This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the start of my research into the seventeenth century navy – or at least, the formal, funded, full-time student start, as I’d been tentatively examining the subject during the previous couple of years, when I was still teaching in Cornwall. Apart from the fact that realising it’s been thirty years is making me feel really, really old, one of the great pleasures of spending all that time on research has been that it’s enabled me to work in some of Britain’s (and the world’s) greatest repositories and libraries. So I thought one of the things I’d do to celebrate my ‘thirtieth’ is to share my experiences of those institutions – their good points, their quirks, and their sheer infuriating inanities. I’ve also visited very many of the local archives and record offices in Britain, from Perth to Truro and from Haverfordwest to Norwich, so next week I’ll try to produce a highly personal ‘top five’ (or possibly ten). I won’t produce my bottom five on the grounds that I may well want to work in those places again and don’t want to be banned…
So here we go: in alphabetical order, just so that nobody thinks this is in some sort of pecking order, here’s my ‘rough guide’ to ten places where I’ve spent many, many hours during the last thirty years. Just one or two good or bad points about each, but in the case of some of them, I could go on and on about the bad points. And on. And on. (For example, readers will note that I’ve passed no comment on the staff of individual institutions, again on the basis that I really do want to visit them again. But with hand on heart, I can say that nine of these repositories have staff who are unfailingly courteous, helpful and efficient. The tenth seems to have recruited all the finalists from the Britain’s Grumpiest Librarian and Archivist Competition. I leave it to regular users of these institutions to speculate on which that might be; as the old saying goes, ‘no names, no pack drill’.)
- The Bodleian Library, Oxford (above right) – Good: You’ve died and gone to Heaven. That’s certainly what working in the medieval Duke Humfrey’s Library feels like; a simply astonishing workplace, and it’s just a privilege to walk in there (where the tourists cannot go!), let alone to sit at desks amid the rows of ancient volumes. If you want to get a sense of what it would have been like to be a monk working on an illuminated manuscript in the Middle Ages, there’s no better place. Bad: If you want to get a sense of what it would have been like to be a monk working on an illuminated manuscript in the Middle Ages, there’s no better place – i.e. the hard seats, the lack of space, the lack of light in winter, the deathly glares from one’s fellow monks/readers when one breaks the vow of silence (Middle Ages: inadvertent audible meditation upon the Lamentations of Jeremiah; today: squeaky shoes).
- The British Library – Good: It has everything. Or almost everything, at least when it comes to printed books. And the work surfaces are the way work surfaces should be: spacious, well lit, and comfortably padded. Always has exhibitions that are worth seeing, plus a great shop, plus my favourite chillax space in any repository, the relatively little known roof terrace on the third floor. Bad: The ordering system and manuscripts catalogue seem to have been designed by a malevolent warlock trained at the Lord Voldemort School of Infuriating Pedantry. The maximum of ten items a day is a perpetual source of irritation, as is the overcrowding – a product of typical British forward planning, i.e. build something that was widely perceived as too small even when it first opened, then relax the admissions criteria and admit floods of undergraduates too. The consequence – get there before 10 or else witness examples of Desk Rage, with otherwise mild-mannered academics battling for the last remaining spaces (apart, of course, from the ones in the row which contains the weird old guy who snores and who no-one wants to sit next to. And no, that’s not me.)
- Cambridge University Library – Good: There’s just so much on open shelves! OK, the place is vast and rambling – one keeps expecting to come across confused bearded creatures who’ve been roaming the corridors for years, a la the Flying Dutchman, trying to find a particular book or the exit – but CUL treats its readers like grown-ups by actually putting the books where people can read them. Bad: I’ve tried to eliminate my innate Oxford bias here, but it has to be said: sorry, Cambridge, your library really does look like a very, very big crematorium.
- The Imperial War Museum (first visit only last week, so I’m very much a newbie there) – Good: A state-of-the-art online catalogue, plus documents delivered to one’s desk, rather than having to queue up behind ten people whose requests have gone missing and/or who have fiendishly obscure queries that the issuing staff can’t answer; this is the way academic study should be. Bad: the air con has clearly been designed to give those studying winter campaigns in Russia a stronger sense of empathy.
- The National Archives, Kew (above) – Good: Spacious, modern, well laid-out, rapid document delivery times, plus of course an absolute treasure trove of amazing original documents. I’ve spent many a happy hour ploughing through boxes of filthy seventeenth-century manuscripts, often in the knowledge that probably nobody has looked at the same material for a century or maybe longer. Bad: It looks like a Dr Who location, and it’s in Kew. Now, Kew is a very nice place – gardens, palace, river, etc. But to get to it means either a journey literally to the outer limits of the most obscure branch of the District Line (why are there always far more Ealing Broadway trains than ones to Richmond?) or negotiating the North Circular Road, a prospect far more daunting than any of Dante’s circles of Hell. And why is it that wherever I sit, even in the ‘quiet area’, I always seem to be sitting too close to the grannies who want to chat about their latest discoveries in the family history of their Great Uncle Herbert?
- The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh -Good: Location, location, location. At lunchtime, you can cross the road and go straight into the cafe where J K Rowling originally wrote Harry Potter, which is pretty much directly opposite. A few yards up the road and turn right – St Giles Cathedral and the Royal Mile. A few yards up the road and turn left – Edinburgh Castle. Bad; The manuscript reading room is small and windowless. As for the manuscript catalogue, don’t get me started. (The National Archives of Scotland scores on location, too, with the main building being at the end of Princes Street, right next to Waverley station, and with some of Edinburgh’s best pubs immediately adjacent to it. The bad thing about it – it’s in two buildings almost a mile apart, and invariably half the stuff I want is in one of them, half in the other. And in the last few years, getting from one to the other has involved finding a way through the vast, endless roadworks generated by that masterpiece of civic incompetence and urban carnage known as the new Edinburgh tram system…)
- The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth – Good: OK, cards on the table, this is my favourite repository anywhere, and not just because it’s Welsh. Airy, loads of space, pretty efficient document delivery, and best of all, a stunning view across the town and castle ruins to the sea. Sitting there at dusk in autumn or winter is an experience to die for. Bad: It’s in Aberystwyth.
- The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich – Good: Location, location, location again. World Heritage buildings in a stunning setting, plus a vast collection of material of all sorts, plus state-of-the-art digital catalogues and other study aids. Bad: Tourists. School parties. Endless film crews. But above all…the reprographics charges. To be fair, I could have made pretty much the same criticism of the Bodleian, the British Library, and several others on this list, but having dented my bank balance quite significantly when funding the illustrations for Pepys’s Navy, I have a particular gripe about the NMM. Maybe one day the Office of Fair Trading will investigate repositories’ reprographics charges, and their claims to hold the copyright for works of art and manuscripts when they actually don’t…but I won’t hold my breath.
- The Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge (left) – Good: Working on Pepys’s original manuscripts, surrounded by his entire library, in the bookcases built to his specification, all still shelved in exactly the order he originally established, in the building specifically built to house them all: let’s face it, it just doesn’t get much better than that. If you don’t feel inspired by the spirit of Pepys and the seventeenth century as a whole when you’re in there, you’re probably dead. Bad: The only repository where the term ‘opening hours’ is literally correct in the strict grammatical sense. When I was working there a lot, it opened to the public from 11 to 12, then from 2 to 3, but researchers could be literally locked in between 12 and 2. Then some health and safety jobsworth came along and decreed that the risk of researchers being burned alive if a fire broke out at lunchtime was clearly too great, so it then became a case of get in at 11, work frantically for an hour (with Japanese tourists and the like looking over one’s shoulder), kill time for a couple of hours, then repeat the experience in the afternoon. But in a way it all added to the glorious uniqueness of the experience!