Monday, August 8, 2011

Royal Geographical Society Library

After the National Art Library, we went down the road to visit the Royal Geographical Society Library. The Foyle Reading Room, where the library and archives are housed, was recently remodeled in 2004 and made more accessible so that more people would be able to research. It was also built in order to bring together all of the elements of the library that were previously scattered around on various floors of the Royal Geographical Society building. Previously, there were rooms for the library, archives reading room, photo reading rooms, and a map room. The librarian, Eugene Rae, also told us that there was a feeling that the research rooms were previously an old gentleman’s club, but now with the new handicap accessible building and with much improved areas for research that the library is trying to attract more researchers and promote the services that the library offered.  If one wants to use the library, there is a £10 charge per day for using the facility for non-members; however, if one is using the materials in the course of completing one’s education or for scholarly research, it is free to use.  Only members of the Society are able to check out books and periodicals from the library.
The Royal Geographical Society:

The collections at the Royal Geographical Society library are very large and diverse. The collection is made up of about two million items—1 million maps,  500,000 photographs, several thousand boxes of archival materials, and 1500 artifacts. We were shown a display that was themed ‘hot and cold’ and showed materials from Arctic, South American, and African exploration by British explorers. One thing that I thought was interesting about the artifacts and other materials that the Society had was that the Society had a store of tools and other instruments that were needed for the explorers’ journeys and they would have a sort of instrument library, and once explorers like Edmund Hillary got back from climbing Mount Everest, or Percy Fawcett got back from South America, their items would be given back to the Society, but then those items had new found importance kept as artifacts of important expeditions. Mr. Rae told us the stories behind each of the items set out, including a stove from Admiral Peary’s expedition to the North Pole, The South Polar Times, a newspaper from the Shackleton expedition with poems, stories, and drawings, maps from when British explorers were trying to figure out the source of the Nile, David Livingston’s hat, a map of Arabia drawn by T.E. Lawrence, and Charles Darwin’s sextant from his voyage on the Beagle.

The story behind the items we were shown were spectacular and this was probably my favorite library because of this; the collections that the library has were interesting and focused, unlike many of the other libraries we’ve visited. For example, many of the libraries had old, rare books that had nothing to do with their purpose just because they were rare and they were donated by a benefactor. The Geographical Society Library seemed to be very focused on geography and exploration, and it was nice to have a collection tell a story. I would love to go back someday and just look at some of their treasures.

The Foyle Reading Room:
We discussed the accessions policy for manuscripts and artifacts with Mr. Rae, who told us that they like to acquire items that have interesting stories attached to them, but that they rely mostly on donations for these types of items as they don’t have the funding to purchase them.  We also discussed whether or not the library has engaged in digitization, and they have digitized over 12,000 photographs, which can be seen on their Web site, and prints of the images can also be ordered there. The library also has an extensive online catalog; items are still being added every day from the four separate card catalogs from previous years. They’ve also been engaging in an oral history project in which they discuss the idea of exploration with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and they get different perspectives on the ideas of “discovery” and “exploration” of lands that were inhabited; in this way they get the postcolonial perspective. I thought that the programs, collections, and staff of the library were very welcoming, interesting, and impressive, and I would love to work in a library or archive similar to this after graduating.

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