Monday, 27 April 2015

LIHG Visit to The Caird Archive and Library at the National Maritime Museum

I signed up for a CILIP Library and Information History Group visit to the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum. The Library is a research library that specialises in maritime history, and holds the most extensive maritime archive in the world. The visit included a talk on the Library and its collections as well as a tour of the reading room and archives.

We were met at the front desk and taken to the seminar room where Gareth Bellis, the Library Manager, told us about the history of the Library. From 1937 until 2011 the Library was organised under one design, and was opened to the public in 1980. In 2011 a new library opened as part of the museum extension, including an open space as well as archive stores. The new library allows up to 46 readers, as opposed to 16, to work in the building.

The Collection
The collection is made up of many and varied items: manuscripts and original documents, including personal papers; admiralty records and business collections (such as the archive collections of P&O); Board of Trade deposits (e.g. Masters certificates); and atlases, maps and charts. The Library also holds printed materials including rare books dating back to the fifteenth century and modern books bought by the museum to assist research. Periodicals, ephemera and eresources complete the rich collection.

Facts and figures
We learned some interesting facts and figures: the Library has 12km of shelving, 60% of the materials are stored in the Sammy Ofer wing at the NMM and 40% are stored off-site. The Library receives approximately 5000 visitors a year, of which around 50% are academic, and 40% are interested in family history or general history. Around 200 written enquiries and 120 phone enquiries are received each month. The NMM has three catalogues in all, one for the archives, one for museum collections including maps and charts, and one for the library itself.

My favourite part of the visit was when we got to inspect some of the treasures held by the Library. The NMM's links with the Royal Observatory are demonstrated by John Flamsteed's Historia Celestus, a "corrupt catalogue" published too early by Halley and Newton. Another interesting item was an edition of William Buchan's Domestic Medicine, which belonged to the HMS Bounty and ended up with the mutineers on Pitcairn Island.

An account of the loss of the Royal George at Spithead in 1782, as well as a lieutenants log and some memorial books made of wood from the wreck, were present, as well as a letter from Lord Nelson to Emma Hamilton written on board the HMS Victory on 24 August, 1803. A crew agreement from the Cutty Sark and Board of Trade certificates for Edward John Smith, later of the Titanic, were also present. My favourite item of all, though, was a book by Peter Halkett from 1848 describing the author's rather bizarre invention of a boat-cloak, or cloak-boat. As the name suggests, this oddity was designed to be worn as a cloak and deployed as a boat should an emergency arise requiring this.

Overall a really interesting visit - thanks to all involved.