Library tourism

I recently traveled to the UK for a good friend’s wedding. I’m not telling you this because I want to turn this blog into a LiveJournal-style diary; I’m telling you so we can all have a little laugh about what a librarian considers to be the most important tourist destinations when traveling. This post is sort of a follow-up to the one I wrote on the Re:Gen blog before leaving for my trip.

After touching down in Belfast, we spent our first three nights in Dublin. Unfortunately, the National Library of Ireland was closed when we tried to visit (late on a Saturday afternoon, oops!), but we saw two other libraries while we were there. The first was the Chester Beatty Library, which was recommended to us by someone on the train from Belfast to Dublin. The exhibitions were quite interesting, but we were disappointed to find it to be more of a museum than a library. There is no circulating collection, and although scholars can use the reading room to consult the collections (mainly old manuscripts and rare books), the emphasis seems to be on the exhibitions.

Two commenters on my Re:Gen post insisted that we also visit the Trinity College Library, and we were certainly not disappointed. Although the most highly promoted aspect of the library was their exhibition of the Book of Kells (I suppose this was how they justified the entrance fee), we were most fascinated by the Long Room, which contains row upon row of rare books.

Back in Belfast, we went to the Belfast Central Library, which we found to be similar to many public libraries in North America. What surprised us (and we found this to be the case across the city, not just at the library) was Belfast’s continuing interest in the Titanic. The ship was built in Belfast, and the library had a display of books and newspaper articles about it (we also saw ads for a Titanic walking tour). This apparent pride completely baffled us, since the Titanic was, as the kids would say today, an epic fail.

Next up was the Linen Hall Library. Founded in 1788, it’s the oldest library in Belfast, though you might not guess it from its current modern building. There we saw an interesting exhibition on the Troubles, which involved 70 political posters.

Finally, on our brief visit to London, we were able to spend a couple of hours at the British Library. We first noticed the lively square outside, where ping pong tables were freely available to the public, and a variety of people drank tea outside a cute little cafe. Once inside, we thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition on maps, with a focus on historic maps that were designed to be displayed on walls as art or propaganda (as opposed to maps designed for navigation). We discovered that we could not access the reading rooms without a member card, but it turned out that the process for acquiring a card was painless and efficient, so we were able to register and then enter the reading rooms. The collection is mainly held in closed stacks, but we were impressed to see the vast reading rooms filled with researchers. The Business & IP Centre was especially interesting, as it featured displays of inventions created by entrepreneurs who had made use of British Library resources when either creating or patenting their work.

Do you visit libraries while on vacation? What do you think is the best tourist city when it comes to libraries?