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British Museum Libraries Visit – by George Bray

Anne Welsh5 December 2014

British Museum Panorama

Following in the tradition of independent visits to libraries, a group of UCL LIS students organised a visit to some departmental libraries of the British Museum on the afternoon of Wednesday 19th November 2014. The libraries which we were able to see were the Anthropology Library and Research Centre (in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas), the Library of the Coins and Medals Department, and the Library of the Middle East Department. It was really interesting to be able to compare these libraries, which were very different (with the exception of the typical library issue of a lack of space for the collections!) despite being within the same broader institutional setting.

Once we had arrived and obtained our security passes, the group split into two smaller groups and spent about 30-40 minutes in each of the Coin and Medals- and the Middle East libraries, before reconvening at the Anthropology Library where we had a chance to talk with some of the staff more generally about the libraries and the profession.

Coin and Medals (Mary Hinton)

An exhibition of German medals from WWI immediately outside the entrance to the Department gave an interesting example of the way in which the physical, archival and library collections can complement each other to create public exhibits. It was good to see that the librarian’s working space is an integral part of the Department as a whole, which helps to strengthen the relations between the curators and the librarian. This was further demonstrated by the fact that the Coins and Medals physical collection is located in the same space as the library, something facilitated by the size of the objects themselves, which makes them easier to store in a smaller space. It was also very interesting to hear that a large proportion of the Department’s acquisitions are donations, which shows how important such gifts can be in helping to fill out a library collection beyond the capacity of the acquisitions budget.

Middle East (Rupert Chapman)

The main room of the library is the wonderful Arched Room, which was originally designed to maximise light in the room without creating the risk of a fire. It features a mixture of cuneiform tablets, library books and some of the Department’s archival material; being surrounded by high shelves of neatly-arranged clay tablets and seeing the further two floors of shelved books above creates a rather unique atmosphere . We were also able to have a look at some of the Department’s rarer books, which are located deeper within the staff-only section. Our discussion with the librarian-curator was very interesting and informative, covering topics as diverse as the conservation of the older physical books, through the in-house classification scheme, and even the collection management software that the library uses.

Anthropology / Africa, Oceania and the Americas (Hannah Thomas)

The main difference in nature between this Departmental library and those of the other two which we saw was that the majority of the library collection is actually accessible to researchers who can browse the shelves themselves, rather than request items to be brought to them. This is mainly due to the fact that part of the library’s stock comes from the Royal Anthropological Institute, whose members also have borrowing rights. It was also very exciting to hear about an upcoming project to re-classify, tag and barcode the entire collection. In our talk with some of the library staff, we learned more about the position of librarians and Departmental libraries within the museum as a whole, and were pleased to hear further evidence of the ways in which the librarians and curators work together on projects, very much to the benefit of the public and researcher. It was also interesting to hear how varied Hannah’s library working experience had been before coming to work at the British Museum, and the benefits of having such a wide range of skills to draw on as a result were very apparent.

The group would like to thank Hannah (a former UCL LIS student), Mary and Rupert for their time and effort in making the visit both possible and highly enjoyable.

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George Bray (@NexGenGB) is studying for his MA LIS this year, while working part-time.

Image: Ryan O’Shea, copyright commons, some rights reserved.

Note: the appearance of the byline on this post is auto-generated, indicating that it was postedby Anne Welsh. George Bray is the sole author of this piece.