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 first.
1. ‘Interviews with librarians’ collection — challenges and opportunities in digital oral history
I just want to click and listen, but it turns out to be an ordeal. I came to know about this collection of interviews from Alistair Black & Peter Hoare’s introduction to their The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, volume III, 1850-2000, Sources and methodologies for the history of libraries in the modern era. They describe: ‘Librarians have been enthusiastic autobiographers, eager to pass comment in written testimonies on the systems and users they have managed and on the contribution they have made to the profession. Library historians have also at times used interviews and oral recordings to capture the history of the profession “in its own words”. In the 1970s David Gerard and Mary Casteleyn conducted a series of interviews with prominent librarians, including Frank Gardner, K. C. Harrison and W. A. Munford’.
—Lovely, perfect, I have to look that up!, I think to myself. I check the reference in the footnote; it indicates that these interviews are 23 tapes held by the British Library. Right. I check the British Library website and find this:
—‘Interviews with librarians’, that’s it! But by clicking on the link for the interviews, I get redirected to this very unamusing, 90s-like catalogue record for the collection. I wasn’t expecting being able to listen to the audios from home; as the website states, the recordings ‘are available in the Reading Rooms’, but I did expect, well, more.
Anyway I was happy. I book a listening appointment to listen to these tapes, hoping also to talk to someone from Sound & Image in person about the collection. Amazingly helpful Vedita sets up the listening for me in a computer, even though the catalogue record describes the collection is made of 23 cassettes… For my sad surprise, it is the digitised audio of only one of the interviews. What about the supposed 20 or so other ones?! Vedita explains that that’s what they have available for now, and if I’d like to be able to listen to the other interviews I’d have to send an e-mail requesting the collection to be digitised. According to the catalogue record, it’s made of 23 cassettes; I ask if I can’t simply listen to the cassettes, but no, they must be digitised and can only be listened to as digital audio files accessible through the online catalogue. I’m a bit annoyed, not at helpful Vedita but at the British Library website, that features the collection as if it was something readily available to listen to ‘in our Reading Rooms’. Vedita warns me that 10 weeks is the usual time for this kind of digitisation; I fight back, she uses her superpowers to turn 10 weeks into just 4. By mid-May she e-mails me to let me know the digitised audio recordings are available for listening in the Catalogue—thank you, Vedita!
The audios for the 18 interviews with librarians can only be played at the British Library computers, in the Reading Rooms, for reasons unfortunately too common in the world of oral history pre-2000s and pre-CC licenses: rights. All librarians interviewees are dead today (probably; I just did a sample check), as well as the main interviewer, David Gerard. According to Vedita, who asked the curator, the British Library doesn’t have ‘any paperwork accompanying these interviews, meaning that the user will only be able to use this material for private research purposes only. They can refer to the interviews in a publication, but are not permitted to quote from the recordings’. That means no transcription can be provided either. Later, I’ve found that four of these interviews were published in an academic journal; obviously I can quote from these published ones.
The British Library does what it can. It is great that they hold this collection in the first place, because that’s the only place that seems to have it today, and that they have digitised and made it available so quickly upon request from this humble average user. But their whole online system is just very obsolete, specially the Sound & Image’s. The recordings have no context whatsoever, and there’s no means of interacting with it; no links, no search, (up to this point) no summary; the experience of accessing the catalogue and playing the audio files is just very boring. There’s so much library history, so much information in these interviews with librarians: who these men were, where they’ve worked at doing what, memories of other people from the librarianship field, their research interests, historical events they have witnessed and participated: so much to hyperlink, visualise, watch, reference, and amplify in these recordings.
a few conclusions
• As Black & Hoare had already defined, this is a collection ‘that captures the history of the profession in its own words‘; in this sense, the interviews are quite biographical: the majority of the librarians-interviewees were already elderly, or had a long, stablished career; they were all ‘prominent’ or had contributed significantly to the profession or to specific important institutions at some point in life; their success and relevancy as librarians is what makes them a group to be interviewed, not the kind of institution they have worked in or the kind of activity they performed. As so, the collection does constitute what is called today ‘oral history’ in a more traditional sense, in which an interviewer tries to capture the (often elderly) interviewee’s memories of the past through orality/aurality, in a very personal way, while trying to shed light at what the community that person belonged to used to look like—in this specific case, the community of British librarians of the first half of the twentieth century;
• Now that the collection is available for listening, someone has to go through them: full dissertations and thesis could be written about it, as there’s just so much information in them; these interviews really are an open door to a whole period of British librarianship, and provide evidence that this kind of documentation through personal narratives is fruitful and useful to historical inquiry;
• Quite a few of the librarians-interviewees described having entered librarianship after failing other careers at a young age, but then going on to become quite successful; lots of interesting observations on the image and perception of the library professional in society—perhaps it hasn’t changed that much in the last hundred years or so; perhaps library advocacy is a century-old need!
• I’ve conducted an independent study in library history for a few months, and still there were so many characters, librarians, and even institutions cited by these librarians-interviewees that I just had no idea existed; not peripheral ones, but very relevant. Do we just simply don’t know our own history? I shouldn’t take just myself as a standard; I’m from Brazil and I’ve never worked in a library before, so perhaps a contemporary librarian in the UK does know many of these people and places I just did not until listening to this ‘Interviews with librarians’ collection. But I have the impression the majority just doesn’t. How much of a problem is that? A big one in my view; aren’t we the keepers and disseminators of information? Not knowing about our own history, or about the documents others that came before left for us is worrying.
• The whole experience of having to go to the British Library in person to access their computers in the Reading Rooms to listen to these interviews reflects how terrible it is in terms of discoverability and accessibility, and is revealing about the importance of having oral history practices closely related to those of the digital humanities; of putting ‘access’ on top of the list of priorities when recording interviews and of applying CC licenses to the audio files;
• The librarians interviewed were a bit of personalities at the time, so it makes sense to have more a biographical approach when interviewing. I believe that is not the case when it comes to the interviews I want to run for Layers of London, as I intend to interview ‘the common’ public librarian and find out more about their everyday experiences and activities than about their accomplishments in the librarianship profession; it is meant to be more a documentation of the library through the narratives they can provide, than a documentation of the profession through their characters. And of course, while the users are missing from ‘Interviews with librarians’ and from almost the whole of library history, I mean to interview them as characters of equal importance as the librarians, if we’re talking about documenting the public library;
• Having listened to this collection of interviews, I came to the conclusion that, different from this ‘proper oral history’, what I’m attempting to do by interviewing librarians and users of London’s public libraries is creating a record of narratives that document what this institution is today. Julianne Nyhan & Andrew Flinn, in their Computation and the Humanities: Towards an oral history of digital humanities, write on a ‘brief history of modern oral history’ that its origins ‘are often traced back to the programme initiated by the North American journalist and oral historian Allen Nevins at Columbia University in 1948. Nevins’ conception of oral history was in essence an archival one, aiming to record for posterity and the use of others the thoughts and memories of leading politicians, judges and businessmen’. My approach to an ‘oral history of London’s public libraries’ is this oral history’s original one, to ‘record for posterity and the use of others the thoughts and memories’ of public librarians and users of public libraries—not of big personalities, as original oral history was about—, in an ‘Archive Everything’ way, and in the what-librarian-are-supposed-to-do-btw way.