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).


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.


London Library

The London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. It opened in 1841, and was established by Thomas Carlyle, who felt the library was needed because it was, according to him, very difficult to work in the British Museum library (which was the precursor to the British Library). The London Library issues items and opens its reading room space to paying members, who have included the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The library is still very well-used, with 76,000 issues last year alone. Today’s members and supports include recognizable figures of English cultural life, such as Stephen Fry.

The library has an incredibly eclectic collection of books, and no item is ever weeded out or disposed of. Items are therefore purchased almost exclusively in hardcover, but slipcovers are removed, for preservation and space-saving reasons. The library has been catalogued going back to 1950 (for items prior to 1950, there are bound catalogue volumes). But the library’s new online catalogue is thoroughly modern, and includes the option of “browsing” the shelves online, even remotely. The library utilizes its own unique, homegrown system of classification and organization. Books are shelved by size, resulting in a juxtaposition of subjects (for example, “Dentistry” appears next to “Death”). Members reportedly find the unique organization and juxtaposition allows for added opportunities for discovery and inspiration. However, the way topics are organized on the shelves means that any added subjects or added titles can require a lot of physical moving of the books by library staff.

The entrance to the London Library

The entrance to the London Library

The Library was really unlike anything I had seen before, as I have had very little experience with private members libraries. I found the award-winning building itself to be so interesting, and found it to be a historic, eclectic, and ultimately welcoming space. In 2004, there were major renovations to improve accessibility, and 2013 upgrades improved lighting and added Wifi and outlets to all but one of the reading rooms (which remains intentionally computer-free). The entrance to the library, and many of the reading rooms, were designed to look like a house. The domestic design contributes to the library feeling like quite an intimate space. It also reflects the fact that for many members, especially for those who are writers, the library no doubt serves as a home office away from home. The overall  design of the building reflects the Library’s history and its evolution over time. Additions to the library building  throughout the 1900s have literally been building on the same basic foundation and structure. The library keeps expanding outward, and today it is a lot larger than its facade, facing St. James Square, would suggest.

One of the things that I have most enjoyed about this trip so far has been seeing libraries like this one that are successful and well-used by their members, for their unique spaces, offerings and services. I was inspired by the fact that this Library has no doubt played a role in the creation of some of the great works of British literature, and has been a fixture in English cultural life for almost 200 years. I am also heartened by the support it has received by its members, who consider the library to be of such value to them that they continue to be paid members year after year.

The British Library

The British Library is the national library of the UK. It is a “legal deposit library”, and is entitled to a copy of every item published in the UK.  As our guide explained, the library tries to balance access of these materials for current readers, with the need and desire to preserve items for use by future generations.

The lobby of the British Library

The lobby of the British Library

The current building was opened in 1997. Previously, the library’s collections were housed in the British Museum, but it outgrew that space. This is quite easy to believe, given that the library’s collection currently consists of 200 million items, and its collection increases by approximately 3 million items every year. The building sits on a large piece of land located near the St. Pancras & King’s Cross train stations. Most libraries I have visited, both in the UK and in North America, have to make do with buildings they inherit, and which often were built to house something other than a library. This building, alternatively, was meticulously designed for its purpose, by an architect who oversaw ever little detail of its building. [Update: In fact, the Library just became a Grade I listed building.] For example, from the outside, the building is designed to look like a ship. This theme continues inside the building, with port-hole-inspired window designs built into most of the doors. Readers were also given the option of choosing their favourite chairs for the Reading Rooms (which I can confirm are very comfortable!), based on a selection of chairs picked out by the architect, and which match the overall design and decoration of the space.

The design elements also have very functional purposes. For example, the building is designed to get as much natural light as possible, with windows built into the ceiling rather than on the sides of the building, in order to afford more privacy for people living in condos next door. There are several levels of underground storage, and a sophisticated (and reportedly highly accurate) system for calling and returning books, which involves tracking the book barcodes electronically.

The King's Library collection at the British Library

The King’s Library collection at the British Library

A very striking design element is the King’s Library, which is a centrepiece of the building. The Library is comprised of the personal collection of King George III, which was gifted to the nation by King George IV. The glass walls offer a glimpse of the rare books in the collection. The only door to access these items is pictured below. To enter the King’s Library, a British Library staff member has to cross a bridge across a moat-like space that surrounds the Library.

The entrance to the King's Library

The entrance to the King’s Library

And yet, despite the many strengths of the building’s design, it faces a problem that most (if not all) libraries seem to face: too little space. Funding ran out to continue the planned next phases of building, so there are currently 1000 fewer reader spaces than originally planned, among other things. But all in all, I was very impressed with the beauty and functionality of this space, and am looking forward to seeing how it evolves in the future. So far, it still feels like a wholly modern space, which is amazing given that the building it approaching the 20 year anniversary of its opening!

Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford

The iconic Radcliffe Camera

I was SO excited to visit Oxford, and I am sure that I will be remembering it as a highlight of the trip! The Bodleian Library at Oxford is fairly famous, as libraries go, but I found I actually knew very little about its history, policies or collections before our visit. The Bodleian Library was opened in 1602, and was built upon the foundations of a library from the 1400s, which housed a collection donated by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (this heritage in acknowledged in the name of the Bodleian’s Duke Humphrey’s Library, which was built and still stands on the site of the original, 15th century library).

The Duke Humphrey’s Library, which fans of the Harry Potter films might recognize… Photo credit:

Two copies of every book are purchased for the Oxford Univerisity libraries; one copy goes to the college library affiliated with that topic, and one goes to the Bodleian. The Bodleian Library is strictly non-circulating, and always has been; there is a famous story of how even a king of England was not granted an exception when he wanted to borrow a book. The library has historically been used primarily by faculty members. Today, international researchers come from all over to use the library, and students are also allowed, but the idea of students visiting and using the library is a relatively recent concept.

I was not previously aware of how the Bodleian Library and its founder, Thomas Bodley, have contributed to library history. The Bodleian Library was the first copyright library (or “legal deposit” library) in the United Kingdom. This concept can be traced back to an agreement made between the library and the Stationer’s Company in 1610, in which the library received a copy of every book published by the Company. Today, copyright libraries can be found throughout the world. In the UK, there are 6 copyright libraries, including the Bodleian, which are eligible to request one copy of every UK publication. In addition, the Friends of the Bodleian Library is considered to be the earliest Friends of a Library association. Such associations are still popular and active in libraries today.

Outside the Duke Humphrey's Library

Outside the Duke Humphrey’s Library

It can be hard to imagine the Bodleian evolving beyond being a more ‘traditional’, book-filled library space. Some changes have happened over time, to be sure; for example, books on the ground level of the Duke Humphrey’s Library were once chained to the shelves, and no longer are. Also, the library was once populated by only manuscripts, and is now filled with books. Libraries everywhere are evolving, in their architecture and physical appearance, and especially in the makeup of their collections. But libraries like the Bodleian clearly still hold significance and value within their communities, especially by retaining many of their historic elements.

London Archaeological Archive Research Centre (LAARC) at the Museum of London


Our first class visit was to the world’s largest archaeological archive: the London Archaeological Archive Research Centre (LAARC) at the Museum of London. LAARC originated as overflow storage for the Museum of London collections, but in the last few years it has become an archive that is open to researchers. We had a wonderful guide: Kathryn the Learning Coordinator, who is focused on outreach and programming relating to the collections. LAARC is housed in a very nondescript former factory/warehouse building in Hackney. Having the collections tucked away in this unimposing yet practical structure is helpful in terms of security and maintenance of the collections, but the fact that it is not immediately apparent does hinder people’s ability to find the location. Our host could confirm the location and appearance is often problematic, especially for school visits.

Kathryn explained how items in the archive are found, and how they are then organized by their “site” and “context”. The “site code” consists of 3 letters (which identify the geographic location where the item was found) and 2 numbers (which indicate the year in which excavation of the site in which the item was found began). The catalogue lists where items can be found, and is organized in order of site code. We also learned about the concept of “context”, which is critical for archaeologists. Context refers to where an item was found, what it was found in, and what it was found with. Another important archaeological concept was the idea that the absence of something can be just as, if not more important, than its presence, in terms of what it tells us about the people or civilization who lived there at that point in time. It was so interesting to think about this kind of metadata associated with these items. It is very different than traditional library cataloging and classification, to be sure, but  it just goes to show how significant the information contained in the metadata can be, and how it complements and potentially influences a user’s understanding of particular items within a collection. 

Kathryn made an important point about the need to balance preservation versus access. After all, access is the very purpose of the preservation of these collections, and they offer such valuable, tangible learning opportunities. Information professions, as caretakers and facilitators of access to these collections, need to allow and enable access of the collections in order to justify their existence, but the need for access needs to be balanced with preservation and security concerns.