Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Library Visit: The Paul Hamlyn and Central Libraries at the British Museum

It makes sense for a museum to have lots of books. Especially a museum like the British Museum, arguably one of the best museums in the world. When the British Museum opened in 1753, it was both the first national museum and the first public library in Britain.

Up until the building of a separate British Library facility in the 1970s, the British Museum housed the complete national library of the UK. Today, each of the museum's eight departments maintain individual libraries. Additionally, the staff of the museum and the public have access to the approximately 50,000 volumes contained in the museum's Paul Hamlyn and Central Libraries.

The tradition of having a substantial library collection at the museum is most notably talked about in what is now called the Enlightenment Gallery. Originally, these rooms held the books of George III that were donated to the Museum by his son George IV. Today the very same shelves are filled with books on permanent loan from the House of Commons; all of these volumes are from that legislative body's rare books collection.

To get to the Paul Hamlyn Library, and any museum visitor can, one need only walk into the museum; turn right into the finer-things gift shop; walk through to the small, square exhibition room; and turn right into the smallish library space. This room holds but a portion of the library's accessible reference collection. It also, much to my happiness, includes a corner designated for children and family visitors to the museum library. Here they provide seven half shelves of children's materials pertaining to subjects within the museum, as well as teachers' guides. Want to look at one of the books held by the library? Sit down at one of the library computer desks, search the library catalogue, and write down what you'd like to see; a member of staff would be happy to get you your requested item for in-library perusal.

What if you wanted to get to the Central Library, the portion of the library that loans items to museum staff and houses the huge portion of the collection not on the shelves in the Paul Hamlyn room? First of all, the Central Library isn't on a museum map; you need to be museum staff to access it. But, if you happen to be on a very lucky tour, you may just be led through a secret door in the museum...

...and into the rooms of shelves dating to 1816. These shelves are full of books old and modern; periodicals about library science and museum studies; old British Museum posters and postcards. A few examples of what I saw were huge, bound facsimiles of Egyptian Books of the Dead, currently in preparation for an upcoming exhibit; exhibit advertisements that were hung in the tube in the 1930s; and books written by famous authors who were once readers at the British Library when it was housed in the Museum. Central Library really is a hidden treasure library within a reference library within a museum.

On a more modern, less hidden-door note, the Paul Hamlyn Library does a lot of outreach to both museum patrons and potential museum patrons. I particularly liked their initiatives to get child visitors to the Museum more interested and involved in what they see in the galleries. They have reading list brochures for the already-interested child; themed scavenger hunt-like "trails" for children to follow throughout the Museum to see highlights; and rucksacks aimed at allowing families to go more in depth into a specific department or two during their visits. Anything to get young future scholars involved!

The Library keeps nearly everything it's gifted, and in addition it continues to acquire titles on its own. As a result, it is a tremendous resource both for scholars and the average Museum visitor who might merely be curious about something he's seen or read during a visit. By the end of the month, the Library's catalogue will be accessible online; I truly hope this off-site browsing of the holdings will allow more Museum visitors to venture into this jewel of a resource room!

*exterior photo of the Museum courtesy of the British Museum

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