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Researching the British Museum Library in the Collections of the IHR Library

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The IHR Library staff have recently undertaken short research projects utilising the library’s collections to improve our understanding of what it’s like to use the library, as the IHR Library’s Reader and Technical Services Manager, Kate Wilcox, explained in a recent blog post. Consequently, in order to gain an appreciation of the user experience of the library, I have been examining the library’s holdings concerning the history of the British Museum Library.

To begin with, I searched the library’s catalogue for both ‘Libraries’ and for ‘British Museum’ using both the subject heading and keyword search fields. These searches brought up a range of results. As the IHR Library’s collections are arranged mostly geographically, I also consulted the library’s online collection guide for the London collection in order to familiarise myself with the make-up of the collection and relevant classmarks.

The London collection is situated within the Wohl Library on the first floor and is on open shelves. This ensured that I could easily browse the collection, discovering additional relevant materials that had not appeared on initial catalogue searches, and also meant I could consult works as and when required.

Resources

A selection of the relevant works from the library’s London collections include: books

I also uncovered relevant materials for my research within other collections and utilised works in a variety of formats. Examples of some relevant resources included:

Research Highlights

The IHR Library contained a wealth of fascinating information on the history of the British Museum Library, from it’s conception and first opening for public inspection in January 1759, through to the creation of the British Library in 1973 and it’s enveloping of the Museum’s library departments.

The history of the building is illuminated by Arundell Esdaile. For example, he notes the introduction of electric lighting into the Museum in 1879; ’till then (gas being banned), if a fog were to come on, not only was the Reading Room closed, but the entire staff went rejoicing home. Thereafter a working day meant a day’s work.’ (Esdaile, p 132)

Louis Fagan’s account of the life of Sir Anthony Panizzi, responsible for the building of the Library’s famous round Reading Room, provides insight into the life of key figures in the history of the Institution. However, while documenting Panizzi’s role as Chief Librarian, his account states that ‘the chief officer of the British Museum is styled the Principal Librarian, which is to a certain extent a misnomer, as he has no more to do with the books than with the other portions of the collection; he derives his appointment from the Crown under sign manual, and is entrusted with the care and custody of the Museum, his duty being to see that all the subordinate officers and servants perform their respective duties properly.’ (Fagan, p 107)

P.R. Harris’ work, The Reading Room, features several artworks, photographs and cartoons depicting the Museum’s Reading Room, allowing the reader to observe the immense changes the library underwent. He also attributes great focus upon the staff of the library, beginning with the first ‘Keeper of the Reading Room’, Dr Peter Templeman. This post was created after ‘regulations drafted in 1758 laid down “that a proper officer do constantly attend in the said room, so long as any…person, or persons, shall be there.”‘ Harris remarks that ‘the post proved however to be a dull one since there were so few readers (only five or six each month).’ (Harris, p 4)

Harris also quotes illuminating extracts from Templeman’s diary, including an entry he records for the 30th August 1759: ‘On Wednesday all the company going away a little after one of the clock, the Room being cold and the weather likely to rain, I thought it proper to move off too.’ However, on another occasion Templeman records leaving the reading room to have a walk in the garden, but met one of the Museum’s Trustees who ordered him back to his post ‘with startling energy of voice and manner.’ (Harris, p 4)

In this way, the IHR Library’s resources enabled research into the history of the physical building of the British Museum Library, the collections it held, and the lives of those who worked within it.

Using the Library

Reading desk in the libraryI found the library reading rooms overall to be an exceptionally pleasant place to work and conduct research. I chose to work in the Wohl Library on the second floor as I found the natural light in this area appealing. I did experience some minor noise issues that staff are already aware of and are currently trying to address as quickly as possible. Aside from this, I found the space to be conducive to quiet research, with soft seating available close by for intensive reading and the public PC enabling easy access to the library’s online resources directly from the desktop.

In selecting the British Museum Library as my topic for research, I found that most of the materials I consulted on the open access shelves were not in rolling stacks, but instead on open shelves. This was immensely useful for browsing materials and discovering additional resources to consult. Similarly, I deliberately selected a variety of works (including items kept in the onsite store, theses and e-resources) in order to gain an understanding of the different resources that the library holds and any challenges readers may face in accessing them. I therefore filled out request slips for closed access materials and submitted them to library staff in the library office on the first floor before returning to collect the volumes a short while later. I found the process to be relatively straightforward, however further information on ordering materials and collection times from the onsite store can be found on the library’s website. Overall, I found the library a conducive area for research and greatly enjoyed discovering more about the history of the British Museum Library.

Beyond the library’s collections the IHR, Institute of English Studies, and Warburg Institute organise a series of research seminars examining the History of Libraries. The seminars are free and open for anyone to attend, for more information see the History of Libraries Seminar schedule.

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