Visit to the Natural History Museum Library, 30th April 2013

Last week a smaller group than usual – others of us caught up in the start of summer term rush – journeyed to South Kensington to visit the Natural History Museum Library. And sorry to say it, but those who couldn’t make it missed a treat. So much so that I am going to write this blog post as a top ten reasons why being a NHM librarian is such a splendid and glamorous thing. Starting with:

1.    The Museum itself. What a place to work! Usually I am more of a V&A girl and haven’t crossed over to this side of Exhibition Road for many years, but those dinosaurs got me as soon as we walked in. Aside from the obvious attractions, the details in Waterhouse’s architecture keep you continually entertained. Terracotta animals and plants are dotted about the building, with extinct creatures in the east wing and living in the west. The NHM started life in the 18th century as part of the British Museum, moving to the current site in the mid-19th century, and now houses the most important natural history collection in the world, an animatronic T.rex, and a library.

2.    The variety of visitors. The primary role of library is to support the research of the museum – there are PhD students based there, and MSc students at nearby Imperial College who are linked with the museum. Alongside the academic research that is done in the library, visitors ranging from families from Australia wanting to know more about the first fleet, to Sir David Attenborough himself come to access the library’s collections. Anyone can register and is free to join. Visits are by appointment only so they don’t have many casual callers, and a quiet, serious research environment is fostered.  Readers can request anything from the collections, but first edition Darwins needs a good reason before they are retrieved!

3.    Working in a museum library. This is a bit different to many people’s experience and perception of library work. There are elements of the academic environment (working with students and academic staff) as well as other facets that might usually be associated with public library, such as public outreach. The library also serves a number of independent researchers, including art students. NHM library and archives are members of MLAG, the UK Museum Librarians and Archivists Group – a good place to start looking if you are interested in working in the sector.

4.    Learning opportunities. As a reference library where material is retrieved in advance and invigilated, staff here have an amazing opportunity to interact with visitors and talk to them about their research. We spoke to staff about their own academic backgrounds, and found that not everybody had a science background.  The best way to learn about the subjects covered by the library is to get to know the collections – the more you retrieve from the store, the more you can absorb, often by learning from readers and their research. Again, did I mention Attenborough? NHM staff can gain specialist subject knowledge in various areas. Which leads me on to…

5.    Moonlighting as an author. NHM used to have several small libraries littered across the museum, covering various the subject areas of natural history: botany, zoology, ornithology, entomology anthropology, palaeontology, and mineralogy. Each library had its own team, and staff came to specialise in these areas. Some years ago it was decided that the libraries should merge and centralise into a more conventional academic-style structure. Still, the various expertises remained, and to make use of this library staff are now heavily involved in curating the Images of Nature gallery within the museum, and in the publication of the accompanying catalogues. We met special collections librarian Andrea Hart who spoke to us about her involvement in the soon-to-be-installed exhibition and catalogue, utilising the women’s collection (we had a sneak-peek at some amazingly vibrant coloured drawings of natural history and ethnography by Olivia Tonge from the early 1900s). Andrea is able to make use of her knowledge and research skills to write and be published – an unusual opportunity. Similarly, Hellen Sharman was able to write on her own specialist subject of ephemera, in an article in the museum’s magazine Evolve.

6.    Art collections. Unlike in many other museum and gallery structures, the art collections in NHM come under the wing of the library and archives. The library’s special collections (more of which shortly) encompasses rare books, manuscripts and art works. You might not think of it, but the museum has the third largest art on paper collection in the UK. You can have a look at their online picture library for an idea of NHM image collections.

7.     Conservation. Now for some photos. This is one of the special collections items that Andrea was kind enough to get out for us. I’ve gone for the oldest, which is in fact the second oldest book in the collection: Pliny’s Natural History from 1472. Note the vellum binging and handsome furniture.

We also saw botanical illustrations by Arthur Harry Church, Kew Gardens botanical artist Franz Bauer, Ferdinand Bauer and Georg Ehret. With such important, and in many cases delicate, examples in the collection, staff take conservation seriously. All prints are mounted on acid-free boards, and hinged with Japanese paper & wheat starch paste. This means that should they be needed for exhibition, water can be applied to the hinge, and the artwork removed from the board without damaging the paper. All boards are tissue interleaved and stored in solander boxes, and kept in the special collections store which has UV-filtered lights. Perspex mounts and book supports are used to display rare books; and smaller pieces such as photographs are stored in polyester archival sleeves, meaning that any annotations or other useful content on the reverse of the item can be seen whilst minimising manual handling of the originals.

8.    Digitisation. Having been involved in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) since its inception five years ago, the NHM is still working as part of this project which aims to digitise biodiversity literature to create an open access resource for researchers. Within the library there is a digitisation workstation, including this hard-to-miss scanning unit known as a scribe.

Out of copyright published material can be requested, and any of these requests held by the library can be digitised here and uploaded to BHL website as tiffs, later converted to JP2 files.  The pressure that these units put on the books is potentially quite destructive, so special collections items are not included in this project.

9.    Social media. They are ever so modern at the NHM, and have all the social media covered. I could make a pun here (something on the subject of tweeting about ornithology...); instead I will draw your attention to the NHM blog, NaturePlus. The library’s part of this blog is widely used, with new acquisitions updates and special items of the month, as well as more discursive pieces written by different library staff. They do also use Twitter...  @NHM_Library. If you look closely you might even see a twitpic of us “lovely graduate trainee librarians”!

10.  Performing. As if all of this wasn’t exciting enough, the library also get involved in the public engagement programme in the museum. There have been live video links to lecture theatre (on the other side of the museum) to showcase interesting items from the collection that can’t be removed from the controlled conditions of the reading room – for example William Smith’s geological map from 1815 (for a sense of the scale of it, see this blog post). Joining up the library with the museum’s public events is a really effective way of unlocking the collection, and must be great fun for the staff members who get to show their extrovert side in doing it!

So there we have it. Huge thanks to Hellen Sharman for organising such a great visit. 


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