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Historic England Library

Library of the Week: 29th August: Our featured library this week is the amazing Historic England Library and Archive. Librarian, Nicky Cryer shares with us more about the history of Historic England, the collections available in the library (including the oldest physical item which was published in 1598!) and the services available. Thank you to Historic England Library and Archive for taking part.

The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (HBMC) operates under the working title of Historic England and was established in 1984 under the National Heritage Act. It is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s historic environment, including identifying and protecting our heritage, understanding and championing historic places, and providing expertise and support at a national and local level.

Historic England Logo

Prior to 2015, the working name of the HBMC was English Heritage and, confusingly, an organisation with this name still exists! Since 2015, English Heritage has become a charity, tasked with the day to day care of the 400+ historic buildings and monuments in the care of the HBMC, with Historic England maintaining the role of providing statutory advice to the UK Government on all aspects of the historic environment. This encompasses archaeology on land and underwater, historic buildings, sites and areas, designated landscapes and the historic elements of the wider landscape. The role of the Historic England Library is to provide research support to the staff of both Historic England and English Heritage in their day to day activities.  Our collection is also available as a reference resource to anyone from outside of these organisations and is utilised by the general public, academics and commercial organisations.

The Historic England Library is co-located in Swindon with the Historic England Archive, which is one of the largest publicly accessible archives in the country with over 14 million photographs, plans and reports recording England’s historic environment from prehistory to the present day. Definitely worth a look – possibly a rabbit hole to get lost in!

The Historic England Archive store © Historic England Archive AA041152

The contents of the Library collection focus on the archaeology, architectural history and management of the historic environment of England, but other topics such as planning, mapping, photography, geography, social history and collection management are also included, to a depth that fits with our organisational purpose.  We carry some 60,000 book titles, and 1200 journal titles, of which around 400 remain active.  The Library also maintains access to a wide variety of online databases and journal titles relating to our topic areas, but these are only available for internal use.

A roughly a third of our collection is dedicated to material that focuses on local activity in archaeology and architecture, including a range of county Society journals focused on these topics. Our county-based content may focus on a single building, or anything in between, up to full county coverage. Our book titles may cover a subject in general terms, or concentrate on an aspect of the historic environment, such as archaeological structures, artefacts, gardens, airfields, or a specific time period, etc, and range from introductory texts to academic publications.  As well as the local Society journals we also carry a range of titles produced by sector societies and organisations; some examples are The Georgian Group, Pillbox Society, Cinema Theatres Association, Fortress Study Group, and the Nautical Archaeology Society, as well as a range of titles from academic publishers.

Image depicting the title page from A Treatise and discourse of the lawes of the forrest, 1598.

The time periods covered by our collection range from the Paleolithic to the present day, but our oldest physical item was published in 1598:

A treatise and discourse of the lawes of the forrest: wherein is declared not onely those lawes, as they are now in force, but also the originall and beginning of forrestes : and what a forrest is in his own proper nature, and wherein the same doth differ from a chase, a park, or a warren … Also a treatise of the purallee … Collected and gathered together, aswell [sic] out of the common lawes and statutes of this land … and out of the assises and iters of Pickring and Lancaster, by John Manwood.

Image depicting the ‘animal sounds’ page from A Treatise and discourse of the lawes of the forrest, 1598

Popular content in this publication are the pages giving guidance to the sounds that the various beasts of the forest may make.

Our antiquarian book collection forms a relatively small proportion of our stock, some 700 titles, as the wider collection is operated as a working collection.  The majority of Historic England and English Heritage staff are not co-located with the library collection, working from home, offices based around England, and the properties managed by English Heritage.  Staff from both organisations can borrow from the collection, and items are sent to them on loan wherever they are located.  In principle, an item included in the library collection shouldn’t be the ‘last’ that there is but, particularly in terms of the grey literature reports we collect, this may not actually be the case in practice! None the less, the service is operated on the basis that there is a possibility that material may be lost or damaged through usage.

As well as the day to day usage of the collection, contents are also utilised in support of the various publications produced by Historic England.  These can encompass illustrations and supporting material included in the Historic England Research Report seriesHistoric England Advice & Guidance provided for the sector, and organisation monographs, currently published via Liverpool University Press.

Image reproduced from The Architect, Vol. 39, 10 Feb 1888 of the Devon & Cornwall Bank, Redruth

The image above was re-produced for use in Historic England Research Report no.  45/2022,  ‘The Historic Bank Buildings of Redruth: Historic Buildings Report’, in support of the Redruth High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ). Other information that the Library provided was used to update the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) entries for the area covered by the HSHAZ, such as the building at  11 Fore Street, Redruth, Cornwall, which was  designed by local architect James Hicks.

The Historic England Library is open to visitors Tuesday – Thursday, 09:30 – 16:30, and visits can be arranged by emailing Further information about visiting can be found on the Historic England website.

The Historic England Archive and Library are also taking part in Heritage Open Days this year, opening from 10:00-15:00 on Saturday 10 September, with building tours, displays and activities focused on ‘Fabulous photography’.

Nicky Cryer – Librarian

All images copyright of the Historic England Archive, reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page.

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