The Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Library

Recently, I joined a CILIP Thames Valley tour of the Wellcome Library, which is part of the Wellcome Collection based on Euston Road, London.

The Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Collection which was left by Sir Henry Wellcome after his death in 1936. Sir Henry made his fortune from selling drugs and medicines, and was responsible for the standardization of pills, he was an avid collector of objects and items related to the history of medicine. Following his death in 1936, a charitable foundation, the charitable foundation known as The Wellcome Trust was established, with the aim of advancing medical research and its history.

Today, The Wellcome Trust is an independent global charitable foundation which provides funding for public engagement, academic and scientific research in the field of medicine and health. The present building which exhibits the Wellcome Collection was opened in 1997.

The trust provides around £60-70 million a year in grants to Universities and other institutions. Funding is provided via the trusts diverse investments around the world.

The Library

The Library is spread across two floors and holds more than 750,000 books, journals, as well manuscripts, archives and films. The library also hosts the Wellcome Images collection and has an extensive program of digitization. The Library has around 80 staff in different roles, each department within the Library is fairly siloed, meaning they tend to work largely within their divisions without much crossover.

The Library is free to join open to anyone with an interest in the history of health and medicine. Membership lasts for 5 years and enables you to take full advantage of all services, including digital resources and requesting material from the store, including many of the rare books, manuscripts and pictures that make up the archives and collection.

The collection covers a broad array of subjects related to health and the history of medicine, including books on nutrition, food and food history, plants and natural history. It also includes material on meditation and complementary and alternative therapies. Despite the small size of the collection in comparison to other Libraries such as the BL, it has a very international scope.

The Library holds a wide selection of medical and health journals ranging from the mainstream BMJ and Lancet to the more obscure titles such as the Newsletter of Medical Philately.

We continued the tour upstairs and across to the Reading Room, which is actually separate to Library. This intriguing space is part library (with its own selection of books, many of which can also be found in the Library), part exhibition space and part events space. On the day that I visited they were holding a Body Mapping Exercise which seemed to be a sort of guided meditation for getting in touch with your body. The Reading Room is open to the public and is a nice space where you can just go and relax, read or explore the artefacts on display, which range from an early X-ray machine, to straight jackets and a plastinated body slice produced by Gunther Von Hagens.

We resumed the tour and passed the Rare Materials Room, a separate space within the Library where you can view any requested archival materials such as paintings, manuscripts and rare books. We stopped to look at the different classifications that our found in the Library which uses National Library of Medicine and Barnard Classification, both interfiled among the shelves. Fortunately, staff are on hand to assist users in locating materials. Having been shown round the Library, our guide took us behind the scenes and down into the bowels of the building. We made our way down to the lower ground of the building and along a series of service corridors, which backed onto the kitchens (which apparently once featured in an episode of MasterChef), before arriving at our destination, the first of two underground book stores.

The Wellcome Library has two stores, one in the basement and the other in the sub-basement. Each is temperature controlled and are outfitted with rolling stack, secure access and fire suppression systems similar to that used at the British Library. The sub-basement where contains mostly archive serials and periodicals, as well as some printed ephemera and pamphlet materials from companies such as Boots, related to medicines and healthcare. We told that they also hold a wide selection of materials of Phrenology and other pseudo-sciences, as well as archiving a wide range of materials including government publications and were once asked by a Whitehall department for a copy of the official AIDS leaflet produced by the Government as they no longer had a copy themselves!

The systems they use for preservation and conservation are the same as in the British Library. To guard against damage in the event of flooding the rarer materials including, incunabula and manuscripts are kept in the basement, whereas the sub-basement where we were kept materials which is considered less valuable. In the event of books becoming water damaged they freeze them to prevent further damage, they also keep plenty of plastic sheeting to hand, which is stored in pouches on the end of stack. They have an agreement with local supermarkets for the use of their freezers in the event of a disaster.

The Wellcome digitizes a lot of material and has its own team dedicated to this that also work in partnership with other organisations, such as the Internet Archive to ensure that work is not duplicated. One example of their digitization efforts is the London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports: a fully searchable collection of over 5500 Medical Officer of Health reports from 1848-1972 for the greater London area.

Our tour concluded where we started in the viewing room where we were able to collect our belongings and thank our guide Danny for such an interesting tour. Afterwards there was an opportunity to look round the exhibitions and find out a bit more about some of the other members of the tour. Many thanks to Danny Rees at the Wellcome for showing us around and Sonja Kujansuu for arranging the visit.

The Wellcome Collection us based at 183 Euston Road, London, for more information about the Wellcome Library including opening times and the library catalogue visit their website:

Read the Wellcome Blog for more on the history of the Wellcome Collection.