Today, we went to the zoo. It was M’s first time, and I hadn’t been to a zoo in years. It was so much fun. Because there are two zoos in greater London, they don’t each have everything. We didn’t get to see elephants or rhinos or hippos, but there were giraffes and tigers and lions and penguins. We even saw a giant tortoise. Also, the zoo provided more evidence that British children are frankly adorable and so much less annoying than American ones. I don’t know why this is. Every kid there, even the crying ones, made me fall all over myself with cute. It is a strange phenomenon and subtle, but it is still noticeable, even here in Boston, where there are plenty of reasonably darling infants.
But that is not the point. The point of the visit was to see the library of the Zoological Society of London. The more I study library and information science, the more I realize that literally any organization or subject can have a library. It was pretty thrilling to get to see a zoo’s library, and I have to admit that now I want to just call up every interesting place in Boston and see if they have a library that is open to visitors.
The ZSL was founded in 1826 by Stamford Raffles, who also founded Singapore and administrated Java in Indonesia. He was inspired by the Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There was very little government assistance for such projects in that time, so the museum, menagerie, and library were funded and maintained privately. The early library and museum were kept in the staff offices, and the museum was eventually given to the Natural History Museum at the British Museum. The current building was constructed in 1910. HRH Princess Victoria, who became an ardent and lifelong supporter of the zoo, first visited in 1828, aged 9.
Origin of the Society’s publications were its meeting minutes, then the transactions of the Society. These eventually became a journal, which could be exchanged with like-focused institutions. This helped to build the library and its collection. It is now the largest privately-owned zoological library in the world.
The library was extensively refurbished in the 1960s. Most of its users are staff and society members, though it is open to the public. It contains mostly closed stacks and reference materials. They try to collect all books about zoos, including in other languages. Other stocked materials include past London Zoo guides, annual reports, conference proceedings, exchange agreements with other zoos, stud books, husbandry material, and ZSL publications. The photograph collection is significant. There are around 12,000 glass images in the collection. The first photos of the zoo were taken in 1852. Incidentally, Queen Victoria’s use of the word “photos” at the time was the first recorded. Windsor Castle holds the largest collection of 1852 photographs. The earliest photos held at the ZSL are from 1864, and most of these had to be purchased back later. Commercial photographer Frederick York was commissioned in the 1860s and 70s to take stereoscopic images, a comprehensive survey of the zoo’s collection. His photographs include the only existing quality images of a quagga. We were also shown photographs of Bertram’s zebra, Syrian and Nubian wild asses, thylacines, and the pink-headed duck. All of these species are now extinct, and it was a rather odd feeling to see them in pictures.
The archives of the ZSL contains meeting minutes since 1826, daily occurrences for the two zoos, letters from Darwin, the Society’s charters, staff records, and press cuttings. The online catalog is currently only at collection level, but they are adding individual records, just as they are digitizing requested and important individual documents.
One of the interesting points of the visit was the talk by Emma, the retrospective cataloger. She’s done about 500 records out of 70,000 cards. The benefit of doing the retrospective work is that she can perform a stock check as cards are cataloged, so items can be weeded if no longer needed, and they can do an inventory to see what items have gone missing. The cards, classified in the Bliss system, were typed up in the 1960s, but really weren’t touched after that. Overhauling the catalog has provided the library the opportunity to go through the majority of the collection and update it.
Perhaps the best part of this trip has been exploring special libraries more. Every day I learn something new about the library field, and it only increases my interest. In that respect, at least, this trip has been worth every penny.