Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Libraries #1

SOAS Library (Photo:SOAS)
Libraries are very important to me, always have been, however my relationship with them is not an easy one. I love them, but I also hate them. I particularly hate them in their digital mode. I have decided to write a couple of posts discussing  this relationship.  Today I shall focus on the negatives.
I have to backtrack. When I left my teaching post in 2013, my employing university did not offer me membership of its library, as it's usually done with staff who retire - I officially took 'early retirement', even though I was way too young to retire from anything. It was a way of quitting, in order to start anew.
To be honest I had no need for membership of that particular university library and did not pursue ways of obtaining it, did not even make enquiries. The library was rather small, located in an area that was not, for me, within easy reach  and  it was not particularly well stocked.
However, I needed library access and my local library was not enough, not even their reference section. I needed Shibboleth - those of you involved in the academy, either as staff or students, know exactly what I am talking about.  As it happens, I maintained a research connection with one of the colleges of the University of London, which was also my alma mater. Through that research link I had full membership of the college library, renowned for its specialist collections and on campus and off campus access to Senate House library . Off campus access meant  I could read as many ebooks and explore all the databases to which those libraries subscribe - and they were many - from the comfort of my home or at the beach or wherever I happened to be. Of course, as an alumna of that college, I already had privileged access, that is, free of charge, to Jstor and Project Muse, also off campus, but since I was regarded as staff - even though I was not on their payroll -  my off campus access to Shibboleth  automatically covered Jstor and Project Muse. And I could also physically borrow books, with a good borrowing allowance.
You never fully realise the value of what you have until you lose the thing.
The British Library, London . Google images

In July this year, the bonanza was over.  Library collections are increasingly becoming digital, replenished with  ebooks rather than new print books. It means that library space can be optimised. But licensing is an issue. To provide access to ebooks libraries have to buy licenses. Off campus access licenses are expensive and  academic libraries in particular,  are choosing to pay for only staff (on payroll) and students, who anyway  pay for such access ten times fold through their exorbitant tuition fees. Suddenly, research staff of a lesser category, such as the one I was in, were not allowed to access databases off campus and when on campus they could only use computer terminals belonging to the college to access such databases, with limited downloading. To add insult to injury the college even sent me a letter saying they were renewing my research associate status for another year and I, as academic visitor,  could join the library for £200 something a year - with no off campus access. Academic visitor my foot, I am still an alumna. It means that until regulations are changed - fingers crossed they will not, but you never know - I can use JStor and Project Muse for free wherever I am! I ain't going to pay £200 plus for it, not if I can help it.
 Overall  this new development was a total disaster. No Shibboleth, either on or off campus. That's tough. I am in the middle of revising the typescript of a book based on research I have done over the past four to five years, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019 - hold your horses, I am not yet allowed to give details. It was, for me, a very big deal.
It was imperative I should sort out proper library access. I need to have off campus access to reading material wherever I am and whenever I want to read the particular book or document, which could well happen in the middle of the night. Needless to say,  the books I need are not found at my local library despite the very commendable scheme 'Access to Research'.
What about the British Library? It has everything. Well, almost. Many students, researchers and writers go there, it's a great place to visit and it also happens to be fairly close to where I live - by London standards, that is. However - sorry folks, I know you will not like this - I detest the British Library. Before downloading ebooks, if only temporarily,  became the norm and xeroxing was what students and researchers did in libraries, the British Library charged pretty exorbitant fees for photocopies - still does, for scanning and on demand - and it checked very zealously that you only xeroxed a limited number of pages. They actually did it for you, you could not do it yourself, you had to fill in a request form for photocopying. Now it forbids you to use your own computer to read ebooks in reading rooms (unlike the National Art Library at the V&A),  in case you download them, which is not allowed due to licensing. You must use their own terminals and holy crap, that library is crowded, plus it has ridiculous opening hours at the weekend, which is when people can really devote time to reading. As for physical books, you have to request them several hours in advance of consulting them in the reading rooms and it can take up to two days to get them, the new books are obviously not in the main reading rooms but off site and have to be fetched. It's a system that does not suit me and tends to irritate me, though I fully appreciate why it has to be this way. The bottom line is that I have a reader's pass and hardly ever use it. Still, it is free. That's a relief.

The London Library. Google images

The august British Library not being my ideal choice, I looked at different options then I finally decided to join, for a fee of course, the London Library. It's a great library, another venerable institution, in Mayfair, a prime London location. I will spare you the details of its history, which you can read online.  But I did not join for the events, the beautiful reading rooms and all the accoutrements. What drew me to it was their Catalyst system, in other words their online library access, which is available off site. It does not give me access to all the databases I need - I had to fork out more money to have access, separately and privately, to a specific database which I regard as essential to my work.  But it will do for now. I still need to be able to get hold of particular books which only my alma mater has, so at some point I shall take advantage of the alumni discount and take out a yearly library membership in order to be able to check out a few physical books or read them on campus. I already have access to Jstor and Project Muse - and will make good use of them, don't you worry.
The upshot of this long and convoluted story is to reiterate  that access to knowledge does not come free. and access to ebooks is a very complex issue, involving licenses, copyright and profit, usually the publishers'.  If you are writing a book that requires research (most books do, especially non-fiction, even if they are not meant to be academic textbooks) and have no access to a decently stocked library - which these days means a library with subscriptions to multiple databases -  it's hard to do it. You just have to be willing to give your credit card a workout or use imaginative ways to access books online.  I find this profit driven licensing extremely disturbing. It's going to get worse, as print books are being supplanted by ebooks. At some point publishers should consider offering subscriptions to individuals, but this means bypassing libraries.   It's complex and I can offer no solution.
So this is why I hate libraries: their metamorphosis into digital books repositories and database subscribing bodies is ruled by profit and it differentiates among users.  The British Library model might seem to be a very democratic approach, but forbidding downloads and charging for scanning almost twice the price of the actual book is actually problematic and not good enough for me. I do not like it at all.
My next post will be about what I love about libraries, a trip down memory lane,  because libraries are no longer what they used to be.
By the way this article by Jake Orlowitz is full of great advice about library access! I suggest bookmarking it, I picked up a lot of useful information through it.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Loving my tea

I have turned into a tea drinker. Not that I did not drink tea before, I did. But it was always mugs and tea bags, and if I had to choose I would rather drink coffee. However, my son went to Russia last August and told me that on his long train journey to Moscow from I-forget-which-other-city he had tea served from a samovar. Oh my god, a samovar! It brought back memories, my father used to have a massive silver one, which  was rather ancient - he got it in Turkey in the 1930s.   It would heat up with charcoal but no one at home would attempt to use it  in case we set the house on fire. We just thought it was a bit extravagant to have a samovar, even though, unusually for people living in Italy, we were tea drinkers and could have enjoyed using it if only we knew how to do it safely.
After my son told me about the samovar, I got quite obsessed with the idea of getting one myself and found it on ebay.  It is an old electric samovar with no thermostat, from soviet times, still in working order,  and with a British plug, I tested it. But a samovar for one or two  people is not quite functional, waste of water and electricity really, so I decided to keep it mostly for decoration, and use it on special occasions, when I have lots of guests, which actually means never as I am not the entertaining type. I have to say it looks rather impressive. Ok, but what about my tea drinking?
 All right. I use a teapot, loose leaf tea, a strainer and a second pot filled with very hot water to act as my samovar's substitute. With a samovar you bring the water to the boil, fill a teapot (warmed up by rinsing it with hot water) with strong black tea,  fill the teapot  with a little hot water from the samovar , allow to brew, fill a cup,  refill the teapot with more hot water from the samovar, serve someone else or fill your cup and  drink again. The hot water added to the dark  brew dilutes the very strong tea and makes it more drinkable.  A samovar is perfect for many tea drinkers, that's why you will find it on Russian trains.
I seem to do well with the hot water pot and of course, a tea cosy. Yes,  I went hunting for one, after toying with the idea of making one myself, with my very own sewing machine. Not this time. I found a pretty one for less that £2!
I usually like Earl Grey, which is definitely not very dark and strong, but I might  add a pinch of Assam when I brew my tea, to give it some 'umph'. I do not add milk - I am off milk, completely - but I might add a little honey, very occasionally a slice of lemon or, more usually, just nothing. I love the taste of tea on its own, its fragrance and aroma.
There is also something quite delightful about sitting down with your tray, go through the preparations and savour your cuppa, reading a book or typing on your laptop or just doing nothing but sipping your tea. A good morning ritual, to be repeated in the afternoon, I rather like that.
Did you know that  according to an old English superstition if your tea has a few bubbles it means money is coming your way? I don't actually like those bubbles and I know that they are often due to the way you pour the tea, perhaps from too far above, hence the froth  (or from soap residue, but then you must not wash your teapot with any kind of soap!).

Teapot from China from V&A collection

I also drink herbal tea, or green tea with lemon grass - I buy the latter already mixed, I am a real beginner when it comes to making my own tea brew.
Tea drinking is an art and as such it has to be perfected. I never imagined when I was younger that I would write a panegyric to tea but then how many of us can claim to be exactly the same as when they were younger? Tastes develop and evolve, though I know some people that will say that they have always liked  x or y, 'you just never paid attention'. Never mind.
Let's have a cup of tea.