Thursday, August 14, 2014

July 24: Trafalgar Production of "Richard III"

I returned late last night from the Trafalgar Studios production of Shakespeare's Richard III, one of his most politically driven and famous plays. (Photo obtained from

This production was fantastic! I was giddy by the intermission and
exploding with thrills by the final curtain. The setting of this production was intriguing. Taking a nod from the play's famous opening line ("Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer"), the director decided to set the play in what truly was the winter of Britain's discontent, the winter of 1979. The post-war years notwithstanding, the 1970s were the worst decade Britain has known, full of economic turmoil, massive strikes, and impending violence. Evidently, there was even talk of overthrowing the Labor Party with a military coup. Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, which did not exactly solve anything. Setting the play in this era was a gutsy move, in my opinion, and really enriched the play, making it very accessible. I was also fascinated with the setting given my paper will deal with Shakespeare’s sources for his history plays. Truly, the ease with which Richard III was adapted into a 1970s setting reflects the malleability of both the play itself and its source material. Shakespeare was simultaneously giving his audience a history lesson (albeit a biased one) and a drama with relatable characters in a relatable setting. I kept thinking about the sources for both Shakespeare and this production while watching the play.

The entire play took place in what looked like a military/office meeting. There were two long tables facing each other (perpendicular to the audience) with tacky olive green chairs to capture the seventies look. The stage resembled an office, complete with a coffee station. One really clever addition was the seventies televisions that faced the audience. There were two flanking the edges of the stage, and they projected Richard's image during his monologue and during Richmond's final monologue after he defeats Richard, becoming King Henry VII. There were also posters on the outer edges of the stage with different kings' pictures, depending on where we were in the play. Returning to the malleability of the sources, I was fascinated with the messages the set itself sent about images and the emphasis placed on “charisma” in a politician—or monarch—and how that message really does transcend eras. I’m not sure to what extent that will apply to my paper topic, but it’s worth investigating.

Going into the actual performances, though, Martin Freeman's was so good! He brought a level of comedy to the role I've neither witnessed nor considered. His tone and timing were impeccable: I've never seen Richard played that way. One of my favorite scenes is, of course, the famous wooing scene in which Richard seduces Lady Anne while she is crying next to her husband's corpse. He was hilarious and creepy at the same time, having just the right timing and tone with his delivery. For instance, when Anne asks him where he wants to be, he says "Your bedchamber" so matter-of-factly I just burst out laughing. Usually Richard is played as a lecherous villain, but I was more convinced by Martin's Richard, who is insecure, witty, and out-right scary. I laughed and felt repulsed, often at the same time, during the production. 

There was a good bit of blood in the play, which I liked given Shakespeare's play is extremely violent. For instance, after Hastings is beheaded, Tyrrel, one of Richard's handy-men, brings out a box. The actors, both Martin and the other actor, built up so much tension by opening the box slowly, then rummaging to pull out the head. For a moment, I expected them only to suggest they looked at the head, but that was not to be; Tyrrel pulls out the head and holds it up for everyone to see. They actually had a head (although not a real one) and soaked it with blood. You could hear the entire audience gasp when it was pulled out. Similarly, when Richard cuts another man's throat, there was blood shooting out. I saw girls on the front row jump, both from being startled and from not wanting fake blood on their clothes. 

Richard's death scene was equally scary, with Richard and Richmond facing each other with the thickest tension of the play. Martin Freeman was so great in this scene (as with the rest of the play): he is holding a knife when Richmond enters the stage, holding a gun. Martin looks at the knife briefly, kind of chuckled and shrugged, then gestured for Richmond to come fight him anyway. Again, this is just another example of how Martin blended comedy into the gruesomeness of this play. The scene ends with Richmond shooting Richard, and the gun shot was so loud it sounded real. Everyone, including me, jumped. Richmond's final monologue was extremely creepy, as they "televised" it on the two seventies televisions. 

When the play was over and the cast came out to bow together, I clapped vigorously; when Martin came out alone, however, I was the first one to jump up and give him a standing ovation.
This was a fantastic, exciting, and, above all, brilliantly acted play. I am beyond sad about leaving London in the next 48 hours, but I am overjoyed I had the opportunity to see this production here. Whenever I watch Sherlock, I'll be able to watch it with pride.

July 15, Part 2: Edinburgh Central Library

I know I keep saying this after practically every library visit, but Edinburgh Central Library really was my favorite of the trip. The library is huge and does so many good things for the community.  Let's just say the Edinburgh Central Library puts every other public library I've seen (UK and US) to shame! The building was constructed in 1890 and is part of the Historic Scotland registry, which means they face the same kinds of construction challenges as the New College Library. However, the Central Library has learned how to adapt under pressure. 

According to Fiona, the charming and indefatigable librarian who gave us the grand tour, the library has gone through many renovations over the past year and a half, and several of the rooms and services we saw were completed as recently as May. 

There are several floors in this library, and they have used their space well. The adult fiction/non-fiction part of the library was the prettiest. 

In this picture are the books on reserve. I took a picture of them because the librarians apparently cover the reserved books with a special wrapping. I thought this was very smart because no one can see what the patron has ordered. This way, people are less likely to steal bestsellers. 

The music library is in a new location and is very well laid out.
The local history library is actually what you see in the bottom floor; the music library is where I stood while taking the picture on the right. As you can see, the local history part of the library was very accessible and comfortable to use. 

The reference library is farther down in the building. Interestingly, the reference library is still in the same building as it was in 1890, and they still have a...wait for it...card catalog! That is my gigantic paw in the picture below. Apparently, they did not dispose of their card catalog once they switched over to the online form. I thought this was smart, considering in the event of a power outage or any other catastrophe, all is not lost! 

The architecture there is beautiful, still retaining the elegance and opulence of the Victorian era, but also allowing for improvements to make the building more accessible. 

Speaking of accessibility, the Edinburgh Central Library takes disability access very seriously, not only renovating to have a lift, but also including audio programs for the blind and even special events and programs to help people with Dyslexia. I was truly impressed and believe many of the libraries back home can take a lesson or two from this library.

After the tour, we were treated to afternoon tea and biscuits and a PowerPoint presentation by a very charming man who runs the electronic/online programs at ECL. He joked at the beginning that after making sure we were tired from a long tour and giving us a snack, he was there to ensure we went to sleep, saying he regretted to inform us the PowerPoint was unfortunately very typical. I thought he was hilarious! 

ECL has a good many online programs for the community, helping people of all ages and of all abilities. There are way too many things going on there for me to list in this post, but you can read all about them on their website

During the Q&A, I asked Fiona something that had been on my mind throughout the entire visit. "We've been to many libraries throughout London and the UK," I said, "and they seem to be struggling thanks to budget cuts, with many of them having to close down. You seem to be prospering, though. How have you managed to avoid this pitfall?" She told me there were several reasons for this, the first of which is the amount of online activity, which both justifies their presence in the community and brings more people in to the library. She also pointed out that Edinburgh's city council makes sure there is funding for the libraries. Lastly, she said the attitude in Scotland is just different because "we really care about our libraries." While that could easily be mistaken for a dig at the English, I think she really meant what she was saying, and I have seen it first-hand here in the UK. For one, the man giving the PowerPoint said there are over 28 libraries in Edinburgh alone; when you take into account how small Edinburgh is for a major city (less than half a million people), the book to person ratio is pretty big. It has been interesting to witness these issues and compare them to the problems going on in libraries back in the U.S. 

All in all, it was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed every moment!

July 15: New College Library

I truly enjoyed the library visit today, which was the New College Library. This library serves the University 
of Edinburgh's Divinity School and has a vast collection of books and other materials pertaining to religion, especially Christianity. On the side here is a picture of a first edition of the King James Bible, for instance.

The librarians, as with pretty much every librarian we have encountered in the UK, were very kind and open to questions. They gave us a tour of the interiors of the library and discussed some of their policies. Originally, the building was a church, which is why the interior is so lovely and has such beautiful stained glass windows. Truly, this is one of the prettiest libraries we have visited. 

One element of the library that struck me was the pamphlet about student disability services at their library. I was intrigued because so many of the places we visited in London were not accessible at all to people with disabilities, but Scotland seems to be a bit different. During the Q&A, I asked the main librarian if Scotland had different building codes than London, and I told her I thought Scotland seemed more aware of the challenges disabled patrons face. She told me that, sadly, they have to contend with Historic Scotland when it comes to renovation, even if the renovation is to improve accessibility, and they have a very tight rope to walk. Saddest of all is the fact that students in wheelchairs cannot enter the building because of the absence of wheelchair ramps. She said students in wheelchairs do, however, have the option of employing a helper who will come to the library on their behalf and check out any materials they need. She said, though, that often times when a student in a wheelchair is accepted to their school, they do have to talk to the student about the extra challenges he or she will face and often advise him or her to find another school. I was really shocked hearing this, knowing anything even close to that would warrant a lawsuit in the United States. This goes to show you there are cultural differences. That being said, I felt the librarians at New College were trying their very best to make the library as accessible as possible to disabled students while trying not to violate any building codes or historic preservation regulations. You can read about New College Library's efforts to make the space as accessible as possible on their website. In spite of what the librarian told me, though, this library is still far more accessible than any library I saw in London. 

There was a vast amount of books and sources at the New College Library, and I found myself marveling many of them, special collections or otherwise. In enjoyed the tours we had of the archives and shelves upon shelves of books. The reading space is comfortable, and the information available tremendous. Overall, I enjoyed this library, although I was disturbed by the information about disabled students.

July 11: Kew Gardens and the Andrew Wiltshire Lecture

The last day of the week was our trip to Kew Gardens and Royal Botanic Garden Archive, and you read about Kew on their website. We first met one of the head librarians, Fiona, who was very kind and knowledgeable. She showed us a great deal of selected texts/materials from Kew's library and archive, and she took us around the archive itself. I found the library and archive accessible and welcoming, and I appreciated the amount of natural light. Their reading area is both welcoming and practical.

She also showed us some Beatrix Potter material, and we learned a great deal about her. Most people only associate Beatrix with her sweet little Peter Rabbit stories, but she was actually much more interesting. One of her main interests was botany, and she began coming to Kew, before writing the Peter Rabbit stories, to research mushrooms and fungi in general. She had a theory about the way fungi reproduce, that the fungi release tiny spores that germinate into new plants. Beatrix came to this conclusion after researching heavily at Kew. Fiona showed us the sign-in sheets she used, calling herself "Beatrix Potter" at first and then signing as "H.B. Potter" later, which was probably an attempt at gender neutrality. Her theory, however, ran counter to what was commonly accepted. To make a long story short, Beatrix tried desperately to get scientists, all of whom were male, to accept her theory. They all refused to help her or take her seriously, and one man shut down her research. Sadly, Beatrix was right! As Fiona said, if she had been taken seriously, there is no telling what she could have done or what we have remembered her for.

Later that day, we were treated to a lecture from Andrew Wiltshire, a true English gentleman if there ever was one. He was witty and engaging, and his story was fascinating, adding another element to Beatrix Potter's persona.

Interestingly, Mr. Wiltshire is related to the man who decoded Beatrix Potter's diary. Apparently, Beatrix kept a diary, but it was completely written in a code she made up. The family has had the diary for a long time, but no one knew what it was; it looked like gibberish. Here is a page from the diary I found online:


As you can see, it is indecipherable...or so it would seem. Mr. Wiltshire's relative received permission to view the diary, as Beatrix had been an interest of his. It took him several years, but one day, when he was about to give up, he found one name she forgot to decode! Four years later, he had deciphered Beatrix Potter's diary! Now, the diary is available to purchase. Truly, a remarkable story! Frankly, I have not read Potter since I was a child and never realized her story was so interesting, nor that she was so complex a woman. As Fiona pointed out, the drawings in Peter Rabbit are very exact, which underscores Beatrix’s knowledge of botany.

Truly, the visit to Kew was one I will treasure and always remember fondly!

July 10: The Wiener Library

Late in the afternoon, we went to Wiener Library, which was actually one of my favorite places we have visited. Founded in 1933 by Alfred Wiener, a German Jew and WWI veteran who was horrified by the explosion of anti-Semitism in his country after the Great War, the Wiener Library is one of the largest collections of Holocaust material in the world, rivaling the Holocaust museums in D.C. and Israel. You can read more about the library's history on their website
The library is in a converted house, which gives it an open, welcoming atmosphere. Their collection is vast, and I pondered changing my paper topic just to have an excuse to return. The walls are all painted white, and they mostly rely on natural light to fill the building. The artificial light they do have is soft, unlike harsher neon lights that are so common these days, which makes the reading atmosphere that much more pleasant.

The library is divided into two main areas: the reading room, which has a huge collection of books related to the Holocaust and Judaism, and the archives below. Their archives are especially well organized and contain artifacts that will surpass any expectations you have. For instance, Tobey, the librarian who gave us the tour (great guy!), showed us some children’s books used as Nazi propaganda. The first one was a coloring book depicting the Third Reich as an honorable, patriotic organization. I asked Tobey if there were any fiercely anti-Semitic books for children, and he said absolutely, then kindly brought one out for us. The picture I took is fuzzy, unfortunately, but the book was as creepy as can be. It was a story about good little Nazi children chasing out the nasty Jews, and the Jews were drawn as the most grotesque caricatures, having enormous noses and gross skin. The Jews are illustrated as crying while they leave the Aryans, and the Aryans are throwing rocks at them—because that is such a lovely thing for children to do. We were all equally fascinated and disturbed by the books. To be honest, I could have stayed there all day.

In honor of the Great War’s centennial, the Weiner Library had a display about Jewish soldiers in WWI, along with many artifacts from the war. Tobey told us, showing the library’s materials as evidence, that prior to and during WWI, being Jewish and being German were intertwined; after the war, however, things obviously changed. He had diary entries from Jewish heroes from the war who were distraught over having to leave Germany, the country for which they had served and loved so much. I was saddened and disturbed looking at that collection.

All in all, this was a fantastic library and one to which I will definitely return!

July 9: Research at the Globe

Today, I did some personal research for my Shakespeare paper at the best possible location in London: the Globe Library!

My paper will deal with the sources Shakespeare most likely used for his history plays and the means by which he obtained them. While searching for places to research, I decided to check out the Globe and see if they had any sources, only to discover gleefully they have their own library and research center.

To access the Globe Library, one has to request permission and prove he or she is a bona fide researcher, which is very much in keeping with the other research libraries we visited. A few days before the visit, I emailed the librarians there and explained my project. The Globe is very, very particular about when scholars can come in, only opening their doors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and in two short shifts: 10 am – 1 pm and 2 – 5pm. I set off for the Globe at 2:00 (leaving the Caird library), had an adventure on the Tube, and then got to the library at 3:00, giving me two hours to research.

The Globe Library is small, but they have a bunch of material to work with. Finding their location, however, is quite difficult. I first entered the Globe Theatre and was told to “go around to the side.” I did as I was told, only to have these same instructions at least three more times. When I finally found the correct door, I had to wait for the librarian to take me to the library itself. She told me to remain quiet as we walked to the library; a production was taking place. The library is located past a long, winding office with no cubicles, just rows and rows of desks smothered in stacks of books and papers. Indeed, it was difficult to navigate through this field of paper. To be honest, the complete disarray in which I found the library’s surrounding offices made me nervous.

The library is located in a small, confined room that also feels very messy. As we passed stacks of cardboard boxes full of papers, much of which was scattered on the floor, the librarian told me they have a good bit of stuff there.

Despite appearances, the visit was rewarding. I found some good books there, including a dissertation from 1904 about my topic, and got a good bit of work done. Many of the books are hard to find elsewhere, so I am very grateful to have researched at the Globe. I also learned a lot, including the fact that Shakespeare would have learned to read with a hornbook, which was a wooden paddle upon which his teacher would have attached a sheet of paper with his ABC’s, vowels, a poem or two, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Although off to a rocky start, the visit was productive, and I found sources that will definitely help me in my coming research.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

July 8th: Barbican Library

Tuesday morning we went to the Barbican Lending and Music libraries, both of which were wonderful. We 
were split into two groups, and mine was led by Jonathan. He was hands-down the coolest librarian I have ever met! His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was on fire with the jokes. I have always appreciated subtle wit, and Jonathan had that in spades. He showed all of us how to be a librarian, and you can really tell he loves his job. First, he led us to the children’s library, which was warm and welcoming, and I’m certain children enjoy going there. (Photo obtained from 

After that, Jonathan gave us a tour of the adult section of the library and explained how the library worked there. Due to Barbican’s being a building with many purposes, there is a great deal of noise coming from below. Personally, I found this endearing because it gave the library some character; it felt like a community center, and a welcoming one at that. The selection of books in the adult part of the library was strong, and I just had to check out their Stephen King selection, which was substantial. Much like my public library back home, they have a self-service check out area that scans the books as one puts them on the screen. One difference, though, is Barbican has stamps for the patrons to use in their books. Jonathan pointed out that people change the date—often making it incorrect! I chuckled thinking about how Americans must mess up the date by putting the month first!

After the tour of the adult books section, Jonathan took us to the staff room where he and the other staff had cookies (or “biscuits”) and lemonade ready for us. He had us all sit on the couches and told us stories about the library and some interesting patrons who have walked through the doors. The stories probably aren’t appropriate to be shared online, so I’ll suffice it to say they were amusing!

While we were snacking, the woman who runs the entire library came in, and we all ended up having a very serious—and depressing—discussion about the lack of funding and subsequent disappearance of libraries in the UK. The United States has the same problem, but Jonathan said he thought the difference was the ALA (American Library Association) has done a better job really fighting for libraries, whereas the British equivalent (CILIP) does not fight for libraries at all. The director said sadly that the library may have to close if funding continues to dissipate, which almost made me cry. I thought the Barbican was a lovely place and a real asset to London; should they lose that library, an integral part of the community’s information services and cultural preservation will be lost—a detrimental blow to London, indeed.

After the grim subject matter, Jonathan changed the subject and then took us to the music library. We got to meet the music librarian and see their collection, which is vast. Indeed, the Barbican Music Library is one of the biggest music collections internationally. They have movies and books related to music, concert DVDs, CDs, sheet music—all kinds of stuff. Indeed, the visit to the Barbican libraries was fun, and it truly seemed like a wonderful atmosphere in which to work and read. I had a wonderful time.