Tuesday, July 29, 2008

National Library of Scotland and the John Murray Archives

You may not have heard of John Murray, but you know more about him than you think. In 1768, John McMurray established the John Murray publishing house in Scotland and became one of the foremost publishers in the world. Some of its authors include Jane Austen, Lord Byron, David Livingstone and Charles Darwin. The John Murray Archive is now owned by the National Library of Scotland who acquired the archive in 2002 for the staggering price of £32.5 million. While this is quite a bit of money David McClay, the archive's curator, said that it is arguably the single most important archive to be purchased in the world due to the depth and breadth of the collection, and because of the authors included in it. The collection even contains letters and correspondence from important authors whose works were not published by the John Murray publishing company. The collection currently contains more than 150,000 items, however some of the material in the archive hasn't even been touched yet.
When the National Library of Scotland purchased the John Murray Archive, they received £17.5 million in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This public funding brings with it many responsiblities in terms of accessiblity. The education officer Emma Faragher told us that basically that means anyone who might possibly buy a lottery ticket has the right to access the archive. Consequently, in developing the archive and displays, the library has spent a great deal of time and effort in making the archive accessible and interesting to anyone and everone, even from the standpoint of minimizing library jargon and creating a catalogue that is extremely easy to use. The idea, Ms. Faragher said, is to make people feel confident in using the library and accessing the collection.
As they began to develop the archive exhibit, the librarians and curators looked at many different exhibitions from museums and manuscripts to art galleries and even a puppet theatre. The staff did extensive market research, and looked at learning outcomes framework which can be found at www.inspiringlearningforall.uk.gov. They wanted to create an exhibit that was object rich, text poor, interactive and theatrical. They also wanted the display to not only highlight manuscripts from the collection, but would communicate the process of writing and publishing. The exhibit focuses on the manuscripts as the core of the collection with everything else building upon and supporting the manuscripts. Ms. Faragher said that they wanted visitors to have the opportunity to meet the people represented in the archive, and that the exhibit is intended to be the gateway to developing a relationship with the archive.
I have to say that in my opinion, the time and effort and money put into the archive exhibit was well worth it; it truly was engaging and informative. You walk into the dimly lit room and are immediately drawn to one of several glass cases containing one of the Murray authors -- or at least clothes and objects representing the author. Through a computer touch screen you could choose to highlight one of the objects in the case and read a bit about the author and pieces of their correspondence or work contained in the archive, such as a page from one of Livingstone's travel journals. One of the most fun parts of the exhibit was an interactive publishing game that allows visitors to "publish" their own book, effectively learning the process of publishing.
In terms of use, Mr. McClay said that 1/4 - 1/3 of the library's users access the Murray Archive. In addition to the display at the library itself, the library staff are working to make the archive accessible to people who don't come to the library. For example, they are developing traveling exhibitions to take out into smaller communities; developing partnerships with museums and creating joint exhibitions around various themes; and developing resources for schools and educators.

photo is of a page from Livingstone's last journal and was taken from www.nls.uk/jma.

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