8. Exploring the Royal Geographical Society Library and Archive

To experience the Royal Geographical Society Library is to experience an extension of the National Maritime Museum, a component of Royal Museums Greenwich. Its website explains that the collections “comprise of over two million documents, maps, photographs, paintings, periodicals, artefacts and books, and span 500 years of geography, travel and exploration” (Collections). Visitors walk through the Museum to enter the Library and Archives. The Library itself provides a pleasant atmosphere, perfect for reading or quietly perusing the Internet. James Caird, a wealthy manufacturer and philanthropist who sponsored the Geographical Society’s early expeditions, started the foundation for the RGS Collection in 1830 and it has been developing ever since.

Joining and using most libraries in the UK, I have learned, is not difficult. At the RGS Library, like most other places, readers need only to present a form of ID and a home address to have access to the materials. The registration process usually takes place online, although people can come physically into the Library and register there as well; at least two professional staff members are always working at the reference desk. Since the Library is a reference only library, none of the items are allowed to leave the premises, yet patrons can order up to 20 prints and/or drawings at a time to view in the Library or scan for personal research purposes.

The RGS Library boasts itself as “one of the finest Earth Science libraries in the world” (Library and Information). The collection includes loose papers and maps dating back to the 16th century, the Nelson letters, and a comprehensive stock of books on slavery, piracy, shipping companies, social history, navel battles, biographies, astronomy, architecture, war ships, journals, and much more. The Archive also holds a large collection of business records off site that needs to be weeded. However, due to limited resources and staffing, this has been difficult to accomplish. I came to appreciate the special maritime focus of the Library, especially after hearing a lecture from Eugene Rae, the Principle Librarian, who took us through the history of the Geological Society from its earliest expeditions in Alaska and Africa to its later involvement in geographical research.   IMG_0978One of my favorite details of the tour was being introduced to the scanner below on the far left. The Library is unable to digitize its entire collection of over 300,000 volumes of books and serials and 40,000 maps, yet readers interested in using an item in the collection have access to a machine that creates a personal digital copy. I think this is a innovative solution to grant people access to the information they need despite the Library’s limited resources.

IMG_0979  IMG_0981 IMG_0982

Overall, the visit to RGS Library and Archive was helpful to understand the different types of libraries and the specialized areas these different libraries craft into their collection. The Victoria and Albert Museum has the National Art Library: a collection based predominantly an art related materials. Here, the National Maritime Museum has the Royal Geographical Society Library, and the collection centers on geographical topics and research. Before my trip to the UK, I did not consider or have much exposure to the variety of venues in which libraries are established. By witnessing the evolution and diversity of libraries and collections, my fundamental knowledge of what a library is has been “fleshed out” (so to speak), and with this well-rounded understanding, I am beginning to distinguish between the different job descriptions and information skills that comprise the librarians’ day-to-day responsibilities.

I found an online database (Wiley Online) that provides access to digital journals that would be helpful for librarians who want to give patrons more information related to topics like the Royal Geographical Society. Here is a link to The Geographical Journal.


Collections. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.rgs.org/ourwork/collections/collections.htm

Library and Information Services. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/library


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