Look Inside the Box: Appreciating the Library of Birmingham’s Collections

Library of Birmingham

LoB Official Photograph – Copyright Christian Richters

The Library of Birmingham deserves to have its reputation burnished wherever possible.  Whilst the building is just two years old, it houses a venerable institution whose wonderful collections have been developed and enhanced by archivists, librarians, donors and contributors for 150 years.

MLA Award-2

BCC Additional, Accession 2015/132

Collectively, these collections have been described as the Library’s ‘unique selling point’.[i]   In 2005 this value was officially recognised when the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council [MLA] designated them as a single Outstanding Collection.  The MLA award applied to the Archives, The Birmingham Collection, the Early and Fine Printing Collections, Literature Collections, Music Collections and the Photography Collections.  It did not single out any specific collection, recognising their mutually supportive nature.  For example, the Boulton & Watt Collection contains a rare variant of the iconic photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (James Watt & Co. of Soho, Handsworth, manufactured the screw engines for this ship. They were horizontal & double-acting of 1800 nominal horse-power and 4886 horse-power indicated, and weighed 500 tons).  It seems appropriate that such engineering giants should be linked in this way.  However, the full significance is that Brunel’s image is by the pioneering photographer Robert Howlett and it can be studied alongside the Library’s extensive collections of Victorian photography.

Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of the Great Eastern, showing anchor chains of the ship, nd. Photographed by Robert Howlett; albumen print, 1857. James Watt & Co. of Soho, Handsworth, manufactured the screw engines for this ship. They were horizontal & double-acting of 1800 nominal horse-power and 4886 horse-power indicated, and weighed 500 tons. This photograph is part of the Archives of Soho, held by Birmingham City Archives [Ref. MS3147/31/1/1]

Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of the Great Eastern, showing anchor chains of the ship, nd. Photographed by Robert Howlett; albumen print, 1857.
[Ref. MS 3147/31/1/1]

MS 3147/5/149

Arnold Mill Engine [MS 3147/5/149]

The high merit of the Library’s collections is recognised by our peers.  Colin Ford MBE, (Founding Director of the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television) assessed Birmingham’s photography collections as nationally and internationally important and as being significantly stronger than ‘his’ founding collection.[ii]  Dave Laing (writer, editor and broadcaster) welcomed the Charles Parker Archive as an important archive for researchers of British popular music.[iii]   Rob Keating (Chief Executive of the British Library) has observed that Birmingham holds one of the world’s greatest Shakespeare Collections.[iv]  The Archives of Soho[v]  have consistently attracted national and international researchers and are widely regarded as unparalleled resources for economic and scientific historians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

MS 3196 Photograph of Sir Benjamin Stone

MS 3196 Photograph of Sir Benjamin Stone

The list of individual collections worthy of attention is extensive, but space constraints permit mention of just two more.  Sir Benjamin Stone’s photographs are an invaluable record of Victorian and Edwardian life at home and around the world.  His collection is one of our perennially popular resources for academic researchers, publishers and broadcasters.  The Wingate Bett Collection of transport tickets also has an extremely high profile amongst transport enthusiasts.

Ticket from the Wingate Bett Collection, (vol 126/268)

Pennsylvania Railroad [Wingate Bett Vol 126-268]

Our collections will appeal to a very wide range of researchers, so please see what the Library of Birmingham can offer you.  This will vindicate all those who have striven over the past 150 years to develop outstanding collections in the City.

 

Visit www.libraryofbirmingham.com to view our catalogues and please consider completing our online survey or by downloading it hereIt can then be returned at your convenience to the address at the bottom of the page.

Jim Ranahan                                                                                                    24/09/2015

 

Sources

MS 3147 Boulton & Watt Collection
MS 3196 Sir Benjamin Stone Collection
MS 3219 Papers of James Watt and Family
MS 3782 Matthew Boulton Papers
MS 4000 Charles Parker Archive
Wingate Bett Collection

[i] Nick Kingsley, formerly Birmingham City Archivist in a Twitter stream @NicholasKingsle [August 2015]

[ii] Colin Ford, ‘Report on Birmingham Library’s Photographic Collections’ [2005]

[iii] Dave Laing ‘Popular Music 6’ pp 341 [1987]

[iv] Neil Elkes ‘British Library joins Library of Birmingham for Cultural Partnership’ Birmingham Post 22/06/2015

[v] The Archives of Soho comprises the Boulton & Watt Collection, the Papers of James Watt  & Family and the Matthew Boulton  Papers

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One response to “Look Inside the Box: Appreciating the Library of Birmingham’s Collections

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this description of the library’s valuable collections and the beautiful structure that houses them. As a historian from America, I believe that the Birmingham Library matches many of the most famous institutions in my own country. It is very important that the collections remain accessible to scholars and researchers from all parts of the globe. The Library showcases the vibrant cultural life of the city of Birmingham.

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