12 July 2013

Day 22 - London: Royal Geographical Society

On Thursday we visited the Royal Geographical Society Library/Archives (http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Collections/Collections.htm). The RGS was originally founded in 1830 as the Geographical Society of London and soon after were granted a royal charter and so changed their name to reflect the charter. The aim of the RGS is to promote scientific geography, which was originally attributed to exploration and not the study of maps like it is today. The RGS wanted to send out teams of explorers to collect accurate data and then publish and share it with a wider audience. A few examples of their explorations include to find the source of the Nile (Dr. Livingstone and Stanley), Antarctica (Shackleton), and Mt. Everest (Sir Edmund Hillary).

The collection contains over two million items, half of which are maps - they are the largest private map collection in Europe, possibly the world. Also in the collection are a half million photo images, which document British exploration and colonial history. In terms of bound volumes, there are 250,000 volumes which are mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries; and there are over 1000m of archival boxes containing the history of the society, which is often found in correspondence between members.  The objects only are a small part of the collection, with approximately 1500 in the collection - the best of which Mr Eugene Rae, Principal Librarian, brought out to show our class:
A few of my favorites were...
The hats of Dr. Livingstone (on left) and Mr. Stanley (on right)
A block of chocolate, a biscuit, and a collar for arctic foxes (when trying to find the Northwest Passage through Canada, a whole ship went missing - so another team set out to find them, and they attached these copper collars to foxes, hoping the missing men would find them - directions on where to go were engraved on the collars) from Canadian arctic expeditions:
And the balaclava Shackleton wore on his first trip to Antarctica:
All of the items in the archives are exclusively donations; in the past they would accept anything, but now will only take items with strong RGS connections, as they are running out of space. It is interesting to note that this is yet another library that does not use a standard classification scheme, and instead have just shelf marks. On site, there is only a small description of what is in each archival collection - the National Archives hosts a more detailed finding aid, which researchers are directed towards during their visits. 

The RGS library moved into a new reading room in 2004 and since then they have been trying to reach out more to the public, inviting schools in for education days and the general public. There was always a perception that it was an "old boys club" (which it really was, as they first invited women to join in 1890 and then had a huge outcry by their members against it, so they rescinded the invitation until 1930!) and they want to shake that image. The last major RGS expedition was in 2000 to the Indian Ocean to explore rising sea levels; now they provide grants and funding for smaller, local explorations. 

Every repository we visit quickly becomes a new favorite, and I think it is especially true when we can look at the items found in the libraries/archives. Which is why I think it is so important for archivists to reach out and invite the public inside - you form a connection looking at historic items and then are so much more likely to support your local archives than if it was just a building with papers. And even it the archive is only a document one, papers can be really cool - like the letter the Massachusetts Historical Society has which a Civil War soldier began in the morning before a battle, all written nice and neatly, and then finished after he had been shot and lay dying - that is something you can connect with. 

After the visit, I wandered London for a bit, mainly the South Bank - there's just so much to see and do, like checking out some herb gardens along the river:
And at night, I went to see the musical Once, a story set in Ireland, which had great music and a fun set - before it started and during the interval, you could go up and order drinks on stage:
And a few YouTube links if you want to hear some music...they even busked on the Tube to promote it when it first opened!

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