A Visit to the Westminister Reference Library

Westminster Reference Library appears to be easy to find so we all arrive too early. There is a cold wind blowing from Leicester Square and we decide to wait inside the library. However, Eveleen Rooney welcomes us in straight away and ushers us to the staff kitchen where we sit down on the couches and arm chairs and are served coffee and tea.

Following a sociable introduction, Peter Collins takes us to the front hall of the building and explains about history of library. Isaac Newton and Fanny Burney have lived on this site. The library itself was built in 1928. He then goes on to tell us how, in the present day, the library essentially has two special collections: Arts and Business. And although it is a public reference library, it has 10.000 (art) lending books. The library has 12 members of staff.

We are taken on a tour around part of the building by Eveleen Rooney, starting on the ground floor. This floor is a heavily used space, with books on law and business. This is also where one of the Westminster libraries’ Business Information Points (BIPs) is located. The BIP consists of computers with access to business resource databases, surrounded by shelves with useful book material. The BIP’s aim is to support local enterprise as well as researchers. Eveleen’s job has changed a lot from back room cataloguing to front of house service communicating over the past years, she tells us. Eveleen then takes us to the oldest part of the building: a cold and damp cellar, part of Newton´s house. Moving on to the newer part of the basement, we find the official publications, which are reference only. All books have barcodes and when returned they are marked as used to keep records. The mezzanine is yet another part of the basement, with a very low ceiling. This is where the serials are kept.

On the first floor we are met by Peter again, who shows us the Art & Design collection. The collection comprises 40.000 reference volumes, such as current art magazines. As Peter explains, this part of the library holds materials strong in breadth rather than depth. Another feature of the library is its long opening hours, which is an advantage to the National Art Library. This floor also has an exhibition space. Wooden banisters and book cases, coupled with the calm atmosphere, make this floor an attractive space. 80% of the art and design books are not on open access but can be retrieved in the blink of an eye.

Peter then takes us to the second floor, home of the Art lending library. Like the first floor, this collection is very much geared towards picture research. We walk across the floor and through a door leading to Peter’s work space. His desk is hidden behind shelves with large photography books and in fact buried in art books. We gather around it and learn all about the diverse events that have taken place in the library in the past years. Workshops, talks and tours, book launches and gigs. Theatre space is created by rolling the stacks away, as they are on wheels. Even a knitting group meets regularly amid the bookshelves. Westminster Reference Library is fortunate to have certain celebrities come and use the library. We leave this versatile library with a sense of surprise.

Geri van Essen
Institute of Historical Research Library

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