Monday, 5 December 2011

The Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Trust is the second biggest medical charity in the world. It funds and supports a huge variety of medical research. As part of that work they run a research library which covers the field of human health in impressive depth. Everything from the history of medicine to public health cartoons to gunshot wounds and parasitic worms. Thanks to the professional development wing of the M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries, the nice people at CPD 25, I was able to join a tour of this amazing library.

The Wellcome Trust was founded by Henry Wellcome. He set up a very successful pharmaceutical firm from scratch and spent a large part of the resulting fortune on funding medical research and building up a staggering collection of items related to the history of medicine. It's a proper nineteenth century, golden age of collecting, eccentric well-travelled millionaire with an obsession type collection. The fruits of his collecting mania can be seen at the Wellcome Trust. I popped into one gallery on the way out and saw Darwin's walking stick, a naturally mummified human body, an infant identification kit, some of George III's hair and various other weird and wonderful things.

His eclectic interest in medicine and human health is also reflected in the Wellcome Library. Its resources reflect its founder's vision. It exists to support research into every aspect of medicine and human health from the obvious to the most obscure.

After Henry's death in 1936 the Wellcome Trust was set up following instructions in his will. Originally it owned Wellcome's drug company. They've now sold the shares but presumably that was a sensible financial move because we were told that the trust's wealth is now around 14 billion pounds.

So this is one library that isn't feeling the chill but that doesn't mean they don't face challenges. The Library is going to be refurbished and redesigned soon in order to attract more visitors. The Collection attracts vast numbers of curious visitors but most of them don't make it up to the Library. It provides an excellent service to the researchers who come to make use of their resources but it is open to everyone and they want to attract more people and a wider range of people.

Getting some of the people who visit the Collection to wander upstairs and visit the Library seems like the obvious solution. The refurbishment will give the Library's decor a 1930's look which is more in keeping with the rest of the building. On the other hand there will be whizzy new technology like smart tables and that sure sign that someone has decided a library needs to be updated, a café.

I can see the logic. Some of the rooms further on have a beautiful atmospheric 1930s style but the first room you enter has a slightly clinical air. Not totally inappropriate of course but I can see that it might put off potential casual visitors. The entrance hall is very white despite the impressive murals that surround the enquiry desks. These kind of subtle little clues are important when you thinking about making a library seem welcoming to everyone.

The Library's classification systems are also a challenge for users and newly arrived staff. Yes, systems plural. They have at least three. The Barnard system sounded particularly interesting. This is a specialist classification system for health libraries. While I'm sure it has strengths it didn't sound like a system that is designed to be easily understood by members of the public.

The plurality of systems has come about because of the organic way that the Library has grown over the years. Given the sheer size of the Library reorganising it would be too huge a task. I think the lesson is that we need to think about the long-term impact of our decisions.

Our guide was very enthusiastic about the work of the Wellcome Trust and the Library's role in supporting it. He also took great pleasure in showing us some of the more unusual items in the Library's collection. Books on body piercing, the history of orgies, witchcraft and other odd corners of the world of human health.

The tour ended in a viewing room where we were shown the online catalogues (there are plans to bring it all together), their online resources and a nurse training video from the sixties.

The overall impression is that the Wellcome Library is a place of wonders. It is a place dedicated to furthering our understanding of our bodies and the things we do or have done to them for good or for ill.

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