Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Royal Geographical Society Library

photo credit to:,_Kensington.jpg
Our tour of the Royal Geographical Society’s Library was led by Librarian Eugene Rae.  He was very knowledgeable about the library and the Society.  The reading room where we met was opened in 2004.  Before that there were several small reading rooms spread throughout the building, each housing a different collection.  The set up was not very user friendly, since the library, maps, archives and photographs were all stored separately.  Since they were mostly on the upper floors there was limited access for patrons who could not easily use the stairs.  A new ground floor entrance, main lobby, and lift were added at the same time as the basement level reading room.  The reading room is self-contained, so readers can’t go wandering off into restricted parts of the house, as had happened with the older system.

the new entryway added in 2004
photo credit to:

The Society Library contains 2 million items: 1 million maps, half a million photos and slides, a quarter of a million books and periodicals, 1,500 objects and artifacts and thousands of archival boxes.  The reading room is “v” shaped, with two branches of tables extending out from the central information desk.  All the items not on display in the reading room are housed directly behind it in two climate controlled rooms.  Everything is housed onsite less than five minutes walk from the reading room. 

The library does have an online catalog; it was launched at the same time as the reading room opening.  Prior to the integrated catalog each of the four rooms had their own classification systems and they all used physical card catalog systems.  The physical catalogs cover a span of 90 years, from 1910-2000, and utilize a variety of recording methods: handwritten, typewritten, and computer printed.  The photograph classifications still need more work, but the small staff limits the speed of such projects.  The online catalog is accessible to any researcher who wishes to browse the collections. 

There is a charge for nonmembers to use the reading room; access is free to Society members.  Another member benefit is the ability to borrow certain items.  It is advantageous to email ahead with a list of requested titles to best utilize time spent in the reading room to minimize costs.  Students, professors, and other educators can receive free access to the reading room. 
photo credit to:
A large part of our visit involved viewing photographs and artifacts from worldwide “Hot and Cold” Society sponsored explorations at temperature extremes.  Eugene had a huge table covered in personal possessions, maps, and artifacts from famous explorers.  He gave us a brief history of the Arctic, Antarctic, Everest, and African expeditions.  The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830, in part as a desire to discover the Northwest Passage.  In 1912 the Society moved from an old townhouse into it’s current building.  He showed us a photograph of the Resolute, one of the ships that went to the Arctic.  It was frozen in the ice, abandoned, and then recovered years later.  It was returned to England where it was disassembled.  Queen Victoria made the Resolute Desk out of it, and it is now in the White House (National Treasure anyone?).  Eugene showed us Shakleton’s Bible, one of his detailed supply lists from Harrods, Dr. David Livingston’s hat and compass, Forsett’s maps of the Amazon, Stanley’s hat, a map sketched by Lawrence of Arabia, and Darwin’s pocket sexton (among other items).

Here's a couple of links: RGS website:

I really enjoyed the visit to the Royal Geographical Society.  Even though I didn’t know a whole lot about exploration seeing all the artifacts and photographs made history come alive.  The hand-drawn maps were especially neat, as men raced to be the first to discover the source of the Nile River, or climb Everest, or reach the Poles.  The artifacts and improvements made to them over time were cool to physically see, like the polar sunglasses, since the items sat in front of us on the table.  The photographs taken by the explorers showed the harshness of the elements in a first hand way that can’t be understood by books alone.  Seeing ships trapped in ice, and landscapes of Antarctica and Africa was really interesting.  This visit has increased my curiosity to learn about the Royal Geographical Society and early British explorers.      

No comments:

Post a Comment