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.





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.


The British Library

I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the British Library. Large, of course, and obviously full of books, but what else? I think I had visions of something with at least a facade of age; you think of very old books being in very old buildings (at least I do), and when I think of the British Library, my mind goes straight to very old books.

There are definitely very old books there, as is clearly broadcast by the huge glass tower right in the middle, which houses the collection of George III. The six-story glass tower is a concession to the king’s requirement that his library be on display and available for public use at all times. This founding collection is interesting not only because of its size (85,000 items) and beautiful bindings; it includes books in sixteen languages. This started a precedent in the British Library, which now holds the largest collection of foreign language materials in the world.

"BritishLibraryInterior02". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“BritishLibraryInterior02”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Aside from these books, however, everything in sight upon entering the British Library is modern. The newness is a bit shocking in contrast to all of the age and history of those books and the treasures that are famously housed here. Everything about this building is thoroughly modern. Thirty-five million items in this vast collection are housed in the largest underground complex in Europe, that goes down seventy-five feet beneath the library. A system of machines and conveyor belts brings requested items swiftly up to the surface, where they can be distributed to researchers in subject-specific reading rooms. This efficiency is necessary, as the library gets about 4,000 book requests a day. For those items too delicate or valuable for reader use, the library has cameras that can make photographs of up to sixty million pixels of the items – high res enough for anything you might need. Some of these are available online already. If not, the library can take them for you.

It was incredible to see how such a huge library works, but to me, the really exciting thing was the Treasure Room. Exactly what it sounds like, the Treasure Room is a dimly lit area where some of the most valuable and popular items owned by the library are held. One of the most exciting items for me was the Beowulf manuscript. Gazing at one of the founding works of English literature was incredible. To make it even better, they connected it to the present by placing beside it a page from the manuscript of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Seeing the handwriting of the recently deceased poet right beside that of an anonymous scribe from centuries earlier was a very moving tribute to the life of the written word. The Anglo-Saxons saw power in words – in fact, the Old English word “wyrd,” from which the modern “word” derived, has undertones of power and magic, hence the “wyrd sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons were onto something. After all, there is no surer way to be sure that your name will be remembered than through words.

Stowe House

The beautiful Stowe House began its life as a private home for the Temple-Grenvilles, a powerful family who spend much of their time involved in the center of British politics. They were also famous for their patronage of authors; Alexander Pope in particular was a frequent visitor. As one might expect in a house built to impress, Stowe is a very striking and imposing structure indeed. Everything about Stowe makes a big impression: the massive house itself, the expansive gardens, even the fresh, clean air – even though I knew that, as Europe’s largest city, London must have a fairly hefty amount of pollution in the air, I never noticed it until I noticed its marked absence! Even today, the Temple-Grenvilles, long gone from Stowe, are awing us with their power.

IMG_3053In 1923, the house, no longer in the hands of the family, became a school. Because of the high costs involved in keeping up the school and grounds, the school gifted the gardens to the National Trust in the 1960s. In 1997 the school began opening the house for tours every day, in order to make more money to help maintain its A rating. Actually, offering tours of this grand house was nothing new; Stowe was first opened to the public in 1717, making it one of the oldest British tourist attractions. This has actually proved to be a great boon when it comes to restoration work on Stowe, because the guidebooks produced for visiting tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries give detailed descriptions of what the house looked like at regular intervals during its history. This is a great help in making Stowe’s restorations as faithful to its original appearance as possible.


As a library class, an area with a great deal of importance to us was the school library. Though this room began as a ballroom in the 1730s and was divided into two rooms, a dining and drawing room, in the 1760s, in the 1790s it was opened up into one room again, and became the library.

The library has recently been renovated, including the renovation of this stunning plaster ceiling. The gold part is indeed the real thing; it is gilded with 23.5 karat gold. The gold on ceilings was not only beautiful, but was meant to reflect light into the room and to make it look brighter.


Library ceiling, restored plaster and gilding.


The views out of the library windows are enough to make any librarian swoon – these gardens beat the heck out of the asphalt parking lots and streets we usually get!



The mahogany bookshelves that line the walls are original to the 1790s library – as are the hidden doors built to look like bookshelves! Sadly, the original library and manuscript collection – one of the finest and most well-known in Europe – was sold in 1849. Since 1923, books have gradually been donated to give the current library the look of an old one, as it might have appeared in its heyday.


Though the fireplaces have been moved around some over the years, they are original. They were actually sold in 1929 as well, but luckily were too large to remove from the room.




It is amazing to think of Stowe being a part of everyday life for the lucky students, faculty, and staff who call this estate home. I think I’d be happy to move on in at any time!


A fabulous day in lovely lovely Oxford started off right with a stop in at the Bodleian. Though there are over 120 libraries in the University, the Bodleian is the most recognized name among them. It has its origins in the fourteenth century, when Bishop of Worcester donated funds to construct the original building. The most famous patron of Oxford’s library, Sir Thomas Bodley, donated money and many books of his own to the cause of replenishing the institution’s supply of books, which had been reduced to almost nothing after the 1550 removal of all books deemed too popish for the use of a Protestant organization. Bodley’s legacy also includes the agreement originated by him with the Stationers’ Company of London, which stated that the Bodleian was entitled to a copy of every book published in England. Though much about publishing in England has changed, this agreement stands to this day, leading to the current staggering 13-million-book collection.

The tour started in the room originally used for examinations for theology students. It later became the library, until it was moved into the current library. This room was quite exciting for me, as I kind of have a thing for great fan vaulting.


The next room has a strong tie with English history – the throne standing at the end of the room is was used by Charles I when he sought shelter at Oxford from the hostile Parliamentary forces. He held court in this very room during his stay here. It’s humbling to think about the history that stands in this room. Obviously, we weren’t allowed to touch King Charles’s chair, much less sit in it, or even approach it, really, but in that moment the connection to the ill-fated monarch was unmistakable.


Our second class visit of the day was to Christ Church College, founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1524. This beautiful college was originally called Cardinal College in honor of its powerful founder, but was changed to Aedes Christi when it was re-founded by Henry VIII in 1546, after Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from power.IMG_2903

It has seen many famous students in its long history, from John Locke to John Wesley, and even beloved author Lewis Carroll.IMG_2904

As well as all of this academic history, Christ Church College has a more pop culture related claim to fame as the set for scenes from the Harry Potter movies, such as the Great Hall and the stairs leading to it. It is amazing to think about the fact that, for some lucky students, this incredible place is part of their daily lives. How often do colleges in the US have china personalized with the name of the school? How often do students at colleges anywhere enjoy their meals under the watchful eyes of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I?

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Finally, no trip to Oxford would be complete without a stop by The Eagle and Child, the pub where the The Inklings met. This literary group’s most famous members were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, but many other academics and writers joined them for their informal meetings. It was here that now-famous works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet first saw the light of day. The narrow hallways and small rooms look like just the place that hobbits and centaurs might spring to life.

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