“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” – Antonio Gramsci
Dr. Christopher Hilton, head archivist at the Wellcome Library, uses Antonio Gramsci’s quote to refer to the massive digitization project at the Wellcome Library. “Nothing is finished yet,” says Hilton, “but we’re willfully optimistic.”
For my research paper, I will seek to focus specifically on the Wellcome Library’s archives, both analog and digital, and what the Library is doing to develop its imaging practices to promote and maintain its hybrid collections to preserve its cultural and artistic heritage. The Wellcome Library’s collections began with Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Briefly, I will explain that Wellcome intended to use his independent wealth to amass his expanding medical history collection into a library and museum for public accessibility. While he did not live to see his vision properly through, by a series of continuous improvements, the Wellcome Library is now an online open-access platform featuring cover-to-cover books, video and audio, entire archive collections and manuscripts, paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, ephemera and more (Digitisation, 2015).
After his death in 1936, the bulk of Wellcome’s medical history collections were given to a group of trustees who created the Wellcome Trust. In 2007, the Library became part of the newly remodeled, “newly conceived” Wellcome Collection. Its website explains that, “Wellcome Collection seeks to explore the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future; at its heart lies the curiosity that drove Henry Wellcome to amass his diverse collection” (History, 2015). The Medical Photographic Library was also newly conceived in 2007 and renamed Wellcome Images, complete with a new website and online database of digital images for public access. I intend to focus my paper on both the Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Images to understand the current digital projects designed to engage public research and improve user experience.
One thing that stood out to me while taking a tour of the Wellcome Library was its progressive atmosphere. In addition to the state-of-the-art technology for the ongoing digitization projects, Wellcome was rethinking the concept of “library” and offering new types of services for users. Like the Library/Trust itself, the Reading Room was a combination of a museum exhibition and library with one hundred objects and approximately one thousand browsable books on the shelves. Different locations in the library were designed for different functions. For example, there was a mind section, complete with the latest books on psychology and brain research, a body section with books on anatomy and an interactive computer to learn more about your body, and a face section with paper, drawing materials and a large mirror where patrons could sit and draw themselves. One of the walls were lined with faces drawn be former visitors. It was obvious to me the space was designed for fun, stimulating activity for both children and adults alike. The Reading Room is open to the public, no membership is required. Getting a membership is easy, one just needs to sign up. After being granted membership, users then have access to the Library’s rare materials room and the entire archives collection. However, in order to see anything, users must send in a specific request before their visit.
A brief look into the spectacularly refurbished Wellcome facilities:
Digitisation at the Wellcome Library (2015). Retrieved from http://wellcomelibrary.org/what-we-do/digitisation
History of the Wellcome Library: a short history of the Wellcome Library from its foundation to the present day (2015). Retrieved from http://wellcomelibrary.org/what-we-do/history-of-wellcome-library