It has been a while since I touched on a museum library and this post is well overdue. I think that because I spend quite a bit of time at the Horniman Museum, it is always there in the background for me. But talking to Helen Williamson, the librarian at the Horniman Library, has reminded me that we should never take libraries for granted, as one day they may not be there anymore.
My “Tinc in Museum Library Land” posts are inspired by my career in various different libraries, and drawn from my fascination with the perception that museum libraries are hidden away and inaccessible to the public. Unlike my last visit to the Natural History Museum, which has many sites hidden away, the library at the Horniman Museum is loud and proud, clearly visible as you enter the museum, nestled in the beautiful South London gardens, a quirky building that used to be the Centre for Understanding the Environment.
Up to 2004 the library which began as Frederick Horniman’s personal collection of 10,000 books was housed in the basement of the main museum. The collection now consists of 30,000 items housed in this airy ‘eco’ space. Before I get to have a nose around, a great deal of my discussion with Helen is based around budget cuts and the threat of closure. Museums are constantly having to deal with the reality of financial pressures and when the cuts come, it is amazing how quickly a library and its staff are seen as peripheral.
From a staff of 2 full-time and 3 part-time in 2004 to today and a part-time staff of 1, the Horniman Library has seen its fair share of trials and tribulations, as have many libraries up and down the country. Whilst it was a hazy dream of mine to be a solo librarian in my own library, Helen quickly makes the realities of working on your own quite clear. How do you do it all in two days a week? I am not sure.
What makes me most sad from a career perspective is there is not time for Helen to take on a library school placement. That is how you learn, how you get to see what is out there. I spent two weeks at the British Chamber of Commerce Library and a graduate trainee year at the Financial Times library, if you take away these opportunities how are you ever going to inspire the next generation of librarians?
But what I don’t hear from Helen is any moaning or complaining. Yes it is difficult, but she talks about the need to be responsive not reactive, also how the relationship with staff is absolutely key and this is with staff across the board, from museum director to volunteer. This internal advocacy is paramount, whether working with the learning department on a pop-up library for kids in the heart of the museum or a cross over collections blog, the library has to exist in new forms.
We chat about the importance of Twitter, she has her own account and makes clear it is her own view, it is a vital lifeline and a source of support from other library colleagues out in the sector. Helen tells me she worries about how to take the library forward, how to not stand still, but I wonder how all of this advocacy, outreach and strategic planning can be done on two days a week when there is all the day-to-day work of running a library to be done. The library is also open to researchers on those two days by appointment, and there are a number of open days where Helen gets out some of the collection’s treasures. It all makes for a very packed schedule.
Helen shows me around the shelves, the library has a wonderfully bonkers collection, as eclectic as the objects the museum houses, from musical instruments to anthropology and natural history. I eagerly seek out the section on walruses and I am not disappointed. We discuss the unethical role of early curators, in particular a fabulous book on crocodile hunting which describes in detail a curator’s hunt for a new specimen, it is a window on a very different time.
I am charmed by the oldest book Helen has, a 1529 edition of De Materia Medica on medicinal botany, then with great enthusiasm Helen shows me a recently rediscovered collection of Anna Atkins cyanotypes. She tells me how each print was individual distributed and then bound by the recipient, meaning each copy is slightly different. The blue colour and delicate feathery plants are really stunning, they are a beautiful addition to the library’s collection. It is seeing these books in front of me that lets me love the museum library, it is a unique opportunity to get up close and personal.
I have sat with this blog quite a while, the central relationship the Horniman Library has with staff has played on my mind. I contacted deputy keeper of natural history at the Horniman, Paolo Viscardi, to see how he views the library and resources for a more rounded view. It was very interesting to see how he acknowledge the library’s role as first port of call for research, whilst not having everything, the fascinating historical volumes collected by Frederick Horniman that directly relate to the collections are incredibly useful. The valuable resource of an experienced librarian who can source external publications and references and procure items via interlibrary loans is another huge boon.
The final aspect he pointed to was not one I had really considered before, the library was also a place for him to lodge his completed research –
“This means that the objects in the collection that are used for research can be better understood and used by others in the museum”.
That for me is key to the importance of a museum library, a museum should not be a static, untouched collection of objects but one where continual research is paramount so new connections can be made. The museum library has a crucial role to facilitate that research and maintain it for future generations. As curators move on, as Paolo himself has just done after 8 years at the Horniman, that knowledge and expertise is not completely lost.
Helen, as solo librarian, has it all to do, she is inspirational in her attitude and outlook. As I return to the museum a few months later I see a new contemporary showcase called ‘Bloom’, it exhibits the beautiful ceramic work of Edward Chell inspired by the Horniman’s collections. In the heart of this display, with great joy, I recognised the Anna Atkins cyanotypes that Helen had showed me. It is exciting to see everything coming together in this way for a new contemporary exhibition. I just hope the Horniman Library will keep its place in the heart of the museum so that its collection can inspire new curators and artists in the future.
With thanks to Helen Williamson you can follow her on Twitter @HelenMW82
You can find out more about the library her – http://www.horniman.ac.uk/collections/library-collections
Thanks also to Paolo Viscardi – Curator Grant Museum of Zoology