"Although there is a vast store of geographical information existing in Great Britain ... it is so scattered and dispersed, either in large books that are generally inaccessible, or in the bureau of the public departments, or in the possession of private individuals, as to be nearly unavailable to the public." So noted John Barrow on 24 May 1830 as chair of a meeting of the Raleigh Travellers' Club, which heralded the need for, and birth of, the Geographical Society. One of the founding tenets of the fledgling Society--which by August had 460 members and royal patronage from William IV--was the intention "to collect, register, and digest, and to print for the use of the members, and the public at large ... such new, interesting, and useful facts and discoveries as the Society may have in its possession". Barrow predicted that the Society would "accumulate gradually a library of the best books on Geography [and] a complete collection of Maps and Charts from the earliest period of rode geographical delineations to the most of the present time".
The Society remained true to Barrow's words, and over the subsequent 174 years it has tirelessly supported exploration and research and amassed material related to such endeavours. Its two million-plus maps, explorers' journals and documents represent a veritable goldmine for scientific researchers, biographers and historians. However, until two years ago, these gems remained categorised on index cards in separate departments. Finding a particular document, item, book, photograph or map could involve a journey of exploration worthy of Livingstone himself, as a member of staff scoured the seemingly endless drawers of handwritten cards.
Now that's set to change, thanks to the 7.1 million [pounds sterling] Unlocking the Archives project. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it heralds a new chapter in the Society's history. Over the past two years, software companies in India have been busily turning the RGS-IGB's vast archives into a cross-referenced electronic database that will allow users to search the collections online front anywhere in the world. "It was an arduous task," says Steve Brace, the Society's head of information services and resources. "Some of the original card index files were written in copper-plate handwriting in the 19th century." In all, the information on 210,000 cards was inputted into the centralised online catalogue. "This will allow users to search across all our heritage holdings. And because it's online, they can check whether something is available before they visit the Society." Brace hopes that around half a million people a year will be using the online reference site by the end of the decade.
The second part of Unlocking the Archives sees the opening of a dynamic research wing with exhibition space in the grounds of the Society's Kensington headquarters. It's the biggest structural change to the property since 1929, but it represents more than just a physical alteration. "The transparency of the glass pavilion symbolises the opening up of the Society visually, intellectually and physically to all those interested in learning about our geographical heritage," wrote Dr Rita Gardner, director of the RGS-IBG, in her article on the project in last month's Geographical.
Building on success
The Society didn't always have it so good. To begin with, it had no residence--until 1840, the Society met in the hall of the Horticultural Society. The irony of the Royal Geographical Society finding it so difficult to find a suitable location wouldn't have been lost on Fellows of the time. In the 1870s, the Society was installed in 1 Savile Row, now the property of tailors Gieves and Hawkes.
Before dedicated followers of fashion headed to the street, it attracted a more rugged type. "Savile Row became the Mecca of all true geographers, the home port of every traveller," wrote Dr HR Mill, RGS librarian at the end of the 19th century. …