Alisa Rod and I had the pleasure of attending the 11th Northumbria International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries and Information Services, a biennial meeting held this year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Many people think of the Northumbria Conference as the British complement to the ARL Library Assessment Conference held in the US. The conference venue, Our Dynamic Earth, put us in the middle of excited children exploring oceans and rainforests on the one side and a spectacular view of Arthur’s Seat on the other.

Following a divide-and-conquer strategy, Alisa and I attended different sessions. While she focused on surveys, I gained an international perspective on how public libraries measure their effects and their value, with presentations on assessment programs in the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, England and Wales. The papers were methodologically useful, enabling attendees to consider and discuss different approaches to tricky measurement problems. More than this, the sessions revealed wide variations in public library facilities and resources, and the diversity of populations served by these institutions. In particular, the presentation by Mary Nassimbeni of the University of Cape Town drove home the importance of a welcoming, accessible library to an underserved township community. Long live free, open libraries!

And speaking of the public sector, Alisa and I were among the lucky few who enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the National Library of Scotland. Now located on George IV Bridge a block from the Royal Mile and in view of the Edinburgh Castle, the library was originally founded in the late 17th century and quickly expanded in the 18th century after the 1710 Copyright Act gave it the right to claim a copy of any book published in Britain.

The National Library of Scotland still serves as an official repository of British publications but it has also made significant headway in increasing public access to its rich and varied collections. A guard once challenged prospective readers to justify their admission into the building but now anyone can walk in, enjoy a series of fascinating exhibits curated from the collections, and find or page books and other works. A robust acquisitions program and careful control of most materials in closed stacks ensure that the collections will always be there, even when resources cannot be found in local libraries.

To cap off our visit, we were taken through a portion of the stacks, a warren of narrow aisles lined with books in size order by year of publication. Such a different organizational strategy from what Alisa and I expected, and much closer to that employed in off-site storage or automated retrieval systems. But here all retrieval is done by expert staff who find their way through dark winding passages and only occasionally get lost. Fortunately, there are phones in the stacks for just this eventuality. I don’t think they have lost anyone yet.