The Royal Geographical Society

The Royal Geographical Society first captured my imagination when I read The Lost City of Z by David Grann. In this exciting work of non-fiction, Grann seeks to learn the fate of the famous explorer, Colonel Percy Fawcett, who was instrumental to the efforts to map the Xingu region of the Amazon, but went missing during his final expedition, on which he hoped to find evidence of the advanced civilization that he believed existed or had once existed somewhere in the Amazon rainforest.

I was intrigued not only by Fawcett’s story, but also by the whole narrative of this new age of explorers at the end of the nineteenth century, when brave souls set out on dangerous adventures into the unknown for the sole purpose of finding out what was there. There was no guarantee that they would return home safely; they had to know that, in many cases, it was highly unlikely that they would return home at all. Yet still they set out, ever optimistic, to map the world.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out that I would get to visit the Royal Geographical Society,where I would learn more about this illustrious organization and the incredible people who were part of it.

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Shackleford

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Livingstone

The collection owned by the Royal Geographical Society is immense, including about two million items. About half of them are maps, fitting for an organization dedicated to mapping the world. It also includes half a million images, stunning representations of the strange new worlds discovered by the RGS explorers. The RGS also has a great many books, periodicals, notes, correspondences, and other text items. The most impressive part to me, however, was the artefact collection. In addition to scientific instruments owned by the RGS and loaned to explorers for use on their voyages, there are fascinating personal effects, such as Dr. Livingstone’s hat, and cultural objects belonging to peoples met during expeditions.

Examples of a variety of these holdings were displayed for us in a “Hot and Cold Showcase,” which uses artefacts to help narrate stories of the RGS, divided between the “hot” and “cold” regions. During this showcase, we learned stories of the explorations of Africa and the quest for the long-sought Northwest Passage, as well as attempts to climb Mount Everest – one of the most exciting sets of stories I’ve heard on this trip. Those stories, however, could provide fodder for a series of very exciting books, so I will leave them for another time.

The Royal Geographical Society archives house not only the history of the RGS itself, but also that of the discipline of geography as a whole, an area of study that gained its place in the world through the accomplishments of a few daring explorers.

Middle Temple

For someone whose entire knowledge of the British legal system is derived from the television adaptation of Rumpole of the Bailey, a visit to the Middle Temple library was quite a revelation. I knew that tradition was valued to a certain extent, as seen in the wigs and robes, but this visit proved that there was much more to it.

Anyone wishing to attempt to become a barrister must first join one of the four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s, Gray’s, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. Each of the Inns of court has its own coat of arms. Lincoln’s Inn has a lion, Grey’s has a griffin, Middle Temple a lamb, and Inner Temple a winged horse.

London-Inns-of-Court

“London-Inns-of-Court” by Marc Baronnet – Marc Baronnet. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London-Inns-of-Court.JPG#mediaviewer/File:London-Inns-of-Court.JPG

In order to join an Inn of Court, candidates must attend twelve sessions, called “dinners” at the Inn of their choice. Though the Inns of Court are intended for barristers, this is a difficult feat that few accomplish. In fact, there have been a lot of people who have joined the Inns of Court for the benefits and connections to be had there, rather than through any real intent to become barristers; Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker, for example, did this very thing.

All of the Inns of Court have long histories. The Inner and Middle Temple get their name from the headquarters of the Knights Templar, known as the Temple. When the Templars fell out of favor, this paved the way for the barristers to move in, and they are there still.

Each of the Inns of Court has its own library. The Middle Temple Law Library proved very resilient, surviving both the Great Fire and both of the World Wars, but sadly, the structure was so weakened by the bombing that it had to be pulled down and rebuilt. Today it is actively used as a functional law library for the Middle Temple barristers. It keeps copies of every edition of every law textbook, among other law books. The books are not classified, but rather are divided into large sections, in which they are arranged alphabetically by author. This organization system prevents shelf browsing from being an effective method of use, but every item held by the library is catalogued and can be located on an online database. There is no remote access to databases available, but computer access within the library is completely free and open, with no logins needed.

No mention of the Middle Temple would be complete without some mention of the Middle Temple Hall. Built in 1570, this hall is used for official functions and dinners. The double hammerbeam roof in the hall is very unusual; it would have been much more expensive than a single hammerbeam, but the added strength allowed the room to be built on a larger scale. During the time of Elizabeth I, this would have been quite a lively building. The long oak table donated by Elizabeth herself was ideal for feasting, where entertainment would be provided by the minstrels and musicians who were on the payroll of the Inn. On at least one occasion there was even more notable entertainment provided: the first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was held in this very room. This tradition of hospitality continued on into the modern day. One of the Inn’s royal benchers, the Queen Mother, enjoyed visits to the Middle Temple Inn quite often, and was a great favorite there.

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National Library of Scotland: Research Trip

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I prepared for my research expedition to the National Library of Scotland by entering my information into the online reader’s card application. When I arrived at the National Library the next day, I headed straight to the registration desk. The staff were very helpful and efficient. I showed my student ID card and my passport to confirm my identity, address, and student status, then my picture was snapped. My card was ready in no time. I was given brief instructions on using the archives and the reading rooms and directed to the locker room, where I could check my bag and any other non-approved items (such as ink pens). Fortunately, since we had been acquainted with this information during our class visit to the National Library, I came equipped with my pencil and was prepared to divide my items and check the non-acceptable ones. I headed up the stairs to the reading rooms; this is when things got more complicated.

I have to confess that I had never used an archive before this, so, although I had heard some instructions and tips from class visits and other students and academics, I was a little uncertain about how the process worked. This was complicated even more by the fact that the majority of the items pertaining to Robert Louis Stevenson were not catalogued. So what did this mean to me that day? It meant I didn’t really even know what I was looking for! A bit of a problem when you have to fill out a form stating exactly what you want to see.

My first attempt at making sense of things was to ask at the first floor enquiries desk for suggestions. Wrong choice. I was directed to look through some resources in the reading room, and after that to check upstairs in the Special Collections. After some research in the reading room, I did learn a bit about the contents of Yale’s RLS collection, but not much more. Upstairs in the Special Collections, after some trial and error, I had a bit more luck.

I finally found some tiny books that had one citation printed on each page, with a typewriter, it appeared. Using these books I was able to locate the items in a set of inventories. One of these collections was missing its inventory, but the librarian at the inquiries desk was able to print the inventory out for me so that I was able to request items from it.

Some of the items I looked at were a lot more helpful than others. There were wills of RLS and his mother, Margaret, financial records, and a good bit of correspondence relating to extra funds not included in Margaret’s will. The most thrilling, without a doubt, were the items written by RLS himself – it’s not every day that you get to touch items that came from the hands of famous authors!

The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

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Before I set out to find the Writers’ Museum, I had passed by it several times, never knowing it was there. When I looked up its location on a map, I had a moment of worry that this museum dedicated to Scottish writers – in particular to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – was like Diagon Alley and completely hidden to Muggles (non-authorial legends, in this case?). As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, because once I knew where to look, I quickly found a tiny passageway that opened into a stone courtyard dominated by a stone house at one corner, a turret rising in elegant arching lines over the door.

The house is called Lady Stair’s House after a famous owner during the 1700s, but it was built in 1622. Information on the house, its history, and its restoration is found on the first floor.

Upon entering the building, I was met immediately with a winding staircase, headed upstairs on the left and downstairs on the right, and a door leading into the main floor. A sign indicating the downward stairs pointed the way to the Robert Louis Stevenson collection. As RLS is the general subject of my research paper, I headed for his collection first. The display was organised chronologically, moving from RLS’s birth onward through his life toward his death. The first room included photographs, paintings, and other relics from his early life, ending with the pivotal event of meeting Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, the married woman who would later become Stevenson’s wife. The second room continued the chronological arrangement, moving on to cover his later life.

This collection included both original materials and reproductions of photographs and paintings housed elsewhere, as well as items belonging to Stevenson. Some of the most remarkable of these items are a dresser belonging to the Stevensons which was made by the infamous Deacon Brodie, Stevenson’s riding boots and whip, and his fishing rod.

One of the most notable aspects of the Robert Louis Stevenson collection at the Writers’ Museum was not part of the collection at all, but rather the friendly and helpful gentleman who was working there, welcoming visitors, taking note of where they come from (while I was in the museum, I heard notes of Tennessee, France, and Honduras – clearly RLS has a great deal of international appeal), and giving visitors information about how the collection is arranged, about Stevenson and his life and works, and about specific items in the collection. This knowledgeable gentleman, as it turned out, has studied Stevenson extensively in collections and museums all over the world, and is in fact in the process of transcribing an unpublished manuscript by RLS. When I told him that I was writing a paper on RLS, but that I wasn’t sure what my topic would be yet, he was able to tell me what subjects had and had not been covered, and where I could find pertinent resources. It seemed he had utilized just about every RLS collection in existence! I was very lucky to meet him in the course of my research!

After my exploration of the Stevenson collection, I headed upstairs to the upper floor, which had a display of photographs of Scottish writers outside of the great trio that was the main focus of the museum. There was another display dedicated to forgotten female writers, and information on Lady Stair’s House. The main floor contained the Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott collections, which included mostly paintings and letters, and a few personal affects and some furniture belonging to the authors. This floor also included a small shop selling books by Scottish authors.

In the courtyard outside of the museum were paving stones engraved with quotations by Scottish authors – a nice touch to lead the way to this charming museum.

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Edinburgh Central Library

The Edinburgh Central Library is a lively, active establishment right in the heart of Edinburgh. It got its start as a Carnegie library, meaning that, like all Carnegie libraries (with the notable exception of the one in Stratford-upon-Avon) it was a new construction building at the time of its founding. For this particular library, that meant 1890 – a good time to have a new library built, anyway, as the Victorians were good at designing large, public buildings that were still elegant and beautiful. It is also fitting in that the public library itself is a Victorian institution; though features have changed over the years and the architecture and layout of the buildings may be different, it was at this time that the nature and role of libraries really became the one that we still hold to today.

The Central Library has changed and modernized since its foundation, of course, expanding to create a new children’s library. This area is thoroughly modernized with child-sized furniture and murals of trees and fantastical animals by children’s book illustrator Catherine Rayner.

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Besides providing the children of Edinburgh with free access to books and other resources, the library encourages them to utilize these resources through the “Book Bug” initiative, which encourages children under five to engage with books and literature from a young age. Not only are books fun for kids, but more interaction with books and literature helps them to be better prepared for school.

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The Central Library’s mission is to provide the best service possible while still preserving the organization’s rich history. With 400,000 visits per year, it is a busy place that must make use of modern advances to keep up. Self check stations speed the check out process for patrons, and give the library staff more time to design and implement programming for their diverse patron groups.

Central Library is not the only one in the city; there are thirty additional branches, many of which are gradually become parts of “Next Generation Hubs,” in which the library is part of a larger complex, including things like neighborhood centers, cafes, and meeting spaces. Central Library integrates with the Music Library, used by local musicians, and the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, which is used by people all over the world, for things ranging from genealogy to Edinburgh history. It is heavily used also by Edinburgh authors doing research for both fiction and nonfiction projects. People everywhere can utilize digital resources tied to these collections, such as Our Town Stories, which provides interactive guides to places and events in Edinburgh history.

“Let there be light” is written on the outside of the building, and this ideal carries through both figuratively in the effort to bring knowledge to all, and also physically in the natural light emphasized within this bright and beautiful library.

John Murray Archive – National Library of Scotland

After reading The Seven Lives of John Murray before leaving for London, I became a little bit obsessed with the story of the John Murray publishing dynasty; I was thrilled to learn that we would be visiting the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. There are a lot of interesting aspects to its history, starting with the publishing house itself. It was begun in 1768 by John Murray I, a Scot who moved to London to seek his fortune. It was passed down through seven generations of John Murrays, moving early on from its first home on Fleet Street to its famous location on Albemarle Street, until it was finally sold 242 years later. It was the longest-lived privately-owned publishing house in the world, a feat which had become more and more difficult over the years as business changed with the times.

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The original home of John Murray Publishing on Fleet Street in London.

One of the most colorful characters in the Murray history came during the time of John Murray II: Lord Byron would prove to be not only one of John Murray’s most popular authors, but also a close friend of John Murray II. The letters between them have been a rich resource for Byron biographers as well as historians of the John Murray dynasty and publishing history. In addition to the many poems written by Lord Byron during his short life, John Murray had an opportunity to bring yet another Byron work to the public, but that manuscript met a mysterious end. Shortly after Byron’s death, there was some dispute over Byron’s memoirs, which he had instructed to be published posthumously. However, they were considered so scandalous by the few who had read them, that a small group, including John Murray II, met in John Murray headquarters on Albemarle Street to discuss the situation. The memoirs were burned in the drawing-room fireplace in order to protect Byron’s memory. One can only guess at the contents.

After the sale of the publishing house, John Murray VII insisted that the famous and priceless Murray archives should not go along with the rest. Instead, it should go to a special collection where it could benefit many people. Therefore, in 2002, part of the John Murray archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. In 2006, the NLS bought part of it for 31.3 million pounds. Though this is a large sum that NLS needed a great deal of support to raise, it is a mere fraction of the actual value of the John Murray archives. In addition to that, the money raised from the sale went into a charity trust for the upkeep of the John Murray collection, the NLS, and others.

The four million items of the John Murray Archive are a great draw – they are exhibited so as to engage visitors with the stories of John Murray and the famous authors published by them. As well as the ever-popular Lord Byron, Dr. Livingstone, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley are popular characters, among many others. Some items are displayed in the NLS, while at times others go on tour or out on loan to other locations.

At the NLS, most items are in storage, but there are always some on display, with an interactive tablet program to help engage the viewer. Authentic artefacts combine with contemporary set pieces in large glass cases, where John Murray treasures are displayed in specially lighted and climate controlled conditions, where they can be carefully protected. They are very careful to preserve the items in the collection, but not at the expense of destroying accessibility. There is even a reconstruction of the infamous fireplace where Byron’s memoirs were burned, complete with bookshelves stocked with period copies of John Murray books for the public’s perusal. Though the original furnishings from the famous Albemarle Street residence are still in their original location, in Edinburgh they try their best to recreate the feeling of being in the legendary drawing room. They seek to draw people in with the perfect balance of history and drama, which is fitting, really, when you’re talking about a collection in which so many different cultural threads intersect.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kew Gardens was formed when George III inherited two gardens from his grandfather and joined them into one estate. It 1840 it became the Royal Botanic Garden. The collection of William Hooker, a notable director of Kew Gardens, became the foundation of the botanic Library, Art, and Archives collection when it was bought for a thousand pounds. This collection is filled with important works by famous botanists, and has items dating back as far as the middle ages. The remarkable progress in scientific illustration is evident in the differences between the fanciful medieval drawings in the collection’s oldest item, a 1370 book about herbal remedies, and the meticulous reproductions of plant life created in books like the mid-eighteenth century works of Mark Catesby.

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Horus Sanitatis. Herbal dating from ca. 1370.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kew archives was the Herbarium. Organized much like a library, but with dry plant specimens instead of books, this huge collection of seven to eight million specimens continues to grow by about 300,000 species each year. To accommodate this wealth of specimens, a new wing is needed about every fifty to sixty years.

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Space isn’t the only difficulty for the Herbarium, however; fire has always been a risk, especially before the days of electricity. The Herbarium is build with large windows to decrease the need for fire-based lights. Pests, usually small beetles, are a problem as well. The old remedy for pests was to paint plants with mercury. Today, methods have changed considerably; infected specimens are frozen to kill pests, and the area cleaned and sprayed. The new wing is climate controlled to provide an inhabitable environment for the pests. During World War II, bombing was also a real threat. Today you can still see specimens that have red borders, an indication that they were the best specimens that should be quickly removed if necessary.

Not only is Kew a fascinating archive of botanical discoveries, but in many ways a living history of the field of botany itself.