Visiting other libraries can be a great source of inspiration to a librarian, giving you ideas to copy and making you jealous of the lovely things that other libraries have. Over the past twelve months I have hosted visits to my Library by three separate groups of librarians, during which I told them about our library service and showed them our collection. The most recent of these was on Tuesday this week. Yesterday I sat on the other side of the fence, joining a group visiting the Library of the Linnaean Society of London.
I read Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography of Linnaeus not too long ago, so I knew a little about the man, but I had not visited the Linnaean Society before. It is one of those Learned Societies housed in the rather lovely Burlington House in London’s Piccadilly. It is an interesting example of an institution founded around a collection – Carl Linnaeus’ own collection of his published books, his library of books, and his notebooks and specimens. When Linnaeus died in 1778 Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society and longtime correspondent of Linnaeus, made an offer for his collection but at that time Linnaeus’ widow decided to give the collection to her son. Sadly he too died just five years later, so the collection was offered to Banks again. This time he was not in a position to purchase it but recommended it to his young protege James Edward Smith. Smith persuaded his father to put up the money for purchase, not without some difficulty. The collection arrived in London in 1784 and in 1786 Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Linnean Society was founded in 1788. You can read more about this story in a lecture by Mark Seaward on the Joseph Banks Society website.
My visit to the Society comprised a very good introduction to the man and the society, a tour of the Library collection and a bit of archival scholarship thrown in for good measure. We started off in the Society’s meeting room, where we were told about Linnaeus and the Society that bears his name. I spotted a plaque on the wall from 1 July 1958, commemorating 100 years since the day when Darwin and Wallace’s paper was read out to the Society members. At the time I didn’t realise that the visit was taking place on Darwin Day, so this was very appropriate.
In the meeting room there a number of portraits, pride of place going to those of Darwin and of Wallace. I particularly liked the portrait of Wallace, painted by Roger Remington in 1990 or thereabouts.
Next we went down into the basement, into something like a strong room, with a heavy door and carefully controlled temperature. There were about a dozen shelves of books by Linnaeus and a whole lot more with the rest of his library, the earliest volume dating back to 1488. We were shown a copy of the 12th edition of one of his works, with interleaved blank pages containing his notes of corrections and additions to be made for the following edition. He was clearly a methodical and meticulous man. We also saw a first edition of his Systema Naturae - it is a very large format book, with pages like charts. Someone commented that the pages would make great posters.
Next to come out were the beetles. Not live ones, obviously. These were Linnaeus’ specimens so they were well and truly dead, and dried. Apparently once dried then the specimens can last for a very long time. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, but I decided to scare you with a photo of the beetles instead.
We then left the basement and went up to the main Library upstairs. Now, that’s what I *call* a Library – a beautiful double height room with a sculpted ceiling.
Here we were treated to a display of some of the Library’s treasures, including Edward Lear’s book of parrots. Lear was an accomplished painter as a well as a writer, it seems. Sometimes I wish I worked in a botanical or zoological library – they have such beautiful books. Those floras and, er, whatever the zoological equivalent is (do they call them faunas?). I remember when I was a library student we were treated to a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens Library in Edinburgh and I was astounded at the beauty of the drawings they held. I recall that the Zoological Society of London Library also has some fantastic visual material. The closest I ever got was when I worked in a hospital library and we had some colour medical atlases. The most gruesome were A colour atlas of Accident and Emergency medicine and A colour atlas of genitourinary medicine.
One of the most interesting items on display was a book of ‘cyanotypes’ by Anna Atkins. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process, the origin of blueprints. Anna Atkins, an English botanist and photographer, used this process for capturing botanic specimens.
Not content with delighting our eyes and our sense of history, the Librarian then introduced Isabelle Charmentier, a historian working on Linnaeus, who explained her research into “the writing technologies of Carl Linnaeus“. Briefly, and as far as I understood it, she has explored the way that Linnaeus collected information in his various notebooks. At one time he used a blank notebook, reserving chunks of pages for groups of species. Of course, if he underestimated how many pages he would need for a particular group then he would have a problem. Later he moved onto using looseleaf pages. He might still have problems if he needed to insert a new species into an already-crowded page, but at least he could always add an additional page. Later still he used index slips – one for each species. This was apparently the first use of what we now call index cards. Just think what he could have done if he had had Filemaker Pro?
This was truly a fascinating visit, and I am indebted to the Librarian and Deputy Librarian, as well as Dr Charmentier, for their time and erudition. Thanks also to the CILIP ARL group for organising the visit.
I was very pleased to be able to take photos during the visit, though at one point the phone on my camera got confused and this photo appeared by mistake.