Volunteering at the Portico – Part 3

Over the past 2 weeks I have volunteered at the Portico during the following events:

  • Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater – talk by Journalist and Historian Ed Glinert. I was primarily responsible for preparing for the event, serving and selling drinks, arranging furniture and assisting people while they viewed and handled the libraries 1st-edition of the book which was published 200 years ago. Ed talked about de Quincey’s relationship to Manchester – de Quincey was born in Manchester and spent some of his childhood here; he mentioned it a number of times in the text and specifically references the Portico in a later-added footnote (mistakenly calling it the Porch). In preparation for the talk I read the text, as learning about Manchester’s (social) history is something I am keen to pursue further, and I also wanted to contextualise the reference to the Portico. Besides – It’s a brief but fascinating (and passionate) account of opium addiction and certifies how common-place it was across society to take on a daily basis. Ed referenced that de Quincey’s relatives were buried in St Anne’s churchyard, so after the talk I re-visited St Anne’s – unfortunately I don’t think the de Quincey family headstone is publicly accessible any more. I was really interested to hear how working class people could pick up a ‘tablet’ of opium over the pharmacy counter on their way home from work. Viewing de Quincey’s account through the lens of class was also quite interesting – as a privileged, wealthy young man who chose to abandon college and wonder the streets of London, penniless. De Quincey was in debt throughout much of his life and was later supported financially by his daughters. I’m often seeking ways to connect to cities by learning about the history of its buildings, the people who lived there and its history more broadly. I intend to read Suspiria de Profundis and the English Mail-Coach to explore all this further.
  • Digitising artworks on paper – As part of the exhibition Refloresta! by Maria Nepomuceno the Portico audience were invited to create artworks based on the installation. I took photographs of approximately 160 artworks, some were created during life-drawing sessions and depicted models surrounded by art and books, others were just of the sculptures themselves and the room – books, shelves, the clock and dome covering the library. Many were made using graphite, others pencil, some black pen, coloured chalk pastels and felt tip pens. Each one had to be photographed under a consistent light source – I was instructed to use the natural light from one of the windows in the library – and shadows avoided. (Photo below) The drawings were made by people of different ages and some were made collaboratively (which I could tell by the signatures). The Portico aren’t currently able to digitise their collection, partly because it is costly, but it also demands dedicated space and staffing time. I found this Collections Trust report (2010) The Cost of Digitising Europe’s Cultural Heritage: http://nickpoole.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/digiti_report.pdf in which the authors define digitisation and outline the cost of digitising different kinds of collections.

Every year, Europe’s museums, archives and libraries and Member State Governments expend considerable time, effort and resources to digitise their tremendously rich and diverse Collections, both to aid long-term preservation and to drive new models of public engagement.

Collections Trust, 2010
Pastel drawing showing model, books and sculpture.

They report (2010) states that:

European libraries include the following types of organisation:
– National libraries
– Public Libraries
– University Libraries
– School & Special Libraries

There are an estimated 45 National Libraries in the Council of Europe, representing a total of approximately 178 service points. National libraries are not normally lending libraries. Instead they collect and care for printed material of particular significance. It is important to consider
that most of these institutions have been running active Mass Digitisation Programmes for 5-10 years, and that a significant proportion of their collections are already digitised.

The estimated 205,000 Public Libraries throughout Europe fulfil a variety of functions, including lending of printed books, support for learning, provision of Internet access and the provision of access to newspapers, magazines and journals. For the purposes of calculating the total holdings of books in European libraries, we acknowledge that the primary function of Public Libraries is the provision of access to multiple copies of books. Hence, when considering the question of Digitising the total number of available titles (as opposed to the total holdings of books per se), then we will need to exclude from the calculation the book stock held by Public Libraries.

  • The Library: A Fragile History, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. This book covers the history of the library, I felt very lucky to hear Pettegree and Weduwen introduce the topic and answer some questions from the audience. I took pages of notes but the primary prevailing thought is that the existence of libraries has been under threat since they were founded, and in particular, public libraries.

The public library model took a long time to materialise – the authors stated that the endurable model for the public ownership of books came from Thomas Plume’s Library (founded in 1704), Lambeth Library and the London Library. Throughout history, people have become stuck on the question of who or what a library should be for, the impossibility of predicting the sensibilities of future generations or what content they might enjoy or require and also who would be happy to inherit a book collection from a previous generation (they noted that the Protestant reformation proves how easily collections could be rendered obsolete).

Thomas Plume Library, Image Source: https://www.independentlibraries.co.uk/thomas-plumes-library

The invention of printing made books more accessible, or as der Weduwen put it, it initiated the ‘democratisation of luxury’ yet the threat of obsolescence was always lurking around the corner. They concluded the talk by saying how adaptation is crucial – including giving more room to computers and the digital. I bought (and had signed) a copy of the book, and in particular cannot wait to read more about the ‘twopenny libraries’ of corner-shops and working class readers. After a quick google search I came across this article: https://medium.com/@Borg_Drone_18040611/publishing-and-social-attitudes-54c5989f9dd4 which features an image of Chetham’s (where I also work) and where I sourced the image below.

In the next blog post I’ll discuss Day 2 of collections care with Jim Duff.

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