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.