Monday, July 20, 2009

Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich: Navies and Shipwrecks and Pirates, Oh My!

This trip has made me more and more aware of "special" libraries; I knew they existed, obviously, but as I've only had one semester of library school, I hadn't seen the plethora of special library possibilities yet (although I'm hoping to take the Special Libraries course in the spring). Even if they're not in my area of expertise, I find them incredibly fascinating! I honestly never thought about the existence of a maritime library before; however, I'm so glad I not only got to visit one, but one of the largest and most prestigious in existence.

To get to Greenwich, we took a lovely boat ride on the Thames, although it was fairly fast because it was a commuter boat, not a tourist boat (which is what we took for the London Alive event "A River Runs Through It.")

The National Maritime Museum has a joint library and archive called Caird Library, and it is one of the largest reference (not lending) maritime libraries in the world. The library/archive is funded by the DCMS - Department for Culture, Media, and Sport for day-to-day operations, but the library does undertake fundraising for special projects. Caird contains manuscripts, books, periodicals and maps on maritime related topics such as immigration, piracy, astronomy, voyages and exploration, naval architecture. There are over 100,000 modern books, 20,000 pamphlets, 20,000 periodicals, and 8 km worth of manuscripts. Caird also has an extensive rare book collection (about 8,000) and rare manuscripts, examples of which Head Archivist Hannah Dunmow, and librarians Renee Orr and Mike Beren, demonstrated in their presentations to our group.

Our big group split into two smaller ones, and for my group, Renee showed us some of the rare books housed at Caird. We got to touch tiny books that were supposedly bound with the wood of the Royal George ship wreck in August 1782 (possibly meant to be "souvenirs"), and see other interesting materials, such the first book published in Antarctica, Aurora Australis (1908). My personal favourite of the bunch was The Principles of Mr. Harrison's Time-Keeper, with plates of the same, which was published in 1767 by the Commissioners of Longitude. I loved this because I had read Longitude by Dava Sobel in preparation for this trip, and seeing this book (which John Harrison, who solved the Longitude Problem, was forced to publish in order to get his £20,000 reward) really brought history to life for me.

Next, Mike showed us some rare manuscripts, which consisted of journals of ship captains, signal books, and "victualling accounts." The manuscripts ranged in age from 1558-1845. An item I found particularly interesting was the 1800 signal book that was taken from USS Chesapeake by the Royal Navy, who captured the ship. This is the equivalent of a sports team finding their rival's playbook, so the US Navy had to issue a book new signals. The book itself was weighted with musket shots so that it could be thrown overboard in case of capture, but as the battle only lasted 15 minutes, there was no time. I also enjoyed the journal of Dr. Edward Hodges Cree, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, who kept journals during his time of service. He drew panarama illustrations of places he visited, such as Hong Kong, that were absolutely beautiful. There were also "pirate diaries" with maps - accounts written by actual pirates on how they did their pirating business!

Essentially, if you can make it to Greenwich, the Caird Library is a real treasure. I didn't even know I was interested in maritime matters until I visited! Caird is normally open 6 days a week, seeing about 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a year (with 15,000-18,000 e-library visitors - use of the e-library is open to anyone, but you must come to Caird to access it). However, they are currently only open 3 days a week now due to preparation for a new reading room, scheduled for completion in 2012. Readers (anyone over 16 with a research enquiry can join the library for free) currently must make an appointment to order manuscripts or offsite material in advance, since there is a temporary offsite storage facility housing collections. However, in 2012, the library and its services should be whole and better than ever.

For more information about the library, visit:

Caird Library Blog:

Caird Library site:

Interior library photo courtesy of the NMM website


After the library visit, I perused the National Maritime Museum for a bit, then headed up to the Royal Observatory to straddle the Prime Meridian (with class, of course). First, Megan, Brittany and I went to the Flamsteed House (designed by Sir Christopher Wren - what didn't that man design? he's amazing!). I was anxious to see John Harrison's clocks and watches (especially H4), and the displays didn't disappoint. I'm so glad I read Longitude and can appreciate the work that went in to solving such a momentous problem. It's also really inspiring to see people with no political clout or financial means help change the world.

Finally, the view from the Royal Observatory was absolutely beautiful, and standing at 0 degrees longitude felt like a big deal. Greenwich holds a lot of history and special incentive to visit, and I loved being part of that for a day.

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