The Royal Society Library

Librarians love to snoop round other libraries, looking for new ideas and taking inspiration from different institutions and their collections. I must confess that sometimes I find such visits a bit tedious but I really enjoyed my latest visit. Last week I went with a small group of fellow librarians to the Royal Society library, courtesy of Library Manager Rupert Baker. Sitting at the heart of the UK scientific establishment with a 350-year timeline behind it, the Royal Society library has an enviable position and a historical collection to die for.

Rupert explained a little about the history of the Royal Society and its building. I had not realised that it had only been at its present location since 1967. Before that it had been housed in Burlington House in Piccadilly. Now, at Carlton House Terrace , it occupies four houses. They were originally separate but are now joined together. One of them had previously been the German Embassy and residence of von Ribbentrop, another (or perhaps it was the same one – sorry, not paying enough attention) was the home of an American sheep farmer. He had made a fortune in sheep in Argentina and decided he wanted to live in an Italian Palazzo in London so he spent much of his fortune on very lavish decorations for this house. Some of the ceilings are really beautiful, but unfortunately the farmer bankrupted himself in the process of creating them.

Rupert also showed us part of the collection of portraits, mostly of past Royal Society Presidents. My favourite is the Salvador Dali painting of Brian Mercer. Rupert also pointed out the portrait by Meredith Frampton of F. Gowland Hopkins, the eminent biochemist. It is one of those paintings with very fine detail like a photograph, and yet not pretending to be a photograph.

Then we got down to the nitty gritty: the basement stacks. Any decent historical library must have a dark underbelly of closed access shelves stuffed full of old journals, books and papers. These stacks were a warren of small rooms and corridors, with low ceilings and a fusty smell of old paper. Just what you expect from an ancient library, though disappointingly they were not very dusty. The Royal Society published the world’s first scientific journal and they have been exchanging their journals with other national academies of science all over the world ever since, on the basis of “you send me yours and I’ll send you mine”. All kinds of scientific societies sent their journals in to the Society, and the Library has kept them all. The collection is particularly rich in 19th century natural history societies’ journals.

Archives are an important part of the collection too. I noted that the Library’s IT system is Axiell, which I understand is the system of choice for cataloguing archives. We didn’t spend time looking at the archives, but I can imagine there are some fascinating materials there, not least all the papers relating to the election of new fellows each year. After fifty years the Nobel Foundation release details of who was nominated for a prize, and it would be interesting, after a suitable interval, to see the corresponding details for Fellowship nominations.

Fellows are of course the key to the Society, and are important for the Library too. All Fellows are asked to donate to the Library a copy of any book they publish. Recently the Library started a collection of works of fiction that feature one of the fellows. The authors of these works often use the Library for their research.

Rupert mentioned that the recent One Culture weekend held at the Society had been a great success, bridging the worlds of science, literature and the arts. The building had also opened up for the Open House weekend, and there are regular talks held in the library that open to the public. Podcasts of these talks are available.

The tour finished by taking us to the main reading room, another fine room with a lovely ceiling. Rupert brought a few treasures up for us to admire: Newton’s death mask; the manuscript of Principia mathematica; and a couple of other very old books.

I was surprised to learn that the Library is open to the public. If you register and show some id then you can even borrow from the modern collections – biographies and books on the history of science. The reading room has wifi and a couple of computers (Macs) that you can use. If you ask nicely you can consult older materials, under supervision.

All in all, the Library was much more open and friendly than I had imagined. I will certainly be going back if I need to do any research in the history of science.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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4 Responses to The Royal Society Library

  1. What an interesting post, Frank. And I loved this line:
    “Then we got down to the nitty gritty: the basement stacks.”

    Sounds like a scene from one of my novels!

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Jenny – thanks! Ah, yes, I can see that line could be misinterpreted! “Librarians do it in the basement stacks“, kind of thing?

    I was, of course, referring to the dark secrets contained in library basements everywhere; those bibliographic caverns that ordinary mortals do not dare to enter. They are full of treasures, that no-one wants, and festooned with ancient dust.

  3. Steve Cook says:

    I enjoyed your write up on the Royal Society Library Frank. I try to write up similar events myself but my blog shows that I’m behind schedule. I’ll keep an eye out for the next visit to the RSL or attend one of the talks.

  4. Frank says:

    Thanks Steve. (I moved your comment here. Hope that is OK).

    I know all about “blogs” being “behind schedule”, believe me! I have a list of half-finished posts as long as my arm.

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