A group of around 22 intrepid explorers met Heather Lane from the SPRI on a Thursday afternoon for a tour of the SPRI Library. The SPRI is an international hub for ice, snow and the polar regions, including ice on Mars and glaciers in the Himalayas. Equipment and clothing from Scott’s expedition formed the nucleus of the first research, and in 1926 the Institute was incorporated into University of Cambridge.
The library contains over ¼ million printed documents. The collection is interdisciplinary and covers an impressive 79 languages, also including fiction, poetry and exercise books. 150,000 are catalogued electronically, and the rest are in the card catalogue. A big retrospective cataloguing project is planned, as well as moving from the in-house library system to Voyager. The Institute has MPhil, PhD, postdocs, visiting academics and the general public, but no undergraduate courses. The library is very outward-facing, with a focus on the polar scientists who are out in the field.
Heather outlined some of the very varied work that goes on.
- The library does analytical cataloguing, which means they catalogue individual journal articles and book chapters. Keywords and abstracts for all are put in the catalogue, which is immensely time-consuming. There are 4 part-time bibliographers to do this work, with different language and area specialities.
- 3 times a year the Library produces Polar and Glacierology Abstracts.
- The Library is a World Data Centre for glacierology.
- Volunteers and paid staff are used for short stints to do specific projects, such as very specific bibliographies.
- Over 1 million manuscripts are held in two main collections: 19th century Arctic and opening up the North West passage, and 20th century British Antarctic.
- One archivist looks after all of these, and supervises the archives reading area (3 reader spaces). Volunteers are used here as well.
- Fundraising is a large part of Heather’s work. For example, for the retrospective cataloguing project, she needs to find funding for 4 full time staff for 4 years.
- Heather’s role is varied, and includes usually 2-3 TV interviews per month.
Heather aims to raise the library’s profile. There has been a big critical reception for the new museum, which now receives 50,000 visitors per year, compared to less than 3,000 per year before its redevelopment. Heather would like the library to be more active for exhibition research. The library has 100,000 photographs which are ideal for exhibitions.
Built in the 1930s, the old library was intended to hold the entire world collection of material on the polar regions. Visiting scholars are given desks in the library, as the Institute does not have enough desks. Many like this, as they are within arm’s reach of much of the material they need. This can make people more likely to gift their own publications, which is helpful as the library is very dependent on donations. Heather showed us the desk where Ranulph Fiennes plans his expeditions using library resources and maps. The library has 25,000 maps which are borrowable, and borrowers can annotate them with new routes. During the cold war, scientists at SPRI kept in contact with their colleagues in Russian polar centres and US and Russian ice breakers met here as neutral ground to exchange information. Heather explained about the friendly, ‘everyone mucks in’ atmosphere in the SPRI. Those who go on polar expeditions are ‘can do’ people. The ships bell from the Terra Nova is kept on the library stairs, and 4pm it is rung for tea. Everyone in the building is invited to tea in the library, from the Director to the cleaners and any visitors. This aids communication, as library staff get to see their academic colleagues regularly.
The Shackleton Memorial Library was added in 1998. The Friends Room (named after the Friends of the SPRI) contains PCs, latest journals and atlases. Heather showed us the Endurance Spar above the door and told us Shackleton’s story. Paintings by the official artist on Shackleton’s expedition are around the room. Striking photos on the walls are some of the 109 ‘lost’ photos taken by Scott on his last expedition.
Next on the tour was the rotunda, which contains the most regularly used open shelf material on specific expeditions. The Universal Decimal Classification for polar libraries is maintained at SPRI Library, and is used for classifying the stock. This material is reference only. Users leave items on the desks for staff to reshelve, as the classification system can be confusing to users. A common issue for libraries is space, and SPRI library is no exception, as the amount of material produced on the polar regions grows. The Library is maintaining a bibliographic database of output from the 200+ projects from International Polar Year 2007-2008. 15 times more output is expected than the last International Year in 1957. The rotunda was intended to provide storage space for 25 years, but has been filled in less than 10 years. The upper floor contains material on biology and technology relating to polar regions and ice and snow. Heather explained that the SPRI works closely with British Antarctic Survey (BAS). BAS deal more with technical and current manuals, while SPRI have more historical material.
We passed through the Wobold Room, which contains open shelf periodicals and pamphlets, as well as housing the MPhil students. This fascinating collection of pamphlets are classified as ephemeral, and are of particular use to arts and humanities and social science students looking at perceptions of polar regions etc. The extent and holdings of the pamphlets are not known, but they include non-standard material like museum programmes and leaflets, lecture notes. The Russian Gallery houses the biggest collection of Russian periodicals on the Russian North outside of Russia, and the SPRI is the only source that abstracts these.
My overall impression was of a library with much more varied material and projects than I had expected. I was struck by the community atmosphere, and how the library meets the needs of some extraordinary people in distant locations with some very interesting stories to report. For example, the library can provide e-access and support to those in the field via satellite phones, however scientists in the field have problems with batteries freezing, so often tape them to their body. Generally, people use the library more while in research bases in the polar regions. The library seems to me to be fairly unique in a few ways. Analytical cataloguing is one way, and the manuscript map material is another - most libraries don’t like their material to be annotated! The SPRI library is a fascinating place to see and I would recommend a visit to anyone who gets the opportunity.