Visit: The Wellcome Trust and the British Library

Apparently the BL is supposed to look like a ship. I can kind of see it (if I squint a bit, anyway). “British Library” by Sheep purple is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It seems to come as a bit of a surprise to people when I tell them that, despite always having been this much of a giant nerd, I’ve never been to the British Library (BL). I also never took up the University of York’s offer to go in a free minibus to the BL’s Boston Spa site. However, my BL-free life changed (for the better!) on 5 May, when the trainees and I tootled off down to London for another double whammy visit.

The day started, as it so often does, with a grievous coffee mishap: the café at Ely train station didn’t have any skimmed milk, so I had to have a regular latte instead of a skinny one (I KNOW. The AUDACITY.) It took me the entire 78 minute journey to recover from this, but once we reached King’s Cross I was just about okay. It was here the trainee group parted: two headed across the city to the London Library, and the rest of us set off down Euston Road in search of the Wellcome Collection and Library.

Prior to the visit, I knew basically nothing about what went on behind the walls of the Wellcome. They describe themselves as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’, and they are as intriguing and eclectic as they sound. They put on the most amazing sounding exhibitions (there’s still time to see ‘Electricity: the spark of life‘). They also, crucially, maintain a library and a glorious Reading Room.

Our visit properly started with an informal introduction to the Wellcome from library assistant Ed Bishop. Henry Wellcome was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur extraordinaire with a keen interest in collecting books and objects relating to medicine. He made an awful lot of money in his lifetime: his company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, was one of the four which merged to make GlaxoSmithKline. When he died in 1936, he left his money in trust to be spent on improving human and animal health. The Wellcome Trust is now one of the largest biomedical charities in the world. The Wellcome Collection was opened in June 2007 and features some of the 125,000 medical artefacts Henry managed to collect in his lifetime. The Wellcome Library is housed along with the Collection at 183 Euston Road and is tasked with fostering the study of medical history.

The Wellcome Library has a varied audience: students and academics rub shoulders with family historians and the interested public. Some of their physical items are available on open shelves, but the majority is housed in closed stacks. You don’t have to visit in person to enjoy their collections, however: Ed spent lots of time showing us the library’s website, which contains thousands of truly fascinating digital items – everything from Arabic manuscripts to Sexology can be found on there.

We followed up our introduction to the digital with an introduction to the physical space. I actually haven’t found myself thinking ‘I could really study in here’ that often on these visits, but I definitely did on this occasion. The space is brightly lit, well-organised and generally very Wellcome-ing (#sorrynotsorry). The collection of printed items is beautifully bizarre, with a classification scheme I could make neither head nor tail of. The Library is open to everyone, though a library card is required if you wish to request material from the closed stacks, and they do have to turn people away in the busy university exam season.

However, the real gem of the Wellcome (at least in my eyes) is the Reading Room. Formerly Henry Wellcome’s statue room, it is now designated as a ‘bridging’ space between the library and the exhibitions. It is such a gorgeous room – again, very brightly naturally lit, extremely comfortable and designed to encourage interaction with the books and displays in the room. Among the highlights are an excellent collection of scientific, historical and medical literature, interactive displays (you can see one example in Miruna’s blog here) and even a replica of Freud’s couch.

Once we had had our fill of the Wellcome, it was time to grab lunch and head over to the British Library. We were met at the entrance by Amelie Roper, who had coordinated the visit in conjunction with Christ’s College library staff. Heavy time constraints meant that this visit was really a highlights reel of what goes on in the BL, but they were all fascinating nonetheless.

First up was Kevin Mehmet. He gave us a quick walking tour of the library, finishing with a peek down into one of the reading rooms from a small balcony above. He then bamboozled us with some statistics, including that the British Library receives roughly 7000 visitors and 8000 new items every day. This is because the BL is a legal deposit library, like the Cambridge UL, but unlike the other legal deposit libraries, it isn’t allowed to turn items down. No wonder they need to add 12km of new shelving every year! Further, the collection doesn’t just include books: there are also maps, music scores, magazines, patents, and even stamps.* As touched upon in the first paragraph, the collection is spread over two sites: the building we were in, at St Pancras in London, and the Boston Spa site in West Yorkshire.

Next up on the list was Amelie showing us some of the treasures of the Music collection. These were beautifully eccentric and included Beethoven’s tuning fork (apparently a tone higher than it should be) and hair cut from a famous composer’s head after death (I don’t remember exactly who the composer was, but I did find a catalogue entry for a lock of Beethoven’s hair, so it could have been him again). This was a nice reminder that library collections can be about so much more than just books – I love archived objects and artefacts because they can really bring the past alive.

Third on our agenda was Alia Carter from the Two Centuries of Indian Print project. Even though the project is in its pilot stage, it is still a huge undertaking: the digitisation of 4000 early printed Bengali books – that’s over 800,000 pages! Many of these books are unique to the British Library, and so it would be a huge boon to researchers to have these books available in a digitised format. Further, the BL is forming links with academics in India and using the opportunity to promote digital literacy in the country, benefiting the research community in another way. It would also really aid in conserving these books to reduce how much they are physically handled. One interesting point is that Bengali is written in its own alphabet, and so automatically transcribing it with Optical Character Recognition is impossible. A competition is being run at the moment to find the optimal way to make automatic transcription a reality, so if you think you know how you could do it, you can find more information here.

The penultimate session was Jason Webber and his introduction to web archiving. Before 2013, the BL selectively chose which websites they wished to archive. This meant they focused on what they felt would be important and interesting historically, such as materials relating to general elections. However, in 2013 the government introduced the Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print Works) Regulations 2013, which applies to all online work connected to the UK. This means that now the BL uses an annual domain ‘crawl’ to collect online information which is not login-protected without needing permission from the site owner. This ‘crawl’ gathers about 80TB of data a year. Jason then went on to show us the UK Web Archive’s SHINE which is a sort of historical search engine – the material covers 1996-2013. It can also show you how words trended over that period. We did a few example trend searches, such as ‘dog’ vs ‘cat’ and ‘Cambridge’ vs ‘Oxford’; unfortunately cat and Oxford both won, but nonetheless it was interesting to see!

Our final session of the day was again with the lovely Amelie. She is a Digital Music Curator, and so this time she spoke to us about non-print legal deposit – that is, sound recordings, digital sheet music, videos and the like. There is a raging debate in the information world about the relative merits and drawbacks of electronic deposit, and we got into our own mini-version of it right there and then. Humans have been collecting, conserving and archiving print for hundreds of years now, and generally we’ve gotten pretty good at it. However, given the sheer number of items coming into the BL, electronic deposit seems like a more attractive option – less shelf space needed, for one thing. However, Amelie gave us a few examples of where this becomes problematic: for example, lots of digital sheet music requires special software to open it. What happens when this software is no longer supported? What if the file becomes corrupted? What if technology moves on and leaves this file type behind? There’s an awful lot still to be figured out in the world of digital preservation, and the arguments don’t seem like they’ll be dying out any time soon.

All in all, I had a really enjoyable day out in London. The only downside was our limited time in the BL; when asked for feedback on the day a few weeks later, I suggested that the BL trip is made into a full day event. It was clear that the staff there were trying their best but were frustrated with how little time they had available to them. However, I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend both visits to any future GTs or library nerds!

*These figures come from Frankie’s blog post here on the Cambridge Trainees blog (she was smart enough to take notes in the BL; I wasn’t) and from the BL’s ‘Facts and Figures’ page here.