What is a librarian?
What does it mean to be a homo sapien?
At what point do we stop being human and start being a collective group of information professionals?
All of these questions and more were answered during our most recent visit to the British Museum and the Anthropology Library and Research Centre. Or at the very least, we asked some questions about the library.
Yes, that is right my vast readership. Both of you are in for a whirlwind adventure this week and if you stick around there will be a BONUS library-related building to gawk at towards the end.
Our trip started with a rather pleasant walk to the British Museum in breezy yet warm conditions. We were joined by Eve (who has been with us on work experience) and our well-versed guide was Hannah Thomas.
After fighting our way through a plague of school children queuing to enter the museum, we navigated our way to the ALRC (Anthropology Library and Research Centre). I’d describe it’s entrance as one of those entrances that looks intimidating as you dare not go through any wrong door or touch the wrong thing at the British Museum out of fear of execution (I assume this is how they operate) but actually, once you escape the main halls of the British Museum, the library is a well of serendipity. We were buzzed through the new security system and shortly after Hannah came out to meet us and gave us a factoid funfest:
The British Museum actually contains somewhere between 8-10 libraries, with the ALRC forming the largest of them all – most of the other libraries operate out of offices apparently. To provide some context, the British Museum stores approximately 332,000 books overall (Hannah, if you are reading this, we’re sorry if those numbers are wrong. Our handwriting is comparable to primitive man). Of that number, about 120,000 of them belong to the ALRC.
Due to the nature of the library being located within the museum, the ALRC shares their space with the curatorial team for the Department of Africa, Oceania and Americas. Hannah pointed out that actually, a lot of books that pass through the department end up with the curatorial team rather than the library but they still get to enjoy seeing all the fascinating items passing through. We were able to see one book that had recently been donated that contained someone’s personal collection of photography and notes from a trip to South Africa.
The library is actually open to the public and visiting is encouraged. Hannah told us that whilst used for academic and research purposes, the library has seen an increase of use from the public, especially since the advent of Wifi. As the library provides a pleasant quiet working space, she speculated that some users are likely students at UCL who come by but they are happy to let them do so.
The other main user base are the staff and members of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI). The RAI donated their library to the ALRC in the 70’s and this forms the basis for just around half the books the library currently holds. As a result of this, both institutions still have a close working collection and RAI members are able to borrow books from the library.
Hannah says they use BLISS for their classification system but there are some difficulties with their current system (to put it politely). The library is catalogued in order of location first and then by author. This essentially makes the library unbrowsable (made up word) and was defined by the KUB section of the library which spans over multiple rows. In the future, with a modified version of Bliss redone to fit the British Musuem, Hannah said they would like to switch to a classification done by subject first and then country, as currently it is nearly impossible to find books on the same subject, unless they happen to focus on the same geographical area.
ANTHROPOLOGY LIBRARY FUN FACT: The oldest book they have is probably from 1531 and is about Physiognomy, with many of their oldest books apparently featuring pirates.
After an introduction to the main library, Hannah showed us the archive/collection they have. Their collection is quite impressive (as you’d expect) and most of their oldest books are actually travel books cataloguing ship expeditions. These books are somewhere between fascinating and comical as you can see how we first interacted with entirely new landscapes, peoples and nature but you also see how misguided and ill-informed people were. Hannah showed us some excellent pictures of how some animals were depicted such us a bizarre sketch of a jellyfish that looked more like a lionfish and a pink zebra.
Some of the collection has been cause of controversy previously as they contain such a vast array of texts, it even contains some of the more sinsister texts of human history, such as books written on phrenology written in Nazi Germany. We were told that the fact they still had these books was subject to criticism from some people at times, but as an anthropology library, it seems fitting to have texts covering all of human history rather than cherry-picking the socially acceptable parts.
After our library tour, Hannah took us to get some ice cream where we had a pleasant informal chat about her career in librarianship, how she got to where she is currently and field plenty of questions for us.
She said her first post was in a public library and whilst she wouldn’t want to work in one long-term, she thought it provided a great basis for a career in librarianship as it covers just about everything. Whilst she enjoys working at the ALRC, she did point out that it is quite a low-tech library compared to a lot of academic libraries.
It only seemed appropriate to ask Hannah what her favourite book in the library was. After some musing, she settled on a book that collected responses (I think) from the families of those that were part of the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ – I must confess that I (Tim) spent a lot of time reading up on this mutiny after being told this and if anyone has any questions about it, please let me know.
We also asked what she thinks the rarest book they have would be. A bit trickier due to their very comprehensive collection of historical books but Hannah produced an excellent answer. It was a bit more modern than you’d expect but they currently own a book on the subject of Rarotongan Grammar, which is – unsurprisingly – not very widely available!
Thus concludes another exciting library visit. We’d like to thank Hannah for her informative tour and hospitality. As promised, here is a bonus library themed building…
Yes, you guessed right. It’s the CILIP Office! What do you mean you can’t tell? Look harder!
Lauren & Tim x