The British Museum Archives

The British Museum is one of the most well-known museums in the world. In the mid-1750s this museum was created and has grown into the museum that it is today. The museum keeps everything that it acquires for the museum. The founding fathers and subsequent leaders of the museum kept detailed records of their meetings and aaquisitions. All of these records are in the tunnels below the museum.

Our class had a tour of the archives from the archivist and it was very enlightening. The British Library has only had a professional archivist for the past 15 years. 15 years out of the 250 years of it’s exsistance! The archive holds meeting minutes, lists of aquisitions, building plans, reading cards etc. These items are full of information but are not catalogued. In fact the archivist was only able to get a catalogue 2 years ago. There is only one archivist at the British Museum who is aided by 5 volunteers.

The fact that there hasn’t been an archivist until very recently can be seen. A lot of what is in the archives and how it is organized does not make sense. There are random scrapbooks of images, letters and plans that have been pasted in with no despcriton.

Each department now has their own librarian to help research for displays and exhibits but the archives still need to be consulted. Sometimes departments want to know when the Museum acquired an item and any history about it, and sometimes the museum has to prove ownership of an item. Since the archives are not catalogued no one is able to do it but the archivist who, after 11 years of working there, knows the collection the best from experience.

For example: The archivist was asked to find out when the giraffes came to the British Museum. The archivist had to scower the aquisition books to find an entry about the giraffes. She could not find any mention of them until she realized that at the time the museum would have acquired them, giraffes were called ‘camel leopards.’

The wealth of knowledge in this room is astronomical. Shelves upon shelves of books, some of which are still a mystery to their contents. There are boxes of reader cards from when the British Library was at the British Museum. We were shown Bram Stoker’s reader card. It was so neat. There are boxes upon boxes of reader cards that have not been all read. Imagine the secrets they hold.

One major problem is that the items are not catalogued. The archivist explained that it would take over 20 years to catalogue everything. The archivist spends most of her time answering inquiries, roughly 8-10 a day. She answers every question, no matter who it is from. She even received an email from a 10 year old boy asking about Christopher Columbus. Rather than ignoring the email she found some materials for him and emailed him back. The questions from the public and museum take up a lot of her time which means she usually only has 1 day a month where she is able to catalogue.

By the end of the tour all of us wanted to stay in London and help the archivist out.

I cannot stress enough the importance for decision makers to value archivists and they work they do. Since nothing is catalogued in this archive the archivist is the only one that can navigate it, from years of experience working there. If she is no longer available, for whatever reason, there would be no one who knows the collection. I hope people realize the importance of archives and libraries and the information they provide. Archives and special collections are full of items that you cannot find anywhere else. If they are gone or not taken care of that information is gone forever.


About librarianmaggs

Working on my MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Science) and have a tremendous love of books and libraries. Works at a city library and hopes to one day make a difference in the library a world. I want this blog to be a place where we can have conversations about what is happening in the book, library, archive and museum world! It is also a place where I will post travel blogs of libraries, archives, and museums that I visit.
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