To clarify: An abbreviated version of this account will appear in the next ARLIS Newsletter. I have chosen to add the full report (written in mid-March) as a post in my Medieval Monday series because of the reasons outlined in the introduction. Enjoy!
***************************An unintended side effect of spending a lifetime obsessed with all things medieval is that you also develop a fascination with all things icky and grotesque. Or should that be “grotesques”? My visit to the Wellcome Collection’s 2010 exhibition Skin was therefore an absolute joy, and gave me high hopes for the Wellcome Library’s resources. I duly signed up promptly when ARLIS advertised a visit to the Library on Tuesday 12 February.
Assistant Librarian Eddie Fisher gave us an introduction to the collection and its origins, as well as a tour of the library. I didn’t know Henry Wellcome’s story, but the motives of nineteenth-century industrialist collectors can be particularly interesting; I think of my old friend Sir William Burrell and his rival in art collecting, William Randolph Hearst. Librarian William Schupbach (responsible for Paintings, Drawings, Photographs and Prints, collectively known as the Iconographic Collections) later gave us some other details of the story. Wellcome (1853-1926) made his fortune as a pharmaceuticals magnate. He was born in Wisconsin, in 1853, into a very poor, religious family, but moved to Minnesota when his uncle agreed to fund his pharmacy training at Philadelphia. While his first job was in Manhattan, a fellow student, Silas Burrows, invited him to London to begin a pharmaceutical import business, in 1880. While the business practices were particularly innovative and changed the way in which prescriptions are issued, I was particularly interested in the use of lithographic designs in the company branding, during the 1880s and 1890s, and hope to return to the Wellcome Library in the future to have a look at these. Wellcome bought out Burrows’ widow in 1895, becoming the sole owner getting all the profits. But his second career was always that of being a collector, in the Pitt Rivers style of creating an “evolutionary anthropology” collection. While the collection was held in a warehouse until Wellcome’s death, it was then put on display in a sort of museum in Wigmore Street. Wellcome’s will bequeathed his fortune, collections, and company to the Wellcome Trust. The company supported the collections financially in addition to funding medical research. While the pharmaceutical company has now been sold off, the Wellcome Trust almost completely funds the Museum and Library, with the odd grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Art Fund. To be slightly gossipy for a second, I’ll talk about Wellcome’s family – he had one son, who was provided for by the Trust, according to the terms of his father’s will. He didn’t have a business mind, and settled in Buckinghamshire as a farmer. His mother’s story is particularly interesting (I did promise you gossip!). Syrie, Dr Barnardo’s daughter, was not long married to Henry Wellcome; she went on to marry Somerset Maugham (cited in her divorce from Wellcome), then Harry Selfridge of department store fame. She nonetheless found the time to have a career as an interior decorator, creating rooms entirely in shades of white.
The scene thus set, let the Wellcome Library adventure begin! Eddie took us through the main doors of the Library into a gloriously bright and airy atrium of a space, consisting of an Admissions desk on the left, and large Enquiries desks straight ahead. I was overjoyed to see painted over the desks Borges’ famous definition of a library:
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
There were also several paintings on the walls, and a handy brochure available to give further information on each work. I particularly noted the title of one painting, A clyster in use (by an unidentified French artist, c1700?), primarily because I was amused by the smaller scene at the top, showing monkeys copying the doctor, in the larger scene, as he performs an enema. My joy at seeing this is once again probably down to years of watching animals caper in the margins of medieval manuscripts.
All hard copy collections are available on a reference only basis to all comers; these include Archives and Manuscripts, History of Medicine, the Medical Collection, the Art Collection, the Asian Collection, the Moving Image and Sound Collection, Biomedical Images, and the Medicine and Society collection. Textbooks in the medical and science collections have an interesting life cycle in the library. They begin as contemporary, up-to-date teaching materials, and gradually become part of the historical collection. It’s an intriguing evolution of the value of a particular book. I liked the glass-walled room, well, I would have called it the Photocopying Room, but the Wellcome Library is the first that I have encountered that offers primarily scanning, with an option to print in black and white. All library visitors can scan materials to a USB stick; the costs are available on the website.
The variety of the Library’s collections was particularly impressive. I would like to know more about the reasons behind the recent decision to divide up the graphic novels collection, shelving them according to subject as opposed to keeping them them together according to their form. Perhaps it’s because there can be a certain stigma attached to such material, with people judging them for being frivolous rather than interesting and often thought-provoking. I don’t know which titles would be particularly relevant to the Wellcome Library. A brief stop at the New Books display shelf added a few titles to my Goodreads account, notably Clandestine Marriage, by Theresa Kelly, and The Modern Bestiary: barely imagined beings. I could have spent a day in the Biographies collection alone, which, in addition to the stories of great scientists, medics, and so forth, contained biographies of people with particular medical conditions. Some of these people were/are well-known for other reasons, such as Mozart (The bleeding of Mozart : a medical glance on his life, illness and personality, by Lucien R. Karhausen, 2011), I was surprised to see that there were no books about Sylvia Plath in the collection, particularly as it was the 50th anniversary of her death, and because two new biographies had been published just a few months previously. A later search of the catalogue brought up several of her own writings and another intriguing title, The pathology of literary genre : narcissism, neurasthenia, and schizophrenia in selected writings of Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath and Tennessee Williams, an unpublished thesis by Nabeel M. Yaseen. We wandered through the collections, making odd discoveries, such as the fact that recipe books are classified as Medicine books.
But nothing prepared me for the glories of the main Reading Room. It’s truly stunning, bright and spacious, with lots of desks and seating available without having people sitting practically in one another’s laps. It’s a warm, comfortable space, of which I am deeply envious, working as I do in a much smaller library. There are two floors, connected by a grand sweeping staircase, which, if I owned a crinoline, would have been the perfect location in which to wear it, and so to sweep grandly up and down said staircase. I hope you understand that the staircase is Grand. And also Sweeping. I may not have been clear. Around the lower edge of the balcony of the upper floor were written in gold the names of eminent scientists throughout history including Alexander Fleming and Paracelsus. Collections line the walls here, on both floors, as they do throughout the library, and we were quite fascinated with some of our discoveries. The collections here included Zoology, Botany, the Occult, and Alchemy. I was most delighted by the incongruous shelving of a book on radiology next to a book on the Irish famines. For the purposes of my own research, I was most interested in the several facsimiles of, and works about, herbals, as well as the books discussing skin and surface.The tour then over, Eddie released us into the care of William Schupbach, the aforementioned art librarian. He looks after the Wellcome Library’s paintings, prints, drawings, photos, and silhouettes, under the heading “Iconographic Collections”. The silhouettes collection intrigued me most, given my love of the works of Augustin Edouart, and the more recent Killhouettes, by John Fair. William further defined these collections as “documentary collections”; i.e. they are not about artistic merit or aesthetics, and are in fact intended as a way of learning about history.
I will admit that, when I booked my place on this visit to the Wellcome Library, I was hoping to get a closer look at a book bound in human skin, but this was not to be. However, I didn’t remember that until a day or two after our visit, which is testament to the quality of the visit. It is normal to be shown some of the treasures in a particular library’s collection on visits such as these, and I enjoy that more than I could possibly say, but this time we did things a little differently, and spent some time focusing on the Wellcome Library’s cataloguing work. Given my current work on updating my own Library’s cataloguing practices, this was very helpful, especially given that William was a fellow art librarian. The majority of the Wellcome Library’s books are catalogued using OCLC records, but the iconographic collections items are catalogued using MARC21, with some variations. The Library’s recent launch of its new website had meant that there were changes in catalogue searching methods, using keywords, collection name, and authority heading (e.g. author). William used the search term “Richard Dalton” to show us an example of a catalogue record from the Iconographic Collection, getting the single result of Dalton’s Ancient sculptures in Rome and Florence. Etchings by and after Richard Dalton, 174-. The record used the description as the supplied title, and included a list of the prints. The Iconographic collection is also an example of how the Library uses different subject headings for different kinds of material: Library of Congress subject headings are used for arts and literature, while Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) are used to index the medical collections. The record for Dalton’s etchings is also an example of best cataloguing practice, because it is broken down into the individual items in the book; not all records do this yet. I liked that, if page/item images were available in the Wellcome Images database, the catalogue record links to said images, all of which are available for use under a Creative Commons License.
The ongoing work on the catalogues and collections include a retrospective cataloguing project, of all material between 1896 and 1936; to my great delight, this includes all the items purchased by Henry Wellcome from William Morris’s book collection, as well as an image digitisation project of some 18 months duration. There is also an ongoing digitisation project of pre-1700 European books, in partnership with Proquest. In terms of the main e-journals collection, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Wellcome Library allows its readers to access these externally, which is a rare feature in reference libraries, more common to public libraries. But the British Library is also starting to move down this path, so it looks like the Wellcome Library is ahead of its time in providing such a service. William ended his discussion of cataloguing with some comments of the Encore discovery tool (from Innovative Interfaces, Inc.) used at the Library; my own library having recently started using Summon, I was interested to hear more about how it was working. By default, it searches all Wellcome databases, including e-journals, image databases, archives and manuscripts, as well as the main collection catalogues.
We ended our visit with a tour of some of the Library stores, which between them contain some 100, 000 items including printed books and paintings. The original boxes made by Henry Wellcome’s own carpenter to store his collections are still in use; they were made in the 1930s, but unfortunately they are heavily acidic. More recently, the Library has used non-acidic solanders, provided by Ryder (Cambridge), but these have proven to be too small for several items, the largest size being A1. The boxed items include prints showing working conditions, filed alphabetically by industry, most of which are not mounted, as a space saving measure. Now the library gets their boxes from Conservation by Design, and the focus has moved to improving the quality of the labelling of boxes. Shelfmarks have been assigned geographically, by bay and shelf number, following an inherited order, itself of historical interest, which must therefore be preserved. The shelf number features in item records, but whole boxes are never handed out to library users, just individual items, as the catalogue records thereof include the box mark. The ongoing digitisation projects have resulted in new discoveries in the stacks, as a student has been employed to make detailed lists of everything held therein. The new finds have included a box marked “WW1 subjects to be identified”, World War 1 having been one of Wellcome’s particular interests, along with transport; we mustn’t forget that he made a fortune at the time selling the smallpox vaccine to the Government. Wellcome documented World War 1 as it happened, and after the war added some of the Government’s own collection to his own, which later went on display at the Crystal Palace, in 1920.
We moved onto the paintings stacks, a vertical store containing some 1300 oil paintings. These are all catalogued via the Your Paintings website hosted by the BBC. All Wellcome Library paintings are accessible to the public on site as well as through this website, for all that they are not publicly owned. This store was also home to a posters collection; if a poster had been framed, it had almost certainly been in an exhibition. One such example is a poster by Leonetto Cappiello, advertising Agua de Vilajuiga, a Catalan mineral water containing lithium, and also said to be the only mineral water drunk by Dalí. Without further study, I could not possibly say if it had any effect upon his work.
As we left the stores, William mentioned that the Library was about to undergo an extensive refurbishment, as part of which the stores would be demolished. Sadly, he also mentioned that the beautiful, historic reading room would thus also be lost. It is a wonderful space, light and airy, with plenty of space for desks and shelving, and its impending demolition came as a real shock to many of us on the visit. Unfortunately, it seems that little can be done to save the reading room. The Wellcome Library is a part of a private company, and, to my surprise, the building is not listed, so it seems that there is no way to protect the space; its downsizing begins this summer. An extensive weeding project will be part of the refurbishment, and all books will be moved into storage. The Library website describes it as follows: “Central to the project, the Library’s Reading Room will become an innovative public space: half library, half exhibition. It will be a curated space with events, displays of books and objects from the collections, and state-of-the-art technology to fully exploit our ambitious digitisation programme”. It does appear that the Library will not close at any point during the project, and it is estimated that the work will be completed by the summer of 2014. I will follow the project with interest, but with a certain sadness at the loss of a space that appeared to be the ideal reading room.
Overall, it was a fascinating visit, and I could not have been the only one who learned a lot from all that we saw and discussed,, who left with plans to register for a membership card. The collections are diverse and fascinating, both on the open shelves and in the rare books department, and their organisation on occasion quite surprising (the inclusion of cookery books in the medicine collection is still intriguing me). I would recommend visiting and becoming a member just to browse the shelves and find some decidedly unusual titles and subjects available for your study. Remember the Wellcome Collection motto: “a free destination for the incurably curious”.
I would like to thank the Wellcome Library for a warm welcome, and Assistant Librarian Eddie Fisher and the Iconographic Collections Librarian William Schupbach for giving up their time to share with us their knowledge and expertise of the Library and its collections. Finally, I would like to thank ARLIS and most particularly Katie Blackford, Learning Resources Assistant at Christie’s Education, for organising and running the event.