For our third library visit, we went to the Bishopsgate Library. To be honest, neither of us knew very much about it other than the fact that one of our managers had previously worked there so this was a lovely opportunity to make up for some gaps in our knowledge base.
The library itself is reference only, but there is an open access policy which allows anyone to enter and use the resources. Items from the archives, which are just underneath the library, can also be viewed on request. There are approximately 300 archive collections and somewhere in the region of 250,000 items overall in the library, discounting pamphlets.
The collection at Bishopsgate is primarily about London, specifically the East End, along with some items on labour. Charles Goss, the librarian at Bishopsgate from 1897 to 1941, collected what we noted down as 85000 books on London, not including spending a fortune growing the collection. There are stories apparently about him going out to buy books and returning with wheelbarrows full. These books cover various subject areas, including social, feminist and LGBTQ* history in London – with the latter, we were told, a collection that was currently growing. The books on London are widely varied – from books about London pubs and theatres to biographies of Londoners and even a corner of a room with books on famous criminals such as Jack the Ripper.
There are also thousands upon thousands of pamphlets to do with London, countless photographs and some truly extraordinary maps of London, which are viewable on request. I think the highlight for both of us was when our lovely guide Nikki pulled a handful out showing how London grew. The first map centred on the Tower of London and in the final one from the late 1800’s that particular section was comparatively tiny. The maps are incredibly well preserved originals and we were surprised to hear they were originals rather than replicas.
There are also numerous guides on London, from an 1800’s guide on the various churches in the city to a groovy looking guide from the 1960’s on how the East End was the best place to buy LSD, if you were going against all advice – including this guidebook’s own advice – and wanted to take some. If you did decide to ignore this advice, the book gave you tips on how to avoid a ‘bad’ high – but did still advise to avoid taking it in the first place. A lot of the more recent guidebooks were more familiar looking and were mostly in foreign languages.
One of the perhaps more unique features about Bishopsgate is that they are an almost seamless combination of library and archives. When we headed downstairs to the archives, Nikki pulled out a few select objects to show us. One of these was a document from a meeting of socialist and, so it was though, the birth of Marxism. Marx is mentioned in the minutes as ‘Citizen Marx’ and so when a visitor happened to notice this (without actually reading the notebook) everyone assumed the notebook contained the blueprint for Marxism but once it was eventually translated into Russian, it became clear that it was really just boring minutes from a meeting Marx was present at. Another item of interest that Nikki showed us was an old police officer’s notebook. This particular officer kept meticulous records of his arrests, noting down name, date, crime and other bits of information, even keeping a separate notebook for more serious crimes. He was also very observant of his co-workers. One of his notebooks is full of observations of his fellow policemen, except he has used a particular system of numbers, presumably some kind of scoring or ranking system, that nobody can work out!
Overall our visit was highly interesting, and it was definitely interesting to see how an integrated library and archive service works!