Royal Geographic Society

This afternoon we visited the library of the Royal Geographic Society. The library is home to 2 million items, including 1/2 a million images, 250,000 books and bound periodicals, 500 boxes of artefacts (such as correspondences), and 1500 instruments (the smallest part of the collection, but the most popular). We convened in the Foyle Reading Room, which opened in 2004, as part of an “unlocking the library” movement (in hearing this, I was reminded of the LAARC, and the need to encourage use of the collections, in order to justify their continued preservation and indeed their very existence). Librarian Eugene, who was our guide to the collection, told us some fascinating stories about geographic quests throughout history. A selection of images and artefacts from the collection literally illustrated these stories, and made them highly memorable. It was a wonderful illustration of how these collections could enhance one’s learning, even if you just saw and didn’t handle them (as we did).

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As much as the items aid in the storytelling, in turn the items would be far less meaningful without understanding their context. This idea brought to mind a challenge of these unique collections. That is, you might never see these items, might never know they exist, or that they are held here, without a strong background knowledge of this field or subject area; and yet the goal is for these collections to be accessible to all, not merely those with prior knowledge of these subjects. Librarians are still very much in a gatekeeper role when it comes to these special collections. Increasingly, they are required to perform outreach, and to look for new ways to let people know what’s available, but must do so without compromising security of the collections.

The library was originally formed to be used by Royal Geographic Society members only, but today it is accessible to the public, and anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to apply to be a reader. This library seemed unique in how it was formed, and in the nature of its collections, especially the inclusion of historically significant artefacts and papers, compared to more ‘traditional’ libraries’ book collections. I was reminded of the library that I have begun researching as part of my research paper for this course. The Women’s Library also started as a society library, which later opened to the public, and which most recently has been under the care of academic institutions (currently the London School of Economics). I am hoping to further explore the factors that have lead to the Women’s Library’s evolution in this way, which might shed some light on how the Royal Geographic Society library has fared rather differently.

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