*please note, the information below is what I have been able to remember from my tour, during which I didn’t make any notes. An inaccuracies are due to my memory!*
On Thursday evening I attended a tour of the Wellcome Library. This is owned by the Wellcome Trust, an extremely influential charity supporting biomedical research. The Trust was originally set up by Sir Henry Wellcome, a man who amongst other things (such as hoarding and collecting pretty much anything that interested him) managed to perfect pill making. The Trust has managed Henry Wellcome’s legacy well; it passed many his collected objects to other museums and libraries the world over (such as much of his Egyptology collection which went to the British Museum, Petrie Museum and Durham Oriental Museum among others), but kept most the biological and medical artefacts. The Trust is now able to support open access biomedical research through its fund of approximately £15 billion. The Wellcome Library is distinct from the Wellcome Collection which holds most of the artefacts Wellcome collected, but both aim to help researchers, students and members of the public, as well as highlight many areas of human and animal biology and medicine.
Our tour of the library started off by heading to a staff only area – the collection and preservation room. We were able to see part of an ongoing digitisation project, steaming book spines to release their pages so that they can be scanned for adding to an electronic archive (the hardcopy was being kept too, don’t worry).
We then moseyed down a corridor to have a peek at some of the art that the library collects. Their collection policy for art was interesting – anything ranging from lithographs to formal portraits are collected, providing they hold a medical interest. The curator regularly scours Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction catalogues to see if anything of interest is coming up for sale (what a job to have!). When selecting works for the collection, the quality of the art work was not deemed to matter so much as the subject depicted. Our wonderful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide also used the art collection to also emphasise that the Library’s collection is not just limited to Western items – items in the collection spanned Japan, to the Near East as well as the UK and USA, as well as paintings by Hogarth and etchings by Goya. It truly is a very diverse collection. Some works are photographed and available to consult electronically - if not, you can order a painting down to have a look at in the reading room!
We then went down into the archive where we had a look at their rolling stacks, safely organised to be below head height to avoid any precarious ladder work in retrieving materials. The room was fitted with both water and fire detectors, and air conditioning, and was rather swish. Whilst in the archive, we had a look at some caricatures depicting health ailments, as well as some still frames from Muybridge’s work photographing movement.
After this, we moved into the public library space. Any one can register for a reader pass to access the library, all you need is proof of your address. The pass is then active for 3 years and provides access to all of their books (with the exception of some very delicate texts) – you don’t need to be a researcher steeped in fame to have a look at the materials that they hold from the 1400s. A very noble, open policy if ever I saw one. The only caveat is older materials are only allowed to be consulted in the rare books room (understandably) and all material is reference only, except for some researchers and staff who can obtain limited borrowing rights.
The library uses 3 different classification schemes. One is an in house system, one I have forgotten (sorry) and the third was an unusual system called Barnard, which is also used by the Royal College of Surgeons (or Physicians, I forget which). The classmark is slightly odd as the first section contains reference to a topic, the second to a geographical area, and the third to a time period. The works are then sorted alphabetically by author. This seemed to make for a somewhat erratic shelving system, but users are encouraged to simply leave books at their desks and let staff put them back correctly. I did spy Alcoholism next to Atomic disasters on the shelves though, and wondered if there was somehow a link between them?! Helpfully, the Wellcome catalogue contains a map for each record showing you where in the library the book is located, minimising the number of readers wondering around the shelves looking confused.
The library had an enjoyable mix of modern work space, grand reading room, and cosy nooks to burrow away in. I got the sense that readers would have a good range of spaces to choose from that would suit their own individual working preferences. The main library reading room was originally build at a sculpture gallery when the building was first erected in the 1930s, and had its purpose changed in the 1960s. As such, there is a lovely upper gallery where the larger folios are stored, and the room itself is a delight to be in. We were informed that there is talk of changing the layout of the library, and using some of this space for exhibitions instead of study, so it will be interesting to see if that develops. We also stopped by a section covering syphilis and prostitution, but I won’t dwell on that for fear of Google not indexing me for being smutty – it does emphasise the breadth of the library’s collection though.
We were also treated to some numerical stats. The library receives around 36’000-38’000 readers per year. Many of these pop in once or twice and then do not return, but we were informed that there is a strong core of regular researchers. Around 70 staff are employed, most of whom have a focused job role and become highly specialised. The library also is partly involved in the excellent work that the Trust does to promote open access information – if you haven’t heard of PubMed Central before, and are after quality, authoritative health research, go and have a look. It was interesting to hear that the Trust will approach journal publishers to ask how much it would cost to make the journal, or certain articles open access for hosting on their database for all to read. If it is an acceptable amount, the Trust will then proceed to make it so.
All in all, it was a great tour well suited for a great library. The work that the Trust and the library do is fantastic given that it is a charity (albeit a very wealth one that gives our money as opposed to taking it in). Given that the library is essentially a private collection belonging to the Trust means that it could have easily been locked away and had its access heavily restricted. The work that the Wellcome Trust does to make its collections so accessible is highly laudable. If you get the chance to go to the library, or visit the Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions (to see weird and wonderful medical things), please do so.
Thank you for CLSIG and the Wellcome Library for putting on the tour.
As an aside, if you are interested in Henry Wellcome (and you should be), I highly recommend his biography, “An Infinity of Things”.