By Matt Shaw

In February the IHR launched its Mission and Strategy, 2020-25 which was introduced in a blog post by the Institute’s director, Professor Jo Fox.

In this follow-on series of essays we look in more detail at key elements of the Institute’s work for the coming years. This week: the IHR Wohl Library and archives.

The idea of a historical library has been at the heart of the Institute since it was a glint in Professor Albert F Pollard’s no-doubt steely eyes. And since the doors to the Institute were opened in 1921, books, journals, catalogues and space for writing and discussion have been central to the physical space that the IHR inhabited. Indeed, offices for members of staff were sometimes constructed out of the walls of towering stacks, full of Calendars, State Papers, biographical dictionaries and editions of letters. Today, nearly seventy thousand titles are listed in the catalogue, and perhaps 200,000 volumes are available, along with a host of digital resources, microforms, scanners, computers and wifi; seminars still regularly take place in the book-lined Olga Crisp, the Americas, the Past and Present and P. J. Marshall rooms, and readers take a break from their coffee in the cafe in the Friends of IHR periodicals room on the ground floor.

As such, the library remains central to the mission of the Institute. But the IHR has always been a ‘historical laboratory’, looking to challenge and develop the historical profession and commuity. Pollard did not think that a library was simply a nice thing to have, but central to the kick in the pants he wished to give the sleepy and somewhat amateur teaching of history in England in the 1910s and early 20s. For Pollard, the advanced study of history needed a rigorous training in the use of sources, in paleography, and in codicology. Seminars, with access to editions of sources, were the key to this form of education. In this way, Pollard introduced to London the new methods of American historical training, indebted to German and French models, and only really being seen in Manchester in the England of Pollard’s day.

IHR Mission and Strategy, 2020-2025

So, what is the role of the library (and archives, since we also hold a remakable record of the institute, and indeed the activities, aims, aspirations, and sometimes idiosyncratic desires, of the historical profession more widely) to the IHR’s plans for the next half-decade? On one level, the library helps to support all of the IHR’s activities, providing space, materials, advice and ensuring that research and engagement work is archived and available for future use and reuse. And, like an A-level history essay question, there will be continuity as well as change. Space to write, think and discuss; materials – many of which are held upon which to base and check research; support for training; advice on research strategies, other collections and a host of historical and reference enquiries; the serendipity of discovery and speed of access (perhaps checking a reference before a seminar) enabled by an open shelf collection; a space where ideas might strike: all these things will remain. No doubt tweaked and improved, but still a central function for the historical profession and community, and one that may be less available than it once was elsewhere. We will continue to care for, curate and share this vital and unique collection with the historical community and others.

We will also intensify our efforts on some things that we have already been doing, notably around matters related to diversity and inequality. Our collections budget has already to some extent been putting real money into this (as this post suggests), but there is more to do. Membership is now free to all doing research, but we need to communicate this more widely, and make knowing about the library, getting into the building and feeling at home here even more important to our work. Collection development work, cataloguing and arrangement also play a part. Our extensive non-anglophone, local history and London collections also have much to contribute here, and we will continue to look at our Graduate Library Trainee position to see how it supports people considering moving into the profession.

The library has long been digital, from cataloguing to acquiring materials in digital form (on CD, DVD and now, of course, online) to supplying materials to British History Online and working with Layers of London on interships and other projects, and providing high-resolution scanning facilities for free. Our catalogue curates and selections OA historical monographs from around the world. And the digital leap that many other libraries and universities have made also throws our analogue, printed collection into new relief: perhaps even more special in this age of bookless libraries. Over the next few years, we will also look at what our acquisitions budget and expertise might offer the historical community, especially as Plan S and other changes to the scholarly communications and publishing field more generally shape the way historical sources and analysis are made, shared, and discussed. How might we contribute, for example, to the cataloguing or signposting of Open Access or digital projects. In terms of library support for training and publishing, what would supporting projects such as the Programming Historian look like?

The library is also excited to offer national support, where possible, contributing to IHR@ events around the UK, supporting the UKRR and ILL systems, creating subject guides and signposting tools that other libraries can make use of. We have already run two workshops for history subject librarians (and others) in London and Manchester, and will with partners develop a support and skills network for history librarians (and others in archives, galleries and museums), as many colleagues work across disciplines and functions. We will explore how History Day can also contribute to this mission.

But most importantly, we want to continue to be exited to see the work, dissertations and projects that are created as a result of days, months, and even years reading, thinking and collaborating here in the library and institute, and for you to feel part of it, too.

Matt Shaw is Librarian of the IHR.

Previous posts in this series: