The Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Collection was established by Henry Wellcome, an eccentric medical enthusiast who is probably best described as a “funny sort of chap”. Those of us who had previously had the pleasure of wandering through his collections – where one can find torture chairs, a series of amputation knives, and forceps sitting alongside Florence Nightingale’s moccasins – were excited and intrigued about what could possibly follow.

After leaving the busy Euston Road and negotiating a bag check we were eager to see what awaited us. We were met by Elizabeth Graham of the Wellcome Collection library and after a brief history of the building and the Trust we were taken up to the start of the tour. The Wellcome Collection Library is a library that specialises in medical history and society. While open to the public its collection is reasonably specialised and frequent use is made by researchers and university students. It has a wide ranging collection, which broadly encompasses what we were told was the medical humanities.

Situated in the main site of the Wellcome Trust and recently renovated the layout is a contrast between timely vaulted reading rooms and wooden stacks with the open spaces and glass that often characterise modern library developments. It was a nice visual juxtaposition that highlighted some of the issues facing libraries in the changing information environment.

Throughout our visits so far a number of issues seem to keep cropping up and they were present here as well. We were told, for example, how the library is trying to encourage the public to enter the library as a widening of public engagement. Elizabeth enlightened us on the issues of space and digital resources, where libraries are facing constraints on storage space that are leading to an increase in digital subscriptions as well as user demand. Finally we were told how many library initiatives are often led by user interaction. The Wellcome Library also has some other issues of its own, such as accommodating three classification systems.

I think I speak for the group when I say that special mention must also be made of un-put-downable-cups and the scanners that have replaced the photocopiers. They capture digital images of the pages while allowing users to browse the book, which looks like a space age future in contrast to the mechanical dinosaurs that inhabit most other libraries, coughing out paper copies when not choking on errant sheets stuck somewhere within the machinery. Or perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, after the tour we were taken past the special collections room to a presentation on the web site. The blog is the main feature of the homepage and rather than being an after-thought provides good information on the features of the Wellcome Collection. We were told how staff are encouraged to develop ideas for the blog and that it functions as a good way for librarians to communicate their findings. The presentation finished with a mention of the digitalisation projects and how they are integrated on the catalogue, especially when the catalogue includes non-textual material, as well as experiments in web 2.0 features like the ability for users to tag within the catalogue.

The tour was an interesting insight into the latest developments in libraries as well as an exciting and innovative place to work. We left clutching free pens and pencils and before stepping back into the noisy modern world on Euston Road, a couple of us returned to the public collection of Henry Wellcome, who was definitely a funny sort of chap.

Matthew Seddon City University Library

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