Wednesday 23 February 2011

'Who do you think you are? - Live' is almost here

I still have more to say about Rootstech, which has dominated my posts of late (and not just mine), but I will give it a rest for a while, since this weekend sees the 5th annual Who do you think you are? - Live at the Olympia exhibition centre.

Show highlights

It has been described as 'The largest genealogy event in the English-speaking world' by Dick Eastman, who comes all the way from the USA every year for this event (OK, he missed last year, but only because of a clash of dates). Dick will not be the only American visitor; the New England Historic Genealogical Society will have a presence for the second year running, and as usual the FamilySearch stand will be staffed by a combination of helpers from the London Family History Centre and a party who come over from Salt Lake City each year. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) will also have a stand; this is an international organisation with members all over the world (including me), but with a high proportion of American members. Look out for a number of American speakers on the extensive programme of workshops.

Ireland is also well represented, as usual, by the National Archives of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Irish Family History Foundation, Eneclann and Tourism Ireland. Tourism Ireland are also the sponsors of all the Irish talks in the Society of Genealogists regional workshops.

There is also the popular Military Pavilion on the mezzanine floor, where you will find a wealth of help and expertise, including the Military Memorabilia Checkpoint, and exhibitors such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Western Front Association.

The website

The printed Show Guide is quite widely available, but obviously had to go to print in advance, so you will find the most up-to-date information on the Who do you think you are? - Live website. Unfortunately the site is rather disappointing; the point size of most of the text is very small, and some of the colours could have been better chosen, so it's not always easy to read if your eyesight is less than perfect. The list of exhibitors is particularly poor, with very small orange text on a white background, and the list itself could be more helpful - some exhibitors are listed twice, and for many of them there is no extra information when you click on the name, let alone a link to a website. Whether this is the fault of the exhibitors, or of the organisers, it is impossible to tell, but it is a pity either way. The 'Starting Your Family Tree' page suggests that one of the stands you should visit at the show is the Probate Service, but they don't appear on the list of exhibitors. There whole site appears not to have been proof-read very carefully, and together with its other shortcomings it gives an overall impression of lack of care.

HOWEVER you shouldn't let the failings of the website put you off the show itself, which is visited by thousands of people every day that it is open, and who have a good time there. And people come back year after year, some of them from overseas, so the organisers are obviously doing something right! I'd rather have a good show and an indifferent website than the other way round, but getting both right would be even better.

Some tips

I will be there all day, on all three days, some of it as part of my job, and the rest as a volunteer and interested bystander. I am looking forward to meeting up with many old friends (and a few new ones I haven't met in person yet). As a veteran of all the previous WDYTYA Live events, and the Society of Genealogists shows for many years before that, I have learnt a few things over the years.

  • Getting there; on Saturday and Sunday in particular there are often engineering works on the railways and London Transport, so check the Transport for London Journey Planner even if you think you know your route. 
  • And of course wear comfortable shoes, because you will spend an awful lot of time walking or standing. 
  • If you want to attend any of the free workshops, go and get your tickets as soon as you arrive, because the most popular ones can 'sell' out very quickly.  
  • Food outlets in the hall tend to be expensive and have long queues at peak times, so you may want to bring your own food. Even if you don't come with a full-on picnic, I'd definitely advise bringing your own bottle of water, because it can get warm in there, and all that networking can make you very thirsty!
  • If the cloakroom is in the same place as last year, it's not the most accessible I have seen; it's up a flight of stairs and can become congested. If the weather is not too bad, you might choose to travel as light as you can and carry your coat or jacket with you.

Feel free to ignore as much of the above as you like. I won't be checking up on you.

Have a great time - see you there!


Sunday 20 February 2011

Rootstech - Laundry on a line becomes laundry online

I might have overlooked this session on the Rootstech schedule, with 9 other excellent competing attractions to choose from in the same time slot. Fortunately, I had been at dinner a few nights before with a group that included Patricia Van Skaik from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and someone asked her about the presentation she would be giving on Saturday morning. I knew nothing about the Fontayne and Porter Daguerreotype before, and I have no particular interest in Cincinnati, but it sounded fascinating, so I decided there and then that this was a session I must not miss.

The room was packed, almost standing-room only, with a very appreciative audience. Patricia told her tale with great enthusiasm and an evident deep knowledge of her subject. The story of the  Cincinnati Panorama, as it is also known, is interesting enough in itself; it turns out to be the oldest photographic representation of urban America, and consists of eight 6.5" by 8.5" plates showing the Cincinnati waterfront in 1848, from Newport, Ky, on the opposite bank of the Ohio river. But the detective work involved in dating the picture, and the advanced technology used in restoring it are even more absorbing. It was featured in Wired magazine, where you can see some of the details. And what details! Although they could not be seen with the naked eye, or even a magnifying glass, a microscope scanner used by conservators at George Eastman House revealed details as fine as the time on a clock face that was only a millimetre wide on the Daguerreotype.

Astonishing as these details are, it is what can be done with them that is really exciting. Although none of the buildings in the picture still exists, this picture can be used to recreate the Cincinnati of 1848. Using directories, census, maps and a host of other records, it has been possible to identify buildings and their occupants. One of the close-up shots we saw featured some laundry hanging out to dry - little did its owners suspect that more than a century and a half later, the result of this unremarkable activity would be on display for all to see. Not only is the panorama on display in the Cincinnati Public Library, it is going to be the subject of a brand new website, hopefully later this year. Hence the cheesy title for this post - sorry, couldn't resist it. Got your attention though, didn't it?

As befits a technology event, Rootstech had an online facility where attendees could vote for the best presenters of each day, and I was delighted to see that Patricia won that prize for Saturday. she certainly deserved it.


Rootstech - good news from Ireland

There are so many sessions to choose from at a big conference like Rootstech that it's hard to know which of them to choose. But I am always keen to find out what is going on the world of Irish research, so I made sure that I went to hear Brian Donovan give us the latest on the digitisation of Irish records.

It was nice to have some good news to report for a change. There are lots of exciting developments in the offing, from Brian's own company Eneclann and elsewhere. Starting with the Civil Registration indexes, many of these have been re-keyed by the Irish GRO, but there is no sign of them going online anytime soon. It is worth remembering, though, that many of the indexes are on FamilySearch, (Ireland Civil Registration Indexes 1845-1958) as are a selection of the actual registers, included in the Ireland Births and Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths and Burials indexes.

One of the problems with Irish genealogy in the past has been that relatively few people in Ireland were interested in their family history. But things are beginning to change, and the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport is committed to putting records online, free of charge. You can search church records for Dublin, Cork & Ross, Kerry and Carlow on Irish Genealogy

The National Archives of Ireland, in conjunction with FamilySearch, are imaging and indexing the Tithe Applotments 1826-1837. No launch date has been announced, but this is one to look out for. Another important source is the Landed Estates Court Records, which should be online by mid-2011. These records contain the names of approximately 600,000 tenants.

Another major series in the offing is a colossal collection of prison records from the 26 counties, containing up to 6 million names of Irish prisoners, their families and their victims. This collection spans more than a century, from the 1790s to the 1920s. The records of 15 million cases in Irish Petty Sessions, from 1821 to 1910, featuring 40 million people will also be released from mid-2011 onwards.

To keep up with these and other developments, be sure to sign for the Eneclann newsletter, and wait for news of a brand new website with some of these digitised records, to be launched on St Patrick's Day. The site also includes a comprehensive article about the digitisation of Irish records, which is not news (it was originally published in The Septs,Volume 29 Number 2, April 2008) but provides an excellent overview of the records and the challenges involved in these projects.

The above was based on notes I made during Brian's presentation at Rootstech, so any inaccuracies are entirely my own. There are many other Irish records which, it is hoped, will make their way online, though not in the near future. There are exciting times to come for Irish research at last. Bring it on!


Monday 14 February 2011

Rootstech - very social, very network

One of the great things about conferences is the people you meet. In recent years they usually include people you know from Facebook, Twitter or some other social network. Rootstech took this to a new level. People were meeting, communicating and interacting in all kinds of ways. As usual I met old friends from previous conferences, some new people, and finally met in person quite a few that were Facebook friends, fellow bloggers, or that I knew from Twitter or email.

This wasn't an event where you just sat in a room to be talked at. The 'tech' part of Rootstech was very much in evidence, and absolutely integral to the proceedings. The Rootstech Official Bloggers were right at the heart of things, quite literally; they were based right in the middle of the Expo Hall, complete with two 'fish-tank'  rooms where sound and video interviews were being recorded  for much of the time. You can see a chat between two of the leading bloggers, Dear Myrtle and Thomas McEntee on You Tube recorded during the show. If you search for 'Rootstech' om You tube you'll find more interviews and video clips.

Some of the Rootstech sessions, including the keynote addresses on all three days, were streamed live online, so that people all over the world could follow the proceedings. And we know this was working, because a number of these remote attendees were tweeting their comments using the hashtag #Rootstech. One of my favourites was when Chris Van Der Kuyl, CEO of Brightsolid, was introducing Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. Most of the audience probably hadn't heard a Dundee accent before, and one of them  tweeted "Okay, I'm just going to say it: That accent is hot. don't tell HR.", which was re-tweeted with an added "Was thinking that too.", followed by a third, obviously following on Twitter, but not in audio "Why are people tweeting about an accent? What did I miss?" Joking aside, the main event, Brewster Kahle's keynote speech, was compelling, so much so that when he said 'In conclusion...' I was genuinely surprised that it was already time for him to wind up. If you are not already familiar with the Internet Archive, you really need to go exploring; it has far more in it than you could have imagined. I thought I had a pretty good idea, but I was amazed.

I was tweeting news from Brian Donovan's session on the digitisation of Irish records, which was then being re-tweeted by Chris Paton back in Scotland, and then repeated on his Scottish GENES blog, with the assurance that there would be a full write-up from me in due course! Thanks, Chris, I suppose I'll really have to do it now - I'll save it for the next post.

And in case you were wondering, the badge at the top was given to geneabloggers by the lovely Thomas McEntee, along with with some very fetching red heart beads. I shall treasure them always.


Sunday 13 February 2011

More Rootstech - catching up

Flip-Pal mobile scanner
Rootstech really is different. I've never been to a conference where the keynote speakers were introduced with loud rock music, and where the vendor hall includes a Microsoft playground. This turned out to be a real playground, where you could play table tennis, pool,  or table football and even get a free massage. Yes, really. There was a demo area where new products were demonstrated, an internet cafe, some Family History Library research computers and an area where the Rootstech Official Bloggers were stationed.

As you'd expect, there were technology vendors, from major sponsors like Dell and Microsoft to software vendors and small outfits like the nice people selling the Flip-Pal mobile scanner. I had heard good things about this from some of my friends over here, so I treated myself to one of these - they're not available in the UK yet. I'm looking forward to giving it a good try out.

There are seating areas where people can chat and talk business if necessary - lots of networking going on. It ended this afternoon with a big fanfare, and the news that there will be a Rootstech 2012 - same place, slightly different time, 2-4 February, a week earlier. Great news! Awards were presented to the best speakers for each day, based on delegates' votes. There were also prizes for the winners of the Developers' Challenge, and some door prizes. As far as I am concerned this was the best bit, because I won a seven-night stay at the Plaza Hotel! So I will definitely be coming back next year.


Saturday 12 February 2011

Rootstech Day Two - about time I wrote something!

The last two days have been quite an experience, to say the least. Registration for Rootstech opened at 7am, and I got my conference bag, lunch tickets, programme and syllabus pretty quickly - it was all very efficiently done. The first thing I always do as soon as I get a conference bag is to ditch it, however nice it is (and this one is a beauty), because the last place I want to carry it around is at a gathering where there are 2000+ identical ones. It's for flaunting when I get back home.

The opening keynote session was quite something, with the speakers being introduced like rock stars. If you'r ever seen one of the big launches from Microsoft or Apple, you'll get the picture - lights, music and CEOs. The first session I attended was Josh Taylor's 'Software Forecast: what genealogists need for the future.' Then I heard Chris van der Kuyl, CEO of Brightsolid, speak at one of the conference luncheons; I was at a table with several Ancestry people. After lunch I had a good look round the Expo Hall, then went to Drew Smith's 'Social networking for genealogists', after which I did a whole lot of real time social networking before the evening at the Clark Planetarium, courtesy of Brightsolid. The planetarium was a lot of fun, with food and drink provided, and the shows in the iMax Theater and the Dome were amazing. I love 3D!


Thursday 10 February 2011

Salt Lake City - getting ready for Rootstech

Conference attendees have been arriving over the last few days for what promises to be one of the largest genealogical gatherings ever. There will be more than 2000 people at Rootstech. The site now has a link to the sessions that will be streamed live online including each day's keynote sessions. The live Twitter feed is also running on the home page, which you can also follow with the hashtag #Rootstech.

For the whole of Wednesday the place was abuzz with pre-conference gatherings, formal and informal. Genealogists were catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, and putting faces and voices to Facebook and Twitter friends they had never met in person. Most of these encounters involved TOO MUCH FOOD. I was surprised and pleased to find that my room reservation included vouchers for the breakfast buffet. Ghent put me at a table right nest to Tom Champoux from NEHGS, a great start to the day. I went to the Family History Library where I was supposed to recording a tutorial for the FamilySearch website, but I got a reprieve, the recordings will be on Monday. I checked in with the British Isles floor, just to reassure them that I had arrived and was ready to do my talk on The National Archives website in the afternoon. Then it was time for lunch with my friends Pat and Gordon Erickson, better known as Dear Myrtle and 'Mr Myrt', and others, including Amy Coffin of The We Tree Genealogy Blog They are both Rootstech Official Bloggers.

I gave my talk to a large and appreciative audience, including many FamilySearch staff members, mainly from the British Isles floor - some familiar faces there. This was nothing to do with Rootstech, it's just that having heavily used FamilySearch resources free of charge for over 20 years, whenever I am in Salt Lake city I like to give something back. I got a little bit of research done in the Library, but spent more time helping out other people! In no time at all it was time for dinner, which I don't have time to do justice to right now, except to thank Bill Forsyth and ProQuest for their generous hospitality.

Registration has opened, so I need to go and check then, then head to the Nauvoo for the wiki contributors' breakfast meeting.


Monday 7 February 2011

Countdown to Rootstech - it's this week!

All of a sudden, it's nearly here. Today is my last chance to tie up loose ends at work before disappearing for a week. I have a mental to-do list, so I think I have everything covered. Car parking, flights, hotel and conference registration are all booked, and I have plenty of clean clothes; not ironed, mind you, but they only get crumpled in the case, don't they?

I signed up for Rootstech as soon as registration opened, because I thought it looked quite interesting, and I was looking for an excuse to go back to Salt Lake City. I had no idea that it was going to be so BIG. There will be over 2000 people there, from all over the world. Some of the sessions will be broadcast live online, which is appropriate for an event that is looking at  potential uses of technology in genealogy.

For the first time the providers and designers of the services we will be faced with genealogists en masse. Just think of all that walking, talking feedback! And of course the genealogists will have an opportunity to find out about the services we use. And buy new toys (I have my eyes on the Flip-pal Scanner I have heard so much about).

Apart from the live sessions, you can follow the proceedings through the posts of the official bloggers (and quite a few unofficial ones, too). If you use Twitter. the hashtag is #Rootstech. See you there I hope, one way or another.


New FamilySearch, a view from the British Isles Part Four - Ireland

A couple of days ago a helpful article on Irish Civil Registration appeared on the FamilySearch Indexing blog, and a further instalment is promised, with hints on how to use these collections. I shall look forward to that, but in the meantime I have been doing a little exploring of my own.

I was one of the indexers who seized on the opportunity to help get these indexes online, because they are an essential resource that was formerly all but inaccessible to most of the people who wanted to use it. So I am familiar with the records, and I understand their structure. I decided to do sample searches using a not-too-common Irish surname, Rowley. I selected the database 'Ireland, Civil Registration Indexes, 1845-1958', then Advanced search, and searched for the surname Rowley, with the 'exact match' ticked. It gave me 2124 results. The search boxes and drop-down menus are on the left, and one of the drop-downs is 'Event'. from this I selected Births, but the search still returned 2124 results, and the same thing happened when I selected 'marriages', 'deaths' or 'residence', all with the 'match all exactly' box ticked. Hmm. Something isn't working here.

Back to the birth search for a moment; the first of my 2124 results was for a birth in 1826 - nearly 40 years before the start of registration. It is, of course, a death where the age at death is recorded in the indexes, and the year of birth has been estimated from this. Scrolling through the results, the first 84 were of this kind, death entries with an estimated birth date, not actual birth registrations. The 85th result was for a death with no estimated birth year, and therefore by no stretch of the imagination what you would expect to get from a birth search. Oh dear. I narrowed the search to Thomas Rowley, and this returned 119 results; when I selected 'Births' from the drop-down menu, I still got 119 results; 26 deaths with estimated birth years, then 27 marriages, and finally 66 actual birth entries. So I was able to find out, eventually, how many Thomas Rowley births were registered in Ireland 1845-1958, but I had to click through the results a page at a time to get there, at 20 results a page. I'm glad it wasn't Patrick Murphy - there are 18089 of them. Changing the filter to marriage, death or residence made no difference whatever.

I tried a different kind of search, filtering by place. There are lots of Rowleys in Co Sligo, so I searched for the surname Rowley with 'Sligo' in the 'Place' box, both ticked for an exact match, and got four results, all from 1957 or 1958, four births from Sligo registration district, and a marriage in Tubbercurry district, which is in the county. When I repeated the search, but with the exact place search un-ticked, I got 1895 results from all over Ireland. It is not at all obvious how the non-exact place search works, because it filters out 229 hits from my original search, but still includes results from Dublin, Belfast and other places that are nowhere near Sligo. If I change the place filter to Tubbercurry, I get no results at all, whether ticked  for an exact search or not, not even the 1958 marriage. If I change it to Tobercurry, the more usual spelling, I get 50 hits for both kinds of search. I could go on, but I think this enough to show that these searches do not work properly, and I doubt if it the problem is confined to a single record set.

There is one more thing I want to highlight about the Irish records. The advanced search facility looks as though you can search for relatives, but with one exception, you can't. I know this, because I have seen the printed indexes from which they are constructed. The Civil Registration indexes are exactly that - indexes. You can select 'Spouse' from the 'Relationship' drop-down and put a surname in the 'Mother's maiden name box' and get results back, but only birth from the 1920s and later, when the mother's maiden name is in the indexes. You can select 'Spouse' from the relationship drop-down, but if you put anything at all in the boxes, you will get no results. This is because it is impossible to get this information from the Civil Registration indexes, they don't contain enough detail, so it is misleading to suggest that this search is feasible. Perhaps searches like this could be disabled where the database does not support them?


Saturday 5 February 2011

Shopping Saturday - Pictures!

For a change, I thought I would just post a few pictures that I have collected over the last few years. I have a lot of old books, mostly over 100 years old, and I particularly like ones with engraved illustrations, like the ones here. I have scanned some of them, but only a fraction of the whole collection so far. I am astonished at the quality of some of them; they are often only 3 or 4 inches wide, sometimes smaller, but I can blow them up to A4 size or even larger, and the detail is still crisp. And most of the time we don't even know the names of these amazingly skilled engravers. What a pity.

The lantern-maker is a nice example of one of the earliest kinds of shop, where a craftsman sells the items he has made from his own premises. In this kind of shop, the counter is often also a shutter, hinged at the bottom instead of at the side.

The Linen-draper's assistant dating from the late 1830s
'Hath ribands of all colours i'the rainbow - inkles, caddisses, cambrics, lawns: why he sings them overs as they were gods or goddesses'
Shakespeare: A Winters Tale 

and this is one of the few where the names of the artist and the engraver are known. The artist was Kenny Meadows, a very prolific illustrator in his day, and the engraver was Orrin Smith. This picture is one of many portraying  different types of people, from  'Heads of the People: Portraits of the English'.

The Newsagent: Girls Own Paper 1894
The last two pictures come from one of my favourite publications, the Girls Own Paper, a late 19th and early 20th century magazine for well brought up young ladies, published by the Religious Tract Society. It's an absolute goldmine.

These are both from the 1894 volume. I particularly like the picture of the newsagent, for the sneaky piece of product placement; the billboard is advertising the Boys Own Paper, its companion publication.

The draper's shop illustration is a wonderful period piece, but what is slightly worrying is the fact that I can dimly remember shops a little like that. The clothes were different, though.

The Draper's shop: Girls Own Paper 1894 
I am happy for anyone to re-use any of these pictures on their own not-for-profit blogs or websites. All I ask for is an acknowledgement on your site.


Follow Friday - Podcasts

About a year and a half ago, I succumbed to the lure of Apple, and bought an iPod Touch. My old MP3 player was past its best, and I didn't use it much because the battery kept losing the will to live. I downloaded the iTunes software and started loading up my music (Note to Apple - if you want to convert non-Apple users,  iTunes software isn't the way to do it. Of all the Apple products I have come across, this is the least appealing). I thought I would listen to lots of music again, but then I discovered podcasts.

It's not that I didn't know about them before, I've even recorded quite a few - you can find a long list of podcasts, including mine, on The National Archives site. But I hadn't taken much notice of them before, and I had only listened to the occasional podcast on a computer, rather than downloading them. OK, this is one thing that iTunes does do quite well, although it's not the only way to download or subscribe to them.

These are my two favourites, first The Genealogy Guys podcast 'the longest-running, regularly produced genealogy podcast in the world'. George Morgan and Drew Smith produce a mixture of news, opinion and answers to listeners' questions every month, with occasional interviews, and sometimes they record a whole Q & A session with an audience.

For British genealogy, there is an occasional series on BBC Scotland 'Digging up your roots' with resident genealogist Dr Bruce Durie, Course Director, Genealogical Studies, at the University of Strathclyde.

But these are just two from about 50 podcasts that I subscribe to. Having acquired a taste for the medium, I wondered what else was on offer, and goodness, there's a lot! I subscribe to the podcast versions of BBC radio shows although not all 282 of them! Other radio and TV stations have their own selections, as do a number of newspapers. The obvious category to look for is history, but there are all kinds of other options - it's a good way of learning or practising a language that your ancestors spoke, but you don't. I have found some interesting city guides produced by my newspaper of choice The Guardian, which also has a weekly technology podcast, some of which I understand!

I have tried not to make this a commercial for iTunes, but it has a useful feature that shows you similar kinds of podcasts to any that you download, along the lines of 'If you liked this, you might also enjoy...' It also has a separate area called iTunes U, where you can download university lectures, and even whole courses. I have found some great stuff here, and have used it to fill the gaps in my historical knowledge. I particularly enjoy BackStory with the American History Guys, who have just produced a feature on the history of the American census, and the University of Warwick's Georgian Britain

There is a whole lot more out there to be discovered, and I haven't even begun to look at videocasts yet. They wouldn't be such a good idea while I'm driving, though!


Friday 4 February 2011

Rootstech - a week from now

I've got three work days and one day off to go before I leave for Rootstech. I'll be in Salt Lake city for a whole day before the conference, and two days after it, and my diary is filling up fast! 

I arrive in SLC very late on Tuesday night, and I seem to have promised to meet some fellow bloggers for breakfast on Wednesday. I have also agreed to give a couple of classes on British records for Library patrons while I am there, one of them on Wednesday afternoon. After more than 20 years of using LDS resources, free of charge, this is the very least I can do to give something back. The talks will also be recorded for the Research Courses section of FamilySearch. On Wednesday evening I will have dinner with friends, if I can stay awake that long.

Then there is Rootstech itself, Thursday to Saturday. My bloggers' breakfast will be good practice for the early starts that I have found are the norm at American conferences. There are so many sessions and demos I want to attend, and people I want to meet, I just hope I can fit them all in. I have signed up for luncheon talks on all three days, so I can learn while I eat. The evenings are catered for too, with Thursday night at the nearby Planetarium, sponsored by Brightsolid, and Late Night at the Library on Friday, starting with a showing of that night's episode of 'Who do you think you are?', this time courtesy of Ancestry. On Saturday night, Dick Eastman is hosting one of his legendary post-conference dinners, and I have managed to get a ticket this time! 

Sunday will be a well-earned day of rest, and it may involve brunch at the Grand America - not cheap, but worth splurging out of if you are in SLC. No need for any more food for the rest of the day, either. Monday brings another talk and recording in the Library, and, I hope, time to get some research done there. I think I shall sleep very well on the long, long flight home the next day. 


Thursday 3 February 2011

Do you love libraries? - postscript

It is less than 24 hours since I wrote about my lifelong love affair with libraries, and as I looked back fondly at the libraries I used decades ago, I remember thinking 'At least they are all still there. That's good'

I spoke too soon. Today the Coventry Telegraph reports on Warwickshire County Council's plan to close 16 of its 34 libraries, and Henley in Arden is one of them. Its opening hours are restricted as it is.

There are some wonderful online library resources in this and other counties, but a library is more than just 'information', we need the buildings, the staff, the atmosphere and the community that make a library, too.


Wednesday 2 February 2011

Do you love libraries?

I certainly do, and I can't remember a time when libraries were not a big part of my life.

This Saturday, 5 February is Save our Libraries Day. and there are lots of things you can do to show your support, even if you only have a few minutes to spare. I will be doing my bit online, because I won't be able to visit my local library in person on Saturday. This is because I have to be at work.

Luckily for me, though, work involves spending the day in a building where there is a wonderful library (shameless plug - if you are visiting The National Archives in person, don't forget the check out the Library, it's probably bigger than you thought).

One of my earliest memories involves a library, and not just any library, it was the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. I must have been about four years old when my dad took me there, and I must have already been  used to going to our local Langside Library and borrowing books. I know this because my memory of the Mitchell is a) being really impressed at seeing so many books and b) yelling the place down with disappointment when I found out that I couldn't borrow any of them! This was the old marble hall part of the library, quite possibly the staircase, where there is a really good echo

We moved to Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire when I was 7, and lived in Wootton Hall - there is a picture of it in an earlier post. Mum and I wanted to find out about the history of this amazing building, so we went to Henley-in-Arden Library nearby and found a book on the history of the village, which told us that our flat used to be the Bishop's Rooms. I may write about that sometime.

The following year we moved to Gillingham in Kent, and I spent a lot of time in Gillingham Library, first of all in the Children's Library, a wonderful traditional high-ceilinged room with murals of scenes from 'Wind in the Willows' where a clock in one of the pictures was a real working clock. I graduated to the adult library, and also enjoyed the temporary exhibitions in the library, but I particularly loved the reference library upstairs. I may be the only person to have bunked off school to spend more time in the library!

As a student I was first introduced to the Library of Congress classification system used in the University of Warwick Library, but the university and its library were still pretty new back then, so when I had a serous research project to do, I used the fabulous Birmingham Central Library. This was where I first experience the thrill of doing original research for myself, and there is nothing quite like it (hands up who agrees with me on that!).

I took a long break from education, and did the motherhood thing too. And what did I do when I discovered that Firstborn was on the way? I went to Hendon Library and borrowed some baby books of course! When we moved a few miles to a bigger house I joined Harrow Libraries, borrowing books and  vinyl records - remember them? I attended evening classes in more than one branch library, and when I took up family history I used the Local Studies collection in the Civic Centre Reference Library.

Once the family history thing had really kicked in, I helped my local family history put on an exhibition in the library, and carried on with evening classes in libraries in Harrow and elsewhere, only this time I was teaching them. I don't teach any more, but I do a lot of talks to family history societies and other groups, who often meet in...libraries!

Now I live in lovely, leafy Buckinghamshire, within walking distance of Chesham Library, and my library card gives me access to all kinds of wonderful online sources, as well as the books, DVDs and other facilities in the library itself. So far, Chesham Library is not under threat, but others in the county are, and the Friends of Stony Stratford Library, at the other end of the county mounted a brilliant campaign, which got massive media coverage. The author, Philip Pullman made an eloquent defence of Oxfordshire libraries at a meeting on 20 January at Oxford Town Hall, which is worth reading in full.

I can't imagine how my life would have been without all the libraries I have known and loved. The way I have used them over the years has changed, but they are still essential to me. I am very pleased to say that both Firstborn and his younger brother have turned out to be avid readers (and they both write well, too), and my lifelong library addiction must have had some influence there. My elderly mother, who passed on the habit to me, still makes regular trips to her local branch library, which is within walking distance of her house, even though she needs her walking stick to get there these days.