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Libraries of the Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

The British Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1759, the first national public museum in the world to do so. Today, the advancement of scientific research, open debate, and fostering of global community remain core to the work of the nearly 800 people who work here, through care and interpretation of the more than eight million objects in its collection.

Although the British Library left in 1997, there is still a library service to be found at the Museum.  Managed by a core team of 11 staff, and comprising some 300,000 volumes, the collections represent the fruits of decades of specialist collecting across the Museum’s curatorial, scientific and conservation departments.  Whilst the collections obviously support the research activities of Museum staff, they are also made available to visitors to our study rooms, where they can be consulted alongside objects, and documents from the archival collections.

The Enlightenment gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Enlightenment gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum

When the Museum closed to the public for the first time since the Second World War in March 2020, the library of exile, a temporary installation by celebrated British artist Edmund De Waal, was being housed in gallery 2, immediately adjacent to the Enlightenment gallery, the former location of the King’s Library, now housed in its iconic ’tower of knowledge’ in the British Library. With walls covered in porcelain by the artist, the exterior of the installed sitting-space featured inscriptions of the names of historical libraries which have been lost or destroyed. Inside the porcelain walls, library of exile comprised about 2,000 browsable books from the artist’s own collection, with each volume authored by writers facing exile from their home countries, past and present.

In the accompanying publication the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer writes:

The library constitutes a global commons. A community of authors and readers, of words and books in so many languages…through their signatures on the ex libris bookplates of their favourite works visitors leave a trace of their presence (here). The library is an archive of the indomitable rhizome of reading and engagement

-Hartwig Fischer, “The library in exile, exiled from the library” in Edmund de Waal: library of exile, p.37. The British Museum Press, 2020

I would like to share the artist’s call for title suggestions to be added to the current catalogue of library of exile. I made my own suggestion, too, Permanent Record by Ed Snowden. At the time of writing, library of exile is at last being de-installed in preparation for its own journey out of the Enlightenment gallery. At the behest of the artist, all volumes will be donated with the support of Book Aid International to the Library of the University of Mosul, supporting the regeneration of their collections after they were destroyed by Daesh in 2015. You can follow more on the project through the artist’s site, here.

My current role at the Museum is Digital Projects Librarian. Considering all that we have been through in the last year, it feels remarkable to say that 2020 saw a fulfilling moment for this role, itself relatively new, with the successful launch of a brand new Library Management System, an open-source solution with KOHA, last August. I can say that working alongside my colleagues to launch this major infrastructural project immediately after we all went into the first lockdown was a feat I am sure none of us imagined we would undertake. I am proud that, despite the odds, we were able to work together to bring this long-term goal for the service to fruition.

Having joined in the team in 2017, I am hard-pressed to think of a time where our ability to reach people, support users, and engage new communities has been more important than it is now. This year, we hope to formally go live with our Open Access publications repository. It is an innovative shared service initiative being led by the British Library which brings together six Independent Research Organisations (IROs), with more to come in the future hopefully. The new platform provides the participating institutions with a unique opportunity to bring together their research outputs and make them freely available to the world.  The repository will allow users to search across all the holdings at once or to drill down and search the outputs of individual institutions.

Across the Museum, colleagues in broadcasting have published The British Museum Podcast, with one of my favourite episodes by Nick Harris featuring esteemed Museum historian and much-missed colleague in the Anthropology Study Room, Marjorie Caygill, diving into the Museum’s activities the last time it was closed to the public, during the Second World War. “The inevitable coronavirus episode” is also pretty punchy, a bit closer to our time.

You can keep up with us, and the reopening of the research services to come, @BM_Librarian.

Ashley Kelleher
Digital Projects Librarian
British Museum

Explore the British Museum Library’s collections on Library Hub Discover:

Browse their records here.

Find out more about the library, including full contact details and visitor information, on their Discover information page.

Copyright: All images copyright the British Museum, reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

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