Thursday, 1 August 2013

ALISS Visit to the Library, Archives and Museum of the Order of St. John

Gate, Museum of the Order of St John

Last week I took part in an ALISS (Association of Librarians and Information Professionals in the Social Sciences) visit to the Library, Archives and Museum of the Order of St John. The Order is best known for its work on first aid (St John's Ambulance) but has a long and rich history. It began nearly a thousand years ago as a group of monks caring for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem, and was given the name 'Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem' when its members began to take on more of a military role. After moving to Cyprus, followed by Rhodes, the Order ended up in Malta for over two hundred years.

In England, the headquarters of the Order was set up on this site in Clerkenwell in the 1140s. After the Dissolution, its lands and wealth were seized and despite a brief revival by Queen Mary, the buildings were put to different uses - in the sixteenth century Elizabeth I's Master of the Revels had an office here and later on Richard Hogarth, father of the artist William, ran a coffee house. Later, the Gate was used as a pub where writers such as Charles Dickens used to meet, until the Order was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1888. The Order has been known for public First Aid ever since.

Our visit began with a trip to the Priory Church of the Order across the road. This was originally part of the same complex, but the site was bisected by a main road last century. The church was bombed during World War II and rebuilt afterwards; the modern complex includes a quiet garden for contemplation. Underneath, the 12th-century crypt is a beautiful example of Norman and, later, Gothic architecture; it contains several impressive tombs.

Following this we were shown the Library and Archive. This has a wide selection of books, journals and other documentation relating to the Order, and suffers from the common problem of too little space. Many of the archives are boxed and numbered, but not fully catalogued. Maps and prints are also part of the archive, as are some beautiful models of the church in Jerusalem, ornate furniture from Malta, and papier mache models - some of the more unusual items I have come across in special collections. We were shown some particularly interesting and unusual rare books, many with impressive woodcuts.

Afterwards we were given some time to look around the museum, which focuses on the history of the Order. I found the visit really interesting, and enjoyed gaining an insight into such a unique library.

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