I spent last Saturday afternoon at the new Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, having been invited to a special ‘bloggers’ preview’ at the end of the library’s first week with a properly restored full service following a very long hiatus. As I’ve been using the ‘old Caird’ for about thirty years, I thought I’d devote this post to a review of the new facility in comparison with the old. Much more information about the library – one of the world’s greatest resources for the study of naval and maritime history – and pictures of the new facility can be found in the Caird’s own blog.
Aesthetically, there’s simply no comparison between old and new. One approached the old Caird by way of a splendid rotunda which contained a bust of Sir James Caird upon a pedestal. One approaches the new by the sort of narrow, functional back stair one would find as the fire escape of a provincial hotel; poor old Sir James is now stuck out of the way on a landing. One entered the old Caird by splendid wooden double doors which opened onto a carpeted aisle with large glass-doored bookcases on either side, leading to a small number of large tables. The new Caird has the look and feel of a small university library, with single rows of double-sided tables down the middle and low bookcases along the sides. The tables of the old library allowed an individual researcher copious amounts of space for handling large manuscripts; the individual spaces in the new one seem to be less generous than many school desks (certainly far less generous than the individual space available at, say, the National Archives and the British Library), and one can easily envisage cases of ‘elbow- room rage’ as researchers working on large items encroach slightly into their neighbour’s precious space.
In a way, though, all of this sums up the crucial difference between the two libraries. The old Caird was clearly designed as, and essentially remained, a reading room for a small elite band of gentlemen-scholars, not too different from the ambience of the West End clubs they frequented. (On one occasion many years ago I was engrossed in study of a particularly interesting manuscript when I became aware of a presence at my shoulder. ‘And what are you studying?’ asked a familiar voice. It was the Duke of Edinburgh.) The old library simply could not accommodate the increasing numbers of people who wished to use it, particularly after the boom in interest in genealogy. Above all, its lack of storage space meant that large amounts of material had to be outhoused, leading to all sorts of delays and angst. (I remember several occasions when American or other foreign researchers turned up at the issue desk claiming that they only had one day available for study in Greenwich, only to be told that it would take forty-eight hours for the document they dearly wished to see to arrive from storage.) The new Caird is divided into two parts, one area for those who wish to chat as they attempt to unearth Great Uncle Harry’s maritime career and one for individual researchers who wish to work quietly, albeit in uncomfortably close proximity to others. Its substantial on-site storage facilities, which we were taken to see and which are truly impressive, mean that many more documents will reach readers much more quickly – 40 minutes is the target time – and will hopefully lead to fewer tearful scenes of woe. Compared with the ancient, rickety self-service photocopier in the old Caird, the new reprographic facilities are state-of-the-art (notably an impressive book scanner), while both the excellent new online catalogue and the ability to take one’s own digital photographs would have saved me literally weeks, if not months, of work in the past.
Finally, the new Caird has two distinct advantages over its predecessor. Firstly, it has a splendid view over Greenwich Park; secondly, it ought to be quieter than the old, which in latter years was sandwiched between the entrance used by noisy school parties on the one side and the museum’s main public space, Neptune Court, on the other.
So all in all, I’ll always look back fondly on the old Caird but I look forward to working in the new one, a far more appropriate working environment for the twenty-first century. Indeed, I shall have to spend quite a bit of time there in the coming months as I complete the research for Britannia’s Dragon. But a plea and a warning…the reading room would look far better if its bare antiseptic walls were broken up by a few pictures from the museum’s vast collection – and beware of my elbows!