Tuesday, 18 February 2014

ARLG London and South East Visit to the Linnean Society of London

There have been so many good library visits organised by groups already this year, and I've been able to go on quite a few of them. Last week I went on an ARLG London & South East visit to the Linnean Society of London.

The Society can be found in Burlington House in Piccadilly (near the Royal Academy); it is the world's oldest active biological society, founded in 1788. We were given a fascinating introduction to the history of the society, which takes its name from Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish naturalist whose collections form the backbone of the Society.

Our tour began in the Meeting Room, the equivalent of the room in the previous building where, over a century ago, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace's paper on natural selection was presented. Portraits of the two now hang on the wall, while the current President conducts the meetings from a crocodile-skin chair. I was particularly interested to hear about Wallace: he has been largely overshadowed by Darwin, but he sounds like a fascinating character and was also a great believer in social reform.

We were then divided into two groups. My group headed towards the Library, where we got to see the beautiful Grand Reading Room, complete with galleries. The Library is a working research library which holds both historical and current materials. The Library continues to acquire materials, often those books published by members of the Society, the Natural History Museum, and Kew. There was an interesting display on Wallace, including the rolled-up skin of a python he shot on one of his expeditions, and his sketches and notes. The librarians had kindly got out a number of special items for us to look at, including some of Linnaeus' books and notecards.

Finally, we got to see the Linnean Collections, kept underground in a bomb-proof strongroom. Here we learned more about Carl Linnaeus and his work. It was fascinating to see early editions of his books and it was clear that he was considerably ahead of his time in many ways: for instance, his classification system for living things put humans next to apes - this was in the late eighteenth century. Some of his specimens, including butterflies and amazing beetles, are still on display.

Afterwards we headed back upstairs for tea, biscuits and a chat. Thank you to the staff at the Linnean Society for a fascinating afternoon.

No comments: