Keeper of the Muniments

This afternoon we were given the very special opportunity to visit the library and muniments at Westminster Abbey. The library and archives consists of books, manuscripts, administrative, legal, and financial records as well as other materials related to the Abbey, many of which date back to the medieval period. Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, meaning that the church is not under the jurisdiction of the Church of England and instead is overseen by the monarch. Construction of the present abbey began in 1245 but archival records span from the 10th century to the modern-day . The library is located, in what was previously, the monk’s dormitory beside the chapter house.

Facade of Westminster Abbey

Facade of Westminster Abbey

The library officially began collecting in 1560, under the supervision of librarian William Camden, following the destruction of many monastic libraries by the orders of King Henry VIII during the English Reformation. Like other libraries from this period, the books are organized by size and were once chained to shelves to prevent theft. Each book is assigned a series of numbers corresponding to its exact physical location on the shelf, for efficient retrieval. John Williams, the Dean of Westminster, gave the bookcases currently located in the library’s main room in 1623. Westminster’s library holds around 14,000 early (pre 1800) books primarily pertaining to theology. The early printed books collection is closed, meaning the Abbey is not looking to add additional items, but library staff do purchase modern publications related to Westminster Abbey. Library staff members are also charged with the answering of online questions about the church and the general dissemination of the history of Westminster Abbey.

Entrance to the library

Entrance to the library

The archives, called muniments, document the administration of Westminster Abbey. Apart from the materials discussed above, the archive houses records of the Abbey’s vast land holdings, key figures in the church, as well documents relating to coronations, charters, and royal burials. Access to the library and muniments is restricted to appointment only. The library is quite small, further restricting the number of researchers able to utilize the materials. The Abbey’s archival catalogue of the medieval and early modern records in available at the library and at the Bodleian in Oxford but is not accessible online. The administration of the Abbey’s library is very similar to that of St. Paul’s Cathedral. One noticeable difference is that St. Paul’s does not house its own archive. Archive materials related to the cathedral are kept at the London Metropolitan archives.

National Library of Scotland

Our first full day in Edinburgh started with a visit to the National Library of Scotland. The NLS is one of Scotland’s five National Collections, which include the national library, museums, galleries, records, and Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The national collections are charged with “collecting, preserving and exhibiting cultural objects of national importance.” Like the British Library, the NLS is Scotland’s legal deposit thereby, collecting all materials published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The library contains over seven million books, organized by size to save space, as well as maps, moving images, manuscripts, and other artifacts.

In 2007 the Scottish Screen Archive became a part of the National Library of Scotland. Located in Glasgow, the screen archive holds more than thirty-two thousand documentaries, home movies, news recordings, educational films, and Gaelic broadcasts related to the cultural identity of Scotland. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to travel to Glasgow to visit the archive but films can be accessed through their website. I am quite interested in the archiving and preservation of moving images and was disappointed that we did not get to see any film on our visit. Librarians at the NLS expressed a desire to start a sound archive that would operate similarly to the Scottish Screen Archive that would act as an online hub for sound collections from libraries or archives all around Scotland.

The library houses the John Murray archive that spans over 200 years of the famed publishing house’s operation. John Murray published numerous influential authors, including but not limited to, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin, and Lord Byron. Manuscripts, photographs, personal affects, letters, diaries, and more document the eminent authors represented in the collection. The National Library of Scotland’s John Murray archive contains ten thousand items related to famed romantic poet Lord Byron, the largest collection in the world. Some of these materials can be viewed on the library’s website. Unfortunately the NLS’s collection of Lord Byron’s shirts cannot be accessed digitally. Be sure to checkout materials related to the 19th century travel writer Isabella Bird.

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird

Select documents and other materials can be seen on display in the NLS’s John Murray technologically advanced permanent exhibit. The exhibit allows visitors to view digitized materials relating to several of the most influential authors in the collection. Each display case introduces patrons to a specific writer by exhibiting their clothing, manuscripts, letters, or other personal objects. Cases also contain easy to use touch screens that provide biographical information, brief descriptions of the displayed items, zoom features, audio transcriptions, and other digitized material. The exhibit allows the NLS to uphold its duties as a research institution while also providing a welcome environment for other visitors.

 

Weiner’s Library

Following our tour of the British Museum archives, our class visited the Weiner Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide. The Weiner library one of the foremost Holocaust archives in the world and contains over one million items. Archive collections are predominantly connected with the Holocaust but the Weiner Library is seeking to collect materials related to other events of genocide. The library has a long and fascinating history beginning with its creation in the 1920s through the work of the Dr. Alfred Weiner. Dr. Weiner, upon returning from WWI service in 1919, sought to combat the dramatic new surge of anti-Semitism throughout Germany. Weiner worked closely with the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith to lobby against the growing strength of the national socialist party and began the formation of an archive around 1925. In the early years, Weiner’s archive consisted primarily of documents, mostly clippings, about the Nazis. The collection of modern material in an archives is usually rare but Weiner recognized the importance of the preservation of the present. In 1933, the Weiner family, along with the collections, fled to Amsterdam and began the Central Jewish Information Office, which continued to contribute to the developing archive. The materials collected grew from mostly newspapers to eyewitness accounts of Kristallnacht, the widespread destruction of Jewish, store, homes, and synagogues by the Nazis in November 1938.  In the summer of 1939, the archive was brought to the United Kingdom. The collections have subsequently been utilized as evidence for the Nuremberg trials and continue to grow.

Among the materials our class viewed were Nazi coloring books. These types of activity books were distributed to children all over Germany and while they do not depict any military or violent acts these publications are examples of indoctrinating Nazi propaganda. The Weiner library also houses the largest collection of seed and tea packets containing camouflaged anti-Nazi literature in the world.

Example of camouflaged anti-nazi literature at The New York Public Library

Example of camouflaged anti-Nazi literature at The New York Public Library

Peter Fritzsche’s article, The Archive and the Case of the German Nation, was a constantly in my thoughts as we toured the collections. Fritzsche examines the historical influences on archives with considerable attention paid to the significant role of archives during the Third Reich.[1] Under the Nazis, individuals were obligated to maintain extensive personal archives concerning their health and genealogy as proof of Aryan identity. New records were created defining physiognomic and racial categories. For Jews, the required cultivation of a personal archive condemned. Papers, photographs, and personal affects were scattered but following the end of WWII archives concerned with Holocaust history were founded in areas where European Jews fled.

 

[1] Fritzche, Peter. “The Archive and the German Nation.” In Archive Stories, edited
by Antoinette Burton, 184-208. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

”To Gardeners Everywhere”

Flowers at Kew Gardens

Flowers at Kew Gardens

I was excited to visit Kew Gardens today for our last class before we leave for Edinburgh. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, originally two royal private gardens, was opened to the public in 1840 and have since become a renowned institution for the collection of plant specimens as well as botanic research. Kew boasts the largest collection of living plants in the world and is home to one of the field’s leading herbariums, or collections of dried preserved specimens. While the gardens and the Victorian conservatories are absolutely stunning, I found the history of the plant collections the most interesting portion of the visit.

Kew’s world-class herbarium is located in the oldest part of the institution’s archives, dating from 1877. Founded in 1853, the collection now contains seven million specimens and 350,000 type specimens, the original sample upon which new species have been based. Kew also houses a number of spirit collections comprised of plant material, such as orchids, that would loose their essential shape if pressed. Spirit collection samples are preserved with the help of embalming fluid to retain their form. Herbariums are unique archives, they are essential to the study of plant taxonomies, global vegetation distribution, and offer a historical record of change. Kew’s herbarium contains pressings dating back to the 18th century, personal collections belonging to Charles Darwin, Doctor David Livingstone, John Hanning Speke, and other famed scientists, and receives over thirty-seven thousand new specimens a year.

Plant specimens are dried using presses and are adhered to acid free archival paper. The pressings are placed in boxes that are arranged within the herbarium by family, region, genus, and species. Information concerning the specimen’s provenance, collector, identification numbers, and other potentially helpful information, like local uses, are recorded on the sample’s label. During our tour I asked about the changing practice of preservation for the pressings. The archivist answered that the major preservation issue for ensuring the survival of collections is the utilization of undamaging adhesive to attach samples to the archival quality paper.

Herbarium and specimen box

Herbarium and specimen box

Daniel R. Headrick, in When Information Came of Age, a discussion of 18th and 19th century information systems, highlights the importance of taxonomic classifications developed by botanist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus laid the foundations of binomial nomenclature, the classification of living organism based upon genus and species name in the 1750s. The ease and rationality of the Linnaean system became popular among professional botanists. Britain in particular was quick to embrace Linnaeus’s theories with many of his students participating in British expeditions to the Americans, India, and Africa. In 1760 the gardens at Kew laid out 3,400 species according to Linnaean taxonomic classifications. The legacy of Linnaeus’s studies can still be seen in Kew’s herbarium and gardens.

 

This post is dedicated to George Harrison and his love of gardening

This post is dedicated to George Harrison and his love of gardening