Visit to the British Museum Libraries - 27th April 2017

Our latest library visit brought us behind the scenes of the British Museum. Not many people realize that the museum houses not only around eight million objects but nine libraries as well. We had the opportunity to visit four of them.

Starting in the Great Court we first were pointed towards the remainder of the library which is usually most famously associated with the British Museum, the Reading Room. It used to be the main reading room of the British Library until both institutions were formally separated in 1973, and the library moved to its new purpose-built location near St Pancras. Currently the Reading Room's future is still being determined but there are plenty of other functioning library resources within the museum offering alternative spaces to read and study.



The first stop on our tour was the Anthropology Library and Research Centre, located near the museum's north entrance. Formed through the amalgamation of the British Museum's Ethnography library and the library of the Royal Anthropological Institute, it is now one of the world's major specialist anthropology libraries, containing over 120000 volumes. The collection is particularly strong in material culture and its global outlook. With holdings stretching back to the sixteenth century, the collection developed roughly in sync with the evolution of the field of anthropology in Britain during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and continues to be expanded with current publications. It features many books of collectors for the museum, including original travel accounts by European explorers and settlers in Africa, North and South America, Asia and Oceania. Among them, you can find curiosities such as a little book titled: "The hairy giants: or a description of two islands in the South Sea, called by the names of Benganga and Coma [...]" from 1766 narrating a (possibly imaginary) discovery by Henry Schooten. The library will also assist in upcoming projects in the collaboration between and British Museum and the Google Cultural Institute, so check back in future for further updates. 


Next we were led to the Asia Library, which is only accessible to museum staff and managed by only one librarian. We were given some valuable insight into what it is like to the the sole librarian in a museum library. The position involves a lot of overlap between library and archival work with a high focus on research and collection curation. Although the job is usually quite secluded, the librarian also serves museum curators and at times external researchers who utilize the library to support their research. At the end of the presentation, we were challenged with a very useful cataloguing exercise, in which we had to spot mistakes in catalogue records using examples from the collection ranging from Chinese lacquer to East Asian propaganda posters.


We were then escorted to the Coins and Medals Library, one the world's leading numismatic libraries with over 20000 books, 600 journals and a wide range of pamphlets and sales catalogues. Running over three floors is covers numismatics and economics from across the globe. Access is by request only for numismatic researchers and the library is also used by the staff of Coins and Medals department to consult the books alongside the coins in the collection. How this simultaneous consultation of both textual and material collections works in practice was demonstrated to us by one of the curators of the department, specializing in coins from the Middle East. Combining the historic coin collections from early Islamic times with a modern book of engravings documenting Middle Eastern coinage from different periods, we were able to identify matches between the two. 


The library of the department of  Greece and Rome was the final stop on our tour. The main function of the library, as with the ones before, is to hold books relating to the museum's collections to aid its curators. At the same time though, we could also see a strong glint of institutional history in the items we were shown. For example, the library holds extensive correspondence from previous collectors, curators, librarians and researchers, which show a history of the library's and the museum's collection development and its interactions with the public.

My main thought when we had completed the tour was that it is a great shame that these libraries are not more well known. They are an important resource and support service to one of the UK's major cultural institutions and form an integral part of its institutional history. The visit made me appreciate another layer of the British Museum beyond its objects and exhibitions. There are multiple important services behind the scenes that we often don't even consider. I was prompted to think differently about how libraries are used too. In my mind (and possibly in most other people's) the library user is someone who mainly consults textual materials and reproductions of non-textual materials. Museum library users are able to view textual and material cultural items in one space to increase their understanding of what they study, creating a more intimate relationship between the text and object than is usually found in most humanities disciplines. This is part of the great benefits of our visits: being able to consider and compare our experiences as new librarians in relation to the vast landscape of all kinds of ways libraries can be used and how librarians adapt to that.

If you would like to know more about the British Museum and its libraries, the museum offers information on its page for its libraries and archives and you can consult all of the libraries' collection via their catalogue.

Visit to the London Library - 15th December 2016

Our last visit of 2016 led us to the London Library. Tucked away just a few minutes’ walk from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly on St. James’s Square, the London Library is what many avid readers and librarians would most likely call their “dream library”. Originally an old town house, extended over the decades to accommodate its rapidly growing collections, the library is full of picturesque reading rooms with old wooden furniture, comfortable armchairs and balustrades for, of course, more books. It is also probably one of the only libraries that still maintains its book lifts. The library opened in 1841 and was envisioned by its founder, Scottish author, historian, and biographer Thomas Carlyle, in contrast to the then often overcrowded and reference-only British Museum Library. Carlyle wanted to create a subscription and lending library where readers could join for a membership fee and read or study in a tranquil, comfortable atmosphere as well as borrow books to read at home. Now members are able to read a vast variety of over one million books, mainly on arts and humanities subjects, ranging from the sixteenth century to the present day, across 2000 subjects and in 55 different languages with about 8000 new acquisitions made annually. 

One of the book lifts in the London Library

Caring for such a large and historically significant collection while allowing most of it to be open access and borrowed is no small task. So it seems appropriate that we were first ushered to the conservation studio, where the team’s current project is to implement preventative conservation techniques by packing old and fragile books into specially made preservation boxes tailored to each book’s individual size to prevent exposure to light, dust, pollution or other wear and tear.

Afterwards we were led to the Victorian grille-floored book stacks which run over four floors and form part of the structure of one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. Dating from the 1890s, they were a then great innovation in the construction of libraries to aid with ventilation and temperature control.

The Victorian Stacks of the London Library

Here we were also introduced to the library’s unique classification system, invented by Charles Hagberg Wright, who was appointed as librarian of the London Library in 1893. He set out to aim for a good balance between readers finding what they were interested in while allowing for browsing and serendipitous finds. Some sections we found included: a section for every King Charles you could think of, epigrams, and cheese. The classification system was particularly interesting to me because the library in which I am completing my Graduate Traineeship, the Warburg Library, has a similarly idiosyncratic way of sorting its books. In the Warburg Library we talk about the concept of the “good neighbour”, in which books are grouped to aid researchers to serendipitously find the book they did not know they were looking for and which could provide them with a key new insight into their field.

While being led through the many rooms and floors of the library, including the famous Victorian Reading Room, we encountered further interesting features. One of them was the Small Books Cabinet, in which around 350 books measuring up to 5 inches tall are kept, so they do not disappear between their larger companions. Another was the enormous, multi-volume bound catalogue (now supplemented by a digital version) of the library and the so-called Times Room in which the back runs of hundreds of periodicals, including original copies of over 200 years of the Times newspaper are stored.

The Small Books Cabinet
While exploring the library’s many corners, our guides illustrated the London Library’s history for us. The London Library has had a lively history with many illustrious patrons and readers to people it, including T.S. Elliot, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and other giants of the literary world, which gave the staff a rich canon of narratives to pass on to us. One we were told was how T.S. Elliot presented a hand-written manuscript of The Wasteland for auction to help fund the London Library to pay a tax bill from Westminster Council after it had been incorrectly classed as a “gentlemen’s club” rather than an educational institution. Another was about how library staff actually lived in the library during the Second World War to be prepared for immediate on-site rescue action should the library be bombed (as indeed it was in 1944 destroying over 16000 volumes). Its history with its many eccentricities is part of the essential character of the library and what makes it so appealing.

As a Library trainee from an academic research library, it was very worthwhile seeing how a historic, independent lending library differs in its nature, particularly in terms of its readership, membership policy, collection policy and funding structure. Thank you to Amanda Corp, Head of Enquiries, and Amanda Stebbings, Head of Member Services, for the tour and for answering our questions afterwards.


For more information on the London Library, you can visit their website here: http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/