The Library of the Institute of Historical Research

Tuesday 7th May 2013

After an interesting feedback session with the British History Online team, we headed upstairs for a tour of the Institute of Historical Research’s Library with Mike Townsend, Collection Librarian.

We were treated to a trip up the Tower, where Mike had dug out some of the library’s treasures, which he felt represented the work of the library at the IHR today. This was a really interesting and useful way of telling us about the library and illustrating the work it does. Plus we all enjoy an old book or two: Diderot’s Encyclopedie, a major Enlightenment work, certainly caught our attention! The key themes illuminated were collection management, discovery and promotion.

The IHR is currently reclassifying its material and is increasingly discovering new gems among its collection. They have been uncovering items which have never been catalogued, which is quite incredible. As well as cataloguing and classifying these works, the IHR has been working diligently to ensure that these works enrich their current collections, publicising them on their website, seeking out themes and trends, and writing interesting blog posts. For example, see this fascinating post by the lovely Katherine Quinn:

Collection subject guides have been created highlighting topics within the IHR’s vast collections, including books and e-resources. One example Mike gave us was the History of Food and Drink – this topic encompasses a great array of material, with works ranging from swan offal to cannibalisation. (  I really admire the fact that the IHR is striving to engage with its collections to make them more accessible, user-friendly and engaging, particularly for readers who wish to browse. It struck me as a great demonstration of 'adding value'! 

However, the reach of the IHR's Library has been limited to some extent by being short-staffed. Mike explained that they have been unable to go to universities to promote their materials or to spread word of their extensive and exciting collections. Things are looking positive for the future however, when they will be moving to new premises, as they are planning a grand launch to promote their materials. It’s encouraging to see that in a difficult climate, the IHR is still expanding and it is working hard to reach more people and to promote its collections.

The calm carpeted library itself seemed a lovely traditional place to visit. People were working hard and there was a nice ambience – very different from the bustle of the business library I currently work in!

After a brief tour, Mike took us into a study room to give us an introduction to cataloguing. After kindly furnishing us with a guide to cataloguing and classifying, he spoke about the importance of these skills to librarianship and the emphasis on ‘cat and class’ at UCL. Mike told us that the more subject knowledge you gain, the better your cataloguing can be, as you can include more subject headings, insert extra notes and provide further information to make each entry rich in detail. He tried to impress upon us the importance of cataloguing skills, particularly if you end up as the sole librarian, and spoke of MARC21, entries and fields. 

It was great to hear Mike sound so positive about an area I’ve always perceived to be rather tedious, so that was encouraging. As a host, Mike was interesting, engaging and lively. Another enjoyable Tuesday afternoon! 

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