voices of the library users—the people—as a history from bottom-up: ‘the library in the life of the user’, instead of the other way around. The author, librarian and library historian Wayne Wiegand, concluded that over more than a century people have been coming to the public library to get, mainly, ‘information, space, and reading’.

Link to the book record in the Senate House Library
Link to Wayne Wiegand himself talking about the book in this great YouTube video


Black, A. (2016). Libraries of Light: British public library design in the long 1960s. London: Routledge from British librarian and library historian Alistair Black is an accomplishment in terms of his work; he has been talking and researching about how to write public library history that embeds the library in its cultural and social milieu for a long time, as well as trying to bring other disciplines closer to library history—in this case, architecture and urbanism, studies of modernity and political history. Great read that also highlights the library user’s voice and perceptions.

Once a CityLibrary member you can have free online access to the full book here
And anyway this is the physical book in the CityLibrary

And then there’s the Library & Information History journal, and the CILIP Library and Information History Group to be joined if of interest. I like following the many events, conferences and talks held by the Institute of Historical Research – School of Advanced Studies, University of London; in the past year I’ve attended some very nice events like Future Past: researching archives in the digital age and the History Day 2016: Libraries versus Archives! (audio of full discussion available!); it was also from the IHR events that I became aware of the Layers of London project, which then turned out to play a major role in my present dissertation.

To follow on Twitter if you’re a history person:

Books that help make sense of the digital

Digital and computing everywhere, but what is ‘digital’, what does it even mean?! Are analogue and digital antonyms? What are we actually doing when we digitise things, objects? What is a digital library? Some big & intimidating questions here, but these two books are guaranteed to make you feel much more comfortable thinking and doing digitally:


I have no idea how to endorse Peters, B., ed. (2016) Digital Keywords: a vocabulary of information society & culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press more; this is a phenomenal book that departs from the idea that ‘whatever else it is, the digital revolution is a revolution in language’ (p. xviii) and that ‘terminologies do routine work: every word that empowers action also screens what we can do in reality because reality has first limited how we can use words’ (p. xv). Each chapter is an essay on a ‘digital keyword’: we have for example ‘Analog’ by J. Sterne; ‘Democracy’ by R. K. Nielsen; ‘Gaming’ by S. Bhaduri; ‘Sharing’ by J. Drouin; they all try to understand what these ‘keywords’ mean and do in our society & culture. My favourite chapter is ‘Digital’ by B. Peters the editor himself; his basic argument:

like fingers, digit media carry out at least three fundamental (Lacanian) categories of actions: digits count the symbolic, they index the real, and, once combined and coordinated, they manipulate the social imaginary. (p. 94)

I would keep an eye on Benjamin Peters’ work through his website; note his newest book How Not to Network a Nation: The uneasy history of the Soviet Internet, doesn’t it sound amazing?

Links to excerpts from the ‘Digital’ and the ‘Analog’ chapters
The CityLibrary doesn’t currently hold a copy of this book, but I’ve just ordered one through CityLibrary More Books scheme and should be around in four weeks or so!—yes we get to order the books we want to the library, pretty cool. You can also buy your own from Foyles or Waterstones.


Rumsey, A. S. (2016). When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. London: Bloomsbury is a lovely book by historian Abby Smith Rumsey; among many fascinating things she’s done she has spent a decade in the Library of Congress. Divided in three parts, ‘Where we come from’, ‘Where we are’, and ‘Where we are going’, the book explores memory in the digital age, ‘for memory is not about the past. It is about the future’ (p. 12); the goal is ‘to deepen our understanding of memory’s role in creating the future and to expand the imaginative possibilities for rebuilding memory in the digital age’—she succeeds; it is a very insightful reading.

The CityLibrary holds a copy of it
And this is her in a Talk at Google about the book on YouTube

A book about humanity and knowledge


Peters, J. (2016). The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the rise of free culture on the Internet. New York: Scribner ‘is a provisional narrative introduction to the story of free culture in America, using Swartz’s life as a lens on the rise of information sharing in the digital age’ (p. ix), but this is a modest description of the book by its author. Peters goes a long way back in time, back to ‘Noah Webster and the movement for copyright in America’ through discussions on authorship and knowledge ownership & sharing, with carefully researched historical material, until Aaron Swartz, his work and and legacy; the book ‘is an important investigation of the fate of the digital commons in an increasingly corporatized Internet’ (from the book flap). It is a fascinating read and sheds lights on important contemporary publishing debates and practices.

I didn’t find a copy of this book around our libraries; there is one at the British Library, but as you might know the BL is a reference library (no lending), and personally I find it a bit annoying to read ‘casual books’ in the Reading Rooms there, unless of course it’s an item that is only available there so no other option. You can order one for CityLibrary, or buy one from Foyles or Waterstones.

Still on this copyright/ownership of knowledge theme, the UCL Press is doing an amazing job in fully open-access scholarly publishing; ‘it seeks to use modern technologies and 21st-century means of publishing/dissemination radically to change the prevailing models for the publication of research outputs’ (from their website). I’m currently reading their very recently published The Web as History, lots of relevant stuff for LIS.

A couple of apparently conflicting but interconnected awesome books


Schnapp, J. T. and Battles, M. (2014). The library beyond the book. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press is a super fun read on the past, present and future of the library as a ‘mix-and-match space’. The authors call the book a ‘provocation’, and address ‘a threshold being traversed at the time of writing’:

The threshold in question is made up of interlocking components: changes in the nature and status of the document and the book; changes in practices of reading, research, note-taking, and information-sharing; changes in the architectural and institutional containers in which such practices are carried out and by means of which they are supported. It was arrived at not suddenly but slowly, not with the wave of a digital magic wand, but thanks to a century-long transformation in the culture of communication. (p.14)

Link to the book record in the CityLibrary
Link to article/excerpt of the book in the Slate magazine
Article on the metaLAB (of which this book is a resulting project) work in the Digital Humanities; it is also a very good introduction to the field, if you don’t know about it already.


The library might go beyond the book, but Houston, K. (2016). The Book: a cover-to-cover exploration of the most powerful object of our time. London: W. W. Norton & Company dives deep into the book as ‘the quiet apex predator that won out over clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and wax writing boards to carry our history down to us’ (p. xvi). This book on books is about ‘the history and the making and the bookness of all those books, the weighty, complicated, inviting artifacts that humanity has been writing, printing, and binding for more than fifteen hundred years. It is about the book that you know when you see it’ (p. xvii). By far, this is the most beautiful book as book of this list; so nice to touch and hold and flick through all the nice illustrations. And apart from its fascinating content, made me think about the relationships between book history and library history, and the history of the document(ation) and library & information science.

Keith Houston is going to be in the British Library talking about this book on the 3rd July
Link to this book in the CityLibrary

Other resources

A journal I like to follow and read is

The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy,

by The University of Chicago Press.

A recent article I’ve read in it and enjoyed very much is Hoffmann, A.L. (2016). Google Books, libraries, and self-respect: Information justice beyond distributionsThe Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 86(1), 76-92.

A person whose work I like to follow is

Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information Luciano Floridi

His book Fourth Revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality provides a great introduction to his thought and to his concept of ‘infosphere’; from the Oxford University Press website: ‘Considers the influence information and communication technologies (ICTs) are having on our world; Describes some of the latest developments in ICTs and their use in a range of fields; Argues that ICTs have become environmental forces that create and transform our realities; Explores the impact of ICTs in a range of areas, from education and scientific research to social interaction, and even war.’

Link to Professor Luciano Floridi on Twitter

He is part of the Oxford Internet Institute, ‘a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet’; I usually keep an eye on what they’ve been doing there, and on their events and blog posts.

To follow on Twitter:

Bodleian Libraries
‘Inspiring collections and beautiful libraries. Facilitating world class research at the University of Oxford’

OUP Libraries
‘Oxford University Press’s insights for librarians, sharing news, resources, and ideas for libraries across the world’

‘The Open Library of Humanities. Building a sustainable, open access future for the humanities. Join us. info@openlibhums.org’

U of MN Press
‘University of Minnesota Press is the publisher of groundbreaking work in social and cultural thought, critical theory, media studies, and more’

Open Culture
‘We make the web a more intelligent place. A Thought-Provoking Blog. Free Courses. Free Audio Books & eBooks. And more’

Be sure you check CityLIS online repository in the

Humanities Commons

for CityLIS alumni dissertations and theses

Essential to-do’s

issue your library card for the Senate House Library, an amazing University of London library with a very comprehensive Book Studies section and cozy leather sofas.

issue your British Library Reader Pass; some items I was only able to find there, and to enter the Reading Rooms and to consult any material you must have a Reader Pass.

• ask someone as birthday or Christmas or whatever day present for a gift membership of the British Library; the Member’s Room is a very nice place to work & study; you get some free tickets to events, and free limitless entry to the exhibitions.

• issue your library card for the Barbican Library; it’s the largest public library near City, with great collection and great space (it’s inside the Barbican Centre!)

I hope this is all of some help and use. I really enjoyed my year in CityLIS and wish it hadn’t passed so quickly. Do feel free to ask any question, and suggestions to this list are always very welcome.

documenting the library through narratives, final / LIS dissertation, part iv

I’ve been looking at previous attempts to document libraries (public libraries in special) through narratives from librarians and users, oral or text, with the aim of trying to identify gaps and fruitful themes, have a perspective of how these narratives have been/are being published, and use them as a basis for how the interviews I’m planning to run myself with public librarians and library users should be followed, what to ask with what objectives, and how to best publish them.

Here is an account of the main reference works of this kind (‘documenting the library through narratives’) I’m taking in consideration for my research; they are five in total, and I’ll split them in three different blog posts. This one is the third and last.


4. Public librarians on blogs and social media

As librarians work with information technologies, and as most of these aim at enabling and accelerating communication, we can find lots of narratives and other kinds of documents about libraries provided by librarians throughout the World Wide Web. They are not unified or organised in one place, though; they are many many fragments of the contemporary librarianship profession (keep in mind I’m always referring to the anglophone world here) which can be found on Twitter, WordPress blogs, Institutional websites, Facebook, Instagram…

If one aims to study 21st century librarianship in the UK, for example, she can do so by approaching ‘the Web as archive’ and look at librarians’ activities and communications online to try to understand it. As Professor of digital humanities Jane Winters put it: It is hard to imagine how one might study the history of the developed world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century without recourse to the archived web. The traditional tools of the historian’s trade—newspapers, letters, diaries, the records of government and business—are commonly, and in some instances now solely, online. Some of these have been transformed—think of the relationship between, and intended audience for, a paper diary and a blog – while others are broadly similar in form and purpose but the method of delivery and consumption has changed. Our primary sources are increasingly on the web, whether we like it or not, and this is a trend which is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. (‘Coda: Web archives for humanities research—some reflections’. In: The Web as History)

Tumblr webpage I work at a public library, for example, shows ‘stories written, curated, and edited by Gina Sheridan’, a public library manager in St. Louis. More than all else it is about glimpses of curious library situations and interactions with library users, presented in mini narratives. Local Studies librarian of Kensington Central Library Dave Walker, on the other hand, came up with a blog (which according to himself ‘is’s been a huge success’—it does look like people like it!), The Library Time Machine, in which he posts contents of the library’s archive, mainly photos, with comments and information from the archive itself but also from his own vast knowledge about the area—his local studies librarian knowledge. It is pretty impressive, with beautiful photos and often funny observations. By his own initiative, he keeps this blog that really opens up to anyone the Kensington Central Library’s Local Studies content. Not really about the everyday of the public library, but more about the kind of material that a local studies public librarian has in hand and knows (a lot) of.




Then there are the blogs that are kept ‘collectively’ like Shelf Talk, which is ‘is created and maintained by the staff of The Seattle Public Library’, with content about books they recently acquired, book recommendations and reviews, events at the library and in the city, some interviews with authors, and more. Similar to this is the Islington (Council) Libraries account on Twitter @Islingtonlibs, as an example here from London, which also helps publicise the council’s news. Justin Hoenkes’s @JustinLibrarian Twitter account is a mix of the things we can find in public libraries’ ‘collective’ blogs and social media accounts and more personal librarians’ blogs, plus personal non-library related content—all very interesting for an anthropological study of 21st century public librarians!





A few observations to take from all of this to my research:

• Personal ‘self-documentation’ of public librarians’ activities and perceptions are essentially result of personal efforts, like Dave Walker’s; there’s no current institutional support for librarians to document their own narratives and think of ways to document themselves nor the library and its activities, to ‘document the documenter’;

• ‘Curious incidents’ and funny interactions with public library users make nice little stories, good anecdotes, but in my view they seem to lack meaning. Someone in future might be interested in studying exactly this kind of communication, but in terms of ‘documenting the public library’, I’m not sure if this kind of ‘document’ is specific enough—perhaps they don’t differ much from anecdotes a bookseller has to tell about the everyday in a busy bookshop, for example. Anecdotes like the ones from I work at a public library, then, might be good to reveal aspects of the basic human interactions that may happen in a public library, but cannot replace more comprehensive, non-anonymous, more contextualised accounts from librarians and users to be captured and kept as historical document of the library;

• It would be great to have all this self-documentation of libraries and librarians in an unified, searchable platform (which isn’t Google)—well that is what I’m aiming for with housing interviews with librarians and library users in Layers of London. WordPress and Twitter might give a feeling that we are more connected than we actually are; lots of libraries and librarians talking about similar issues and doing similar things but not actually talking to each other;

• Once again, the missing public library user—except when he figures as the funny/lost/agressive/loving anonymous character in anecdotes written by librarians; unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a blog called ‘John the public library goer’ or a Twitter account of a ‘@JoannaLibraryUser’. I really must do my best to reach out to these silent users and give them a voice. (Spoiler: won’t be easy, and I predict that by the end of September I will have much fewer interviews with public library users than I initially planned and hoped for);

• If I want to run meaningful interviews I must first look thoroughly into this online life of the public library; one of the libraries I’ve been planning to contact is Finsbury Library, part of Islington Libraries, so I have to make sure I’m updated on their activities and the kinds of things they’ve been doing before running the interviews. Even though some questions to be asked about public libraries are a bit generic, more specific ones can be thought as a way to get closer to the reality of that library—the principle of public libraries may be universal, but each local library is unique.


5. Mass Observation Archive

Librarian, library historian and academic Alistair Black has used the Mass Observation archive in order to understand what kind of historical perspective we can get of Britain’s public libraries from records and diaries of public library users. He wrote two articles with his findings: In the public eye: A mass observation of the public library (with Melvyn Crann, 2002), and The past public library observed: User perceptions and recollections of the twentieth-century British public library recorded in the Mass-Observation Archive (2006).

About the Mass Observation itself, we learn from their website that ‘The Archive values the importance of capturing and using records of everyday life. At the heart of its work is safeguarding these records for inspiring learning and research and ensuring they continue to be made available for future generations’. It does sound a lot like what I am attempting to do with interviewing librarians and library users and uploading these documents to Layers of London. So it would be very useful to understand what Black found in the MOA’s records and if he believes this kind of information is valuable in terms of historical research.


The Mass Observation homepage [click on image to access]


The Mass Observation Project, which has been running since the 1980s, involves ‘450 volunteer participants on the Mass Observation writing Panel. These writers (often known as “Observers”) respond to “Directives”, or open-ended questionnaire, sent to them by post or email three times a year. The Directives contain two or three broad themes which cover both very personal issues and wider political and social issues and events. Some examples of Directive themes include: ‘The countryside’; ‘The Big Society’; ‘Age and Care’; ‘What makes you happy?’.

From the ‘List of MO Directives from 1981 to the present‘, we learn that two recent editions involved public libraries: 57) Summer 1999The Public Library; Body Piercing & Tattooing; Current Events; 76) Autumn 2005Sex; Public Library Buildings; Hurricanes in the USA. This is the 1999’s directive sent to Observers about ‘The Public Library’ (click on it to be redirected to the original pdf file on the MO website):



This questionnaire is very useful for me to think about the questions to ask to the public library users, and also to the librarians. Even though the archive of answers of the Observers can be accessed only in-site (in Brighton), it would be interesting to try to build on this work and ask questions that can provide material for comparisons. From their analysis of the public library from MO’s Observers perspectives, Black & Crann concluded:

The main aim of the ‘Mass Observation of the Public Library’ was to generate an extensive ‘open access’ public commentary on public library activity and status; on where the public library stands in the public eye. This aim has been achieved in that over 200 narrative testimonies on the contemporary public library are now deposited with the MOA and are freely available to researchers. It is hoped that the project will serve to publicize the MOA approach as a complement, or alternative, to the range of social science methods currently employed in the library and information studies and services fields. There is no reason why periodic large-scale MOA surveys of public library users cannot be conducted in the future. Also, it may be in the interests of library authorities to mount local mass-observation exercises along similar lines. Further, the testimony collected inevitably provides, as a by-product, a valuable source of evidence for research by future  analysts and historians of the public library; serving not only as a primary historical source but also as a temporal benchmark against which future investigations can gauge changes in attitudes to, and use of, public libraries. (‘In the public eye’, 2002)

The approach of Mass Observation allows them to build quite a large archive of responses; it is clear that my approach, that is, the non-anonymous and personal recording of people’s voices, lacks the possibility of multiplication. However, I do not think that either Mass Observation or The Interviews with Librarians and Users for Layers of London are dealing with the matter ‘how much is enough’, or ‘how many people’s records should I have to be representative?’. I do not believe these are the right questions, as these projects do not aim to provide generalisable, ‘representative’, stories and documents; instead, they aim to provide an archive for future investigation, and it is on the hands of the future researcher that will look into these materials to understand them as documents in an archive and what they mean as such. What I can do in building and providing this archive is making available as much context as possible, and as much information about how and why it is being put together the way it is as I can. Of course, when I come to the point of having a corpus of interviews, I can look at it with critical eyes and point out the limitations and problems of the collection, but it is clear that it is not a survey aiming at maximising fidelity to reality and making probabilistic projections and calculating accurate statistics; it is rather a web archive of documents.



Following this series of analysis of ‘ways of documenting the library through narratives’, I can proceed to coming up with better, meaningful questions to ask to the interviewees, as well as better locate my project in relation to other previous similar endeavours. In a next post, I will try to describe in more depth the Layers of London website, what are my views about it, and why it is the place I chose to house the ‘Interviews with Librarians and Users of Public Libraries’ collection.

documenting the library through narratives, ⅔ / LIS dissertation, part iii

I’ve been looking at previous attempts to document libraries (public libraries in special) through narratives from librarians and users, oral or text, with the aim of trying to identify gaps and fruitful themes, have a perspective of how these narratives have been/are being published, and use them as a basis for how the interviews I’m planning to run myself with public librarians and library users should be followed, what to ask with what objectives, and how to best publish them. 

Here is an account of the main reference works of this kind (‘documenting the library through narratives’) I’m taking in consideration for my research; they are five in total, and I’ll split them in three different blog posts. This one is the second.


2. Other oral history collections in the British Library

The ‘Interviews with librarians’ I’ve talked about in the previous post is not the only oral history collection related to libraries that the British Library holds; there are also two other collections which are actually focused in the history of the BL more specifically:

•  The British Library Staff Oral History Project, described as ‘a growing collection of interviews with former staff of the British Library, begun in 1985’, is valuable but also unreliable; even though it comprises more than 60 interviews up to this moment, only a few are available to be listened to (‘at the British Library only’) , mainly the ones recorded around 2013. The others (the great majority) have their access restricted for various, often strange reasons: one of the interviews is ‘closed for 20 years until 22 July 2035’, no further explanation provided; others are simply ‘temporarily closed’, including some that date back to the 1980s, so not really sure what they mean by ‘temporary’ here; some others ask you to ‘refer to curator’, but no contact details provided; and more recent ones state ‘interview in progress; refer to curator’—’in progress’, really?

And then there are the interviews which are available electronically for listening at the British Library computers; these offer a funny stark contrast to the closed ones, with their extremely detailed summaries that practically substitute a transcription and are not exactly summarised (see below!).

Section of the ‘summary’ of the audio recordings of the interview with Robert Aspey, interviewed by Sue Bradley

From the interviews available, I draw similar conclusions to those from the ‘Interviews with librarians’ collection: serious problems of accessibility and discoverability—and this time there’s no excuse that the interviews are too old and have ‘no papers accompanying it’, and the more recent ones should be more openly accessible; there’s a great focus in biographical aspects, which is fine and place the British Library in the life of the interviewee, rather than the other way around; uses a more ‘traditional’ approach to oral history.

•  The British Library Slavonic and East European Oral History Interviews, in comparison, is a more well-structured and organised collection; this is probably due to its more narrow focus and clearer purpose:

The British Library Slavonic and East European Oral History Interviews is a project aimed at capturing the experiences and memories of former members of the British Library Slavonic and East European department staff. The purpose of the recordings is to provide an oral history of a British Library department and as such may be useful for the study of British librarianship. British and international (Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian) accounts, voices and accents are represented in the project. The recording and usage of oral and written histories are in accordance with the interviewees’ wishes and the British Library Guidelines. They may be used for information and research purposes.

This kind of brief description and state of aims is really helpful as it provides context (‘what they were up to) but also something to which we can measure the interviews against. It also gives information about the interviews’ rights and how they can be used.

From the 16 audio recorded interviews, only one is closed and not available for listening at the moment, but still holds a detailed summary of its content; all the other interviews can be played at the British Library, and overall have more consistent and useful metadata standards than the ‘British Library Staff’ collection. Interviewees describe early life memories as well as their work in the British Library. Discoverability and accessibility remain an issue in this oral history collection as well, but with its structure and consistency it’s definitely a valuable resource for library history studies.


3. Reading Allowed, by Chris Paling

Different from the previous collections of narratives I was looking into, which were oral interviews and therefore more similar to what I am trying to do for my dissertation, this 2017 book consists precisely of narratives of everyday work/life in an English public library by a librarian, the author Chris Paling. From the book flap we learn:

When novelist Chris Paling went from a job at his local library, he anticipated a quiet life. It took two hours between the stacks to discover that the reality was somewhat different. Chris found that at times the library is an extension of A&E; at other times it’s a hostel for the homeless; a psychiatric ward; a crime scene; a study hall; a place of safety; a boxing ring; a confessional booth; a theatre space; a venue for knitting and book groups; an information hub for people trying to find a long lost relative or a job. On most days, the library is all of these.
At the core of this wonderful and heartwarming book is the extraordinary cast of characters who visit the library almost every day; the street sleepers like Brewer who use the ‘fiction’ stacks as their living room; Trish and her friends from the care home who every Wednesday cry, laugh, and shout with anger and joy, and fill the place with surreal conversations. Then there are those who steal anything not screwed down, the drug users who shoot up in the Gents’ and the lonely who drift in for their only conversation of the day.
Libraries are full of stories.
Not all of them in books.

Must be noted: even though this is a work of non-fiction and all the stories the author tells actually happened, it is still a literary piece of work, meaning we can expect that emphasis will be given to ‘curious incidents’ and characters rather than more usual, common situations and people. That said, it is still positively surprising how the author is really able to capture and express the everyday environment of the ‘provincial’ public library. I like the bits when he describes his perceptions of the ‘ambiance’, mixed with his own thoughts about the idea of the public library, such as these:

The library, being the modern equivalent of the village pump, is now pretty much the only place in the city that anyone can wander into and find something to do or somebody to talk to. Being so, it’s a barometer of the mood of the city and sometimes when you arrive you sense the mood is an unsettling one. Today is one of those days.

; and a bit further:

There’s an air of intense concentration. I wander through, picking up litter, empty coffee cups and a few discarded books, and count the number of students in the room: sixty-eight and not a spare chair. I wonder where they’d be if they didn’t have the library in which to study.

The book is smartly divided in very short chapters, reinforcing the anecdotal aspect of the narratives; however, the ‘characters’, that is, the library users, reappear, come and go in the chapters, just as they usually come and go in the library itself. Some important observations on the book, considering my dissertation project:

• the narratives reminded me of other significant characters of the public library who are neither the librarians or the users, but the other staff: in Paling’s library its the ‘Facilities’ guys, which are multi-purpose problem-solvers who help doing everything that is not really under the librarians’ responsibilities. I believe these staff members should also be interviewees in my project, if I want to provide a more comprehensive account of the library as a place;

• the whole book turns out to be really helpful for coming up with questions to the interviews I’m planning, specially for the questions to library users. I’ve never worked in a library before, but I’m studying library science so it’s not too difficult to anticipate experiences and issues of the public librarian’s everyday work; when it comes to the users’s experiences of the library, though, things get much more obscure, as there is virtually no narratives from the perspective of the library user out there. By describing many interactions with patrons of his library, Paling’s stories do shed light on the user experience, even if from the librarian perspective;

• a major issue that appears in many ways throughout the book is the public librarian’s doubts and anxieties about what in the end are his main duties and purposes. For example, in a story about an elderly library user being very repetitive, Paling writes: ‘“Well, thank you,” he says and walks away towards the automatic issues/returns machines. I feel a pang of guilt, but I don’t have time to listen to the man’s story for a fourth time. Or perhaps I do. Perhaps that’s why I’m here.‘ With the World Wide Web is has become much easier to get some kinds of information; the public librarian does have a role bigger than just providing information, but what exactly this role consists of is tricky to say, and perhaps it does vary from librarian to librarian’s experiences and perceptions; perhaps it is something very personal. Perhaps that’s the ultimate characteristic of the public library, and which attracts people to come inside: it’s personal.