A Visit to the London Libraries

Back in June, the trainees were given the exciting opportunity to explore four libraries in London: the Reuben Library at the British Film Institute, the Natural History Museum Library and Archives, the Guardian Library and Archives, and the London Library. A huge thanks goes out to all of the library staff for guiding us round, answering our many questions, and giving us an insight into the wider librarianship sector. Continue reading to find out who we met, what we learned, and to see some pretty pictures we took along the way!

Reuben Library, British Film Institute

Josie Fairley Keast, Bodleian Law Library

The British Film Institute (BFI) can be quite tricky to find, tucked away in the side of the Southbank Centre. However, we all made it there eventually, and were met in the Reuben Library’s reading room by Sarah Currant (Senior Librarian for Reader and Mediatheque Services), who chatted to us about the library and how it works alongside other areas of the BFI. The library can currently be accessed for free, with no need for any sort of membership card – we were really impressed by this, as well as the decision to make the space less intimidating by installing a large window in place of the foyer wall. Working in Oxford, we tend to encounter a fair amount of ‘threshold fear’, so it’s always nice to see somewhere acknowledging this in their accessibility measures.

The glass fronted reading room, with the BFI Reuben Library displayed boldly on the glass. Inside you can see shelving and comfy red chairsSarah demonstrated the BFI database to us, which allows users to search the name of a film and be presented with a page summarising all the related items held by the library. This includes details of books and articles in the collection, as well digitisations of relevant ephemera. Historically the BFI maintained collections of press cuttings, usually based around specific films; many of these have now been digitised, along with copies of programme notes from every time a film is shown in one of the BFI theatres. The copyright procedures around this sounded similar to the Bodleian’s electronic legal deposit situation – although the BFI does not hold the copyright to everything it cares for, these materials can be accessed through the reading room computers (as opposed to being freely available outside of the library).

The BFI National Archive is one of the largest film collections in the world, covering both 120 years of British film history and the wider world of international cinema. Although the library itself is not directly involved in conservation work, Sarah told us a bit about some of the challenges of this particular area – for example, cellulose nitrate film, which was commonly used until the early 1950s, is both highly flammable and difficult to extinguish, as the nitrate part essentially provides the fire with its own oxygen supply. Individual reels were commonly stored separately, to prevent one fire from destroying the entire sequence! Official HSE advice for dealing with cellulose nitrate film recommends contacting a film archive such as the BFI, as this will be better equipped to deal with such specialised materials. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the BFI frequently becomes the custodian of film collections on behalf of other institutions.

One thing we didn’t manage to see on the day was the BFI Mediatheque, a space which allows visitors to watch various films from the archive. The material on offer ranges from modern and classic films and television to the ‘Britain on Film’ historical collection and, incredibly, digitised versions of early cinema from the 1890s. It’s certainly a uniquely impressive collection, and it was fascinating to hear how the library – whose actual holdings aren’t so different to the books, journals, and digitised materials we encounter in our own libraries – works with the rest of the organisation on events and exhibitions to help make these materials accessible to a modern audience.

Natural History Museum Library and Archives

Juliet Brown, Old Bodleian Library

LIBRARY sign displayed over doorwayThe Natural History Museum (NHM) is an iconic London tourist attraction, with visitors flocking to view the beautiful architecture, amazing animals and even a dinosaur skeleton if you’re lucky (see Dippy’s return). However, few are aware of the extensive library collection within, supporting the work of the museum scientists, postgraduate students and external researchers alike.

Huge bookcases and a first floor balcony, filled with multicoloured volumesArriving at the staff door, we made it past security and were greeted by Hellen Pethers, Researcher Services Librarian, who took us through the entrance and directly into a beautiful room marked ‘Library.’ This was previously one of five onsite reading rooms within the NHM, back when each room was dedicated to a specialist subject. Now, following the creation of a singular public reading room upstairs (for user convenience), this room is used solely by staff and for the storage of collections.

Hellen proceeded to tell us a little about the history of the Museum, from the initial collection work of Hans Sloane, through to the petition for a conglomerated collection by Sir Richard Owen. The latter’s work resulted in the construction and opening of the NHM in 1881, a beautiful building designed by Alfred Waterhouse and often referred to as a “cathedral to nature”, with its detailed engravings and terracotta designs paying homage to the natural world. The NHM has continued to expand, with new buildings and spaces created to further the study of natural history – emphasising the importance of the NHM building and its collections as a centre for research.

Museum librarian Mr Woodward Bernard Barham and his staff, 1909
Museum librarian Mr Woodward Bernard Barham (seated right) and his staff, 1909 © Natural History Museum

This is where the librarians come in, developing library collections to ensure that scientists and researchers have access to the relevant material and resources to support their research. This is a role that librarians have officially played within the Museum since the introduction of the first librarian, Bernard Woodward, in 1903. Woodward was given a huge remit, with a budget to collect all relevant materials, and he even introduced a classification system that is still used for specific collections today.

With the collection policy that no material should be removed from the library — so that scholars can track the progression of thought in a particular field – collections have expanded rapidly, now totalling over 1 million items. This includes a wide range of modern collections, e-journals, e-books, databases, rare books, manuscripts, art, and maps. Books are borrowable by staff, as well as the over 400 scientists associated with the museum, but the collections are also consulted by external members, who can access the reading room by appointment in specified opening hours.

Speaking of the public reading room, this was the next stop on our tour and an opportunity to see the public face of the NHM library. As readers request material in advance, many of the tables are pre-prepared with required resources and equipment, with the material ready to collect behind the enquiry desk. At the NHM, all library staff are scheduled to complete shifts on the enquiry desk, which Hellen explained is a great way to interact with readers and become familiar with the collections.

An open book. On the left page, an illustrated drawing of a room where people are making pasta. On the right, Italian text, describing how to make pasta specifically for nightingales.
“To make the pasta to feed the nightingales”

The final stage of our tour took us through the bookstacks and up into the Special Collections and Archives room, where we met Rosie Jones (Special Collections Librarian) and Emma Harrold (Museum Archivist) – the latter being a previous Bodleian trainee!

After discussing both of their routes into libraries/archives, Rosie treated us to a tour of a variety of material from the NHM special collections. This included:

  • A copy of Pliny’s Natural History Manuscript (Historia Naturalis) – the NHM’s oldest book!
  • A book with a recipe describing how to make pasta for nightingales (pictured).
  • A book of beautiful animal drawings (pictured).
  • A box of detailed wooden stamps (pictured).

    A detailed coloured drawing of an 8 foot long Rock Python
    The mighty Rock Python.
  • Drawings created on Charles Darwin’s voyage around the world (pictured). These were quick sketches, with the intent to be finished and coloured at a later date. Unfortunately the original artist died on the journey, but other artists were able to complete his work, and engravings were created so the illustrations could be reproduced.

Following this, Emma took over to speak about the role of the NHM Archives, particularly the relation between preservation efforts and advertisement.

Documents concerning the formation of the NHM, personal papers of significant individuals associated with the building, and various other collections are kept by the NHM Archives in an effort to preserve the history of the museum – a vital part of Emma’s role in maintaining relevant and extensive records for researchers and NHM staff alike.

Wooden blocks engraved with objects and animals from the Natural World
Wooden stamps

These collections span from Alfred Waterhouse’s original designs for the terracotta animals, through to photographs of Pole expeditions and photography competition winners from the 1980s. In recent years, certain pieces from the NHM archives have been used for advertisement of the NHM, with historic images and previous promotional posters reused for their latest campaign. This allowed the Museum to broadcast the range of collections whilst highlighting the vast history of the NHM – an incredibly effective campaign.

For more information about the NHM’s vast collection, you can check out their website and twitter below:

Website: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives.html

Twitter: NHM Library&Archives (@NHM_Library) / Twitter


Guardian Library and Archives

Juliet Brown, Old Bodleian Library

The Guardian Library isn’t what many would consider a traditional library, certainly not when compared to the historic academic libraries of Oxford. Situated within the Guardian headquarters in central London, this library primarily consists of the personal wealth of knowledge and significant research skills of the two librarians working in the building. For our tour we were met by Richard Nelsson, one such librarian, who led us through the bustling office space to a large meeting room, where he spoke to us about his role as Information Manager.

The Library

A view round the corner, showing large computers, desks, and a poster of Greta Thunberg on the wallAlthough the current library team is extremely small, Richard was keen to show how libraries have played a significant role throughout the history of the Guardian. Before the internet, up-to-date information was still necessary to produce informative and accurate stories, but how were journalists meant to know everything published on a particular topic? This is where the librarians came in – a team responsible for sorting through all the papers published that day, cutting out individual articles and filing them in folders differentiated by topic. For example, a single article on the miners’ strikes may go into folders on trade unions, conservative party policy, and civil protest. This collection, informally titled a clippings library, would then allow journalists to access published information on a particular topic by locating the relevant folders.

With the growth of the internet, these folders have become less heavily relied on, and the role of librarians has adapted to suit the changing needs of the organisation. Richard emphasised that librarians are still vitally important to the research needs of journalists, as they manage various information sources (including online databases, e-subscriptions, and e-books) and perhaps most significantly, provide a tailored research service. This includes finding quotes, locating relevant people, providing background information, and checking facts and statistics. Richard stated that it can sometimes be challenging to narrow down a vague enquiry, but that the variety of information and requests make it a very exciting role – if occasionally high-pressured, as journalists tend to work to tight deadlines.

The Archive

Three Cross Street Journals and an introduction to the Guardian Archives guideFollowing this talk we were introduced to Emma Aitken, one of the Guardian archivists, who spoke about her role within the organisation. This principally includes:

  • Research: Although the archives team functions under the umbrella of the Guardian Foundation, they work closely with the Guardian research team to provide images, films, audio recordings, and various other materials for the newspaper.
  • Enquiry work: particularly relating to photographs/images in the collection, though she also receives those concerning the social history (where ephemera might be used) and for fact checking purposes.
  • Collections management: managing the online catalogue, as well as the material kept in the two onsite stores (the first for paper, objects, and materials; the second exclusively for photographs).
  • Technical tasks: transcribing material, completing digital preservation projects, as well as taking responsibility for binding and storing previous volumes of the newspaper (for preservation and conservation purposes).
  • Engagement: Managing the movement, display and loaning of material for exhibitions, as well as giving talks and presentations for interested parties (including school groups … and us!).

The Tour

Following these presentations, we were first shown to the Archives workroom, where we saw a curated collection of material kept by the Guardian Archives. This included old copies of the Cross Street Journal, preserved video advertisements, old editions of the Guardian and Observer newspapers, correspondence from WP Crozier’s personal archive collection (Guardian editor 1932-44) and even pieces of the Edward Snowdon hard drive! The Guardian Archives collections can be accessed on their website or via their twitter.

Richard then proceeded to give us a tour of the office space, where we could see different departments hard at work. One trainee was particularly excited to view the audio department, where a podcast that she listens to was being recorded! Overall this was a brilliant opportunity to gain insight into an area of librarianship none of us had previously explored, and a lovely way to spend an afternoon.


London Library

Jemima Bennett, New College Library

The library entrance, up 5 stairs
The entrance to the library

Given the smart location of the London Library in St James’s Square, at least one of us was feeling slightly overwhelmed and underdressed for a tour of such a beautiful building. We’d been somewhat misinformed that it resembled a Victorian gentleman’s club, but how happily wrong we were!

Founded in 1841, the London Library (the largest lending library in Europe) is notable for its motivation to preserve the history of the library while simultaneously remaining contemporary, with a refreshing focus on diversifying its membership and collections. The library collects in a range of areas but mainly caters to writers. Collections tend to focus on the arts (the library’s website (londonlibrary.co.uk) lists these as History, Cultural Expression, and Thought & Life), with an emphasis on books you might not easily find in a high street bookshop. It has an impressive list of former members – we climbed a staircase whose walls were star-studded with portraits of great cultural figures, from Virginia Woolf, to Edward Burne-Jones, to Bram Stoker, all previously members of the library.

Other highlights include:

  • Looking through the grated floors to the basement
    The view through the floors to the basement

    a bookcase of miniature books. This collection consisted of around 350 books printed between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, all under five inches tall – some were under three!

  • An unexpected thrill of library-scale adrenaline in the back stacks. Nineteenth-century ventilation and lighting technology meant that, for all seven floors of the stacks, the floors are grated – you can look through them all the way down to the basement…
  • The classification system. Librarians always love a classification system, but this one was particularly fun. Created at the end of the nineteenth century by the London Library’s librarian, Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, this classification system was designed to fit the range of books that the library owned at the time, and has changed very little since. As a result, alongside the more usual headings of ‘Literature’ or ‘History’, you can also find ‘Science and Miscellaneous’. And further, within each category, subject headings are ordered only alphabetically. This is particularly joyous in Science and Miscellaneous, where books on crystallography sit in happy incongruity next to books on cycling.
  • The Reading Room. Even by Oxford standards, this was beautiful – a lovely, quiet, peaceful, book-lined space.

Entering the London Library is like entering The Archetypal Library, with over 17 miles of brightly coloured books on shelves, including some printed in the eighteenth century, labyrinthine bookstacks, and hidden nooks and crannies all over the building. In keeping with the whole feel of the library, the building retains many fascinating historical features: we saw some World War II reminders to ‘Turn Off The Lights’ stencilled onto the walls. The atmosphere is almost other-worldly. We all came away from the visit with a sense of having had a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening afternoon, thanks in no small part to our wonderful tour guide Yvette Dickerson, one of the Member Services team.


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