In this and the next post, I deviate a bit, I suppose, from my more typical history/arts/culture focus and (hopefully, maybe) vaguely academic approach, to write like a personal travel blog. Here, I’m talking about my experiences with the British Library, and about my research, so I guess there’s that. But the next post is really about hanging out with friends in London, and a bit about how I feel about visiting the city and wishing I were here for longer…
It’s been interesting being back in London. I lived here for a year while I did a Master’s, just a couple of years before starting this blog. And now, eight years later, I’m back for the first time since then, just for a few days before heading up to Cambridge for a workshop program thing. With only four days in the city, and especially since it’s been eight years, and who knows when I’ll be back here again, one would think perhaps I should be running around, seeing the sights, really taking in the city. Well, I haven’t been doing that, but I haven’t been sitting around in my room either. Coming up on the end of my fourth day in the city, I wonder if I should have gone out and seen more – there are so many parts of the city that I completely have not seen on this trip, and which I likely won’t see again for god knows how many years. But, at the same time, I’ve had a relatively productive time at the British Library, did a very successful run of the British Museum, and spent a lot of time with a few good friends, poking around a few areas of the city, going to a couple of quite nice little cafés and restaurants and so forth, and perhaps most importantly & most enjoyably, just hanging out with locals, like a slightly more regular visitor, or someone here to visit friends, might do – i.e. unlike the tourists.
Thursday, I arrived early in the morning, and after checking in to my lodgings, made my way straight to the British Library, because I’m a dork. Within a few hours, ran into a colleague from my university back home, because she’s a diligent, responsible, and classy sort who does her studying at a place like the British Library.
Turns out the one thing I wanted to see at the BL isn’t properly catalogued into the system, so, you can still request it if you know the right call number (shelfmark, they call it here), but you can’t find it by any variation of the title or topic tags or the like. Fortunately, with the very kind help of the librarians, I did end up finding it in a printed catalog, and even more fortunately still discovered a companion piece, which I had not known about. On the downside, for reasons they refused to disclose, the Library wouldn’t allow me to take my own photos of these works. Most other works, yes, but not these. Because. The only option was to pay something like £80-90 to order images from the library. Assholes. I’ve taken my own photos at numerous other institutions, including at the British Museum, just down the road, not to mention the National Archives of Japan, and other such major institutions, and it was free. Seriously. Upwards of $125 just to get photos of something; the kinds of things I could do with $125 otherwise, the numbers are just really unbalanced. Digital photos of sixty pages of a book I could have photographed for free if only they would have allowed me to do so, versus buying five whole academic books (or 1-3, if they’re more expensive). I asked to make sure there was no way around it, no other possibility, but, anyway, so, that happened.
I appreciate from the institution’s point of view, (1) you want to conserve the objects, so you want to avoid people shoving a 200-year-old volume onto a scanner or photocopier, and so forth, and (2) if you are going to have the staff, rather than the visitors, take the photos, they have to get paid – for the staff, for the time & effort, for the equipment. And, maybe, the latter part really does add up to being just about this much money. But, I suspect that a large part of it is also that a lot of people have ample research budgets, and the archives, libraries, and museums can simply get away with this. It’s for a very similar reason that journal publishers get away with charging sky-high prices for institutional subscriptions to online databases like JSTOR. Still, the point remains, why wasn’t I allowed to take the photos myself? If I’m trusted enough to handle the book, shouldn’t I also be trusted enough to photograph it, with a tiny handheld digital camera? It’s shit like this that makes me wish I had Google Glass or a spy camera or something.
These are gorgeous books, and loaded with both images, and complex classical Chinese text. I really need the images. I can’t just take notes. Maybe if I were here for a few months, I could work with them closely, in person, and get everything out of them I might need, without taking photos home with me. But, even then, I would have to go into it with a truly full knowledge of all the questions I might potentially have, which these documents might potentially answer. As it is, I only know certain questions, and don’t know what else might come up, later in my research, for which these materials might be good. So, I paid the goddamned money. What choice did I have?
Illustration of a shawm, suona, or sonai, from Ryûkyûjin gakki kanpuku zu, in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Image from TNM Digital Archives.
Of course, I have no photos to show you, since it takes 2-3 weeks to process my request. Hence the above image from a completely different work; but, it gives a sense of what sort of thing I was looking at. The one book I knew about is a manuscript (handwritten, handpainted) album of records and images of Ryukyuan music and dance performances in Edo in 1796. As soon as I looked at it I realized it’s probably a handscroll that’s been re-formatted to become an album; each page consisted of multiple pieces of paper, with a vertical seam, just like that you would see in a handscroll, where papers are attached end-on-end to form a single long piece, which can then be rolled up. If it were originally designed as a book, the seams would all be on either the outer edge, or the inner spine, of the book, and not in the middle of each page. Anyway, they contain lists of all the dances & musical pieces that were performed, including lyrics and the names of the performers, as well as simple paintings depicting the dances, and the musical performances. The second book I discovered in the catalogs, is cataloged at just one number earlier in the tally, and bears nearly identical binding, interior marks (e.g. pencil writing that it was transferred from Printed Books on such-and-such a date), and so forth. Both, by the way, came to the British Library as part of the Siebold Collection. Siebold, in case you are unaware, is a pretty major figure. So that’s kind of neat. I suspect, though I have no real evidence, that this second volume may have originally been a second scroll, belonging to the same set as the other volume. This one contains, mostly, monochrome ink diagrams of the Ryukyuan embassy members’ clothing, musical instruments, and other accoutrements, from hairpins to banners. I found some exciting stuff in here, like sketches of the “mandarin squares” or chest badges worn by the Ryukyuan ambassadors, indicating their (honorary, or equivalent) rank or placement in a Ming Chinese hierarchy of officials, something I had been worrying about. While the book doesn’t, unfortunately, give any explanation of why the banners carried by the embassy bore the particular designs or symbols that they did, it does give precise dimensions for every object, and just seeing the images is a great help towards understanding what different things are. Many of the objects carried or used by the missions have multiple names, so this helps clarify that, and some are just unclear, without looking at the pictures – for example, the most typical Ryukyuan string instrument is called a sanshin, based on the Chinese sanxian, meaning “three strings” (三線). The missions are described as also carrying instruments known as “two-strings” (二線), “four strings” (四線), and “long strings” (長線). What do these other instruments look like? According to this illustrated book, the “two strings” is not in fact simply a two-stringed plucked version of the three-stringed sanxian, but rather is a bowed instrument, like a fiddle, more closely resembling the erhu or the kûchô.
I guess I can’t really just end on that note. So, let’s go a little farther. Well, let me sort of talk about the Library in general. I don’t actually know, don’t actually have a proper sense, of just how prestigious the British Library is. I mean, I can certainly guess, on an intellectual level. Their collections certainly contain tons of the greatest treasures in the country, and thus in the world, including numerous examples of the oldest this, and the only extant that; they of course also have extensive collections relating to many of the greatest British individuals and institutions, from the East India Company and Captain Cook, to Shakespeare and Thomas More, I am sure. And, it is most certainly a very clean, sleek, upscale-looking institution. Yet, somehow, perhaps because they are so open to the public, I don’t really feel like I’m so privileged to be there, or anything like that – a feeling I do get when visiting various other institutions. Perhaps the very modern feel of the place contributes to that, too; I’m curious to see how things feel at Cambridge – maybe just being in among a much older-looking place will make it feel that much more elite and exclusive. That said, the British Library has very few public stacks; the building is taken up mostly by numerous Reading Rooms, where you have to have a Reader Card to access (which means an application including your credentials as a researcher, and reasons for wanting to access these collections), and where you have to request items to be delivered to you from storage. So, it’s that sort of place. But, like I said, very clean, modern, well-lit, with public exhibits, free wi-fi, a nice café & restaurant… feels more like a museum than an exclusive research library, and even then, getting to go behind the scenes and look at objects in a museum collection still feels like a more exclusive privilege, a really special experience, than looking at things at the British Library… but, given how many libraries & archives have given me a really hard time getting in to look at objects, I’m certainly not complaining.
I’ll summarize the rest of my London adventures in another post. Cheers for now.
Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.