Magazine article History Today

A Library with a Future: T.G. Otte Goes to the Heart of Whitehall to Explore the Origins and Future of an Important Government Archive Which Is Becoming Far More Accessible to Historians

Magazine article History Today

A Library with a Future: T.G. Otte Goes to the Heart of Whitehall to Explore the Origins and Future of an Important Government Archive Which Is Becoming Far More Accessible to Historians

Article excerpt

EVER SINCE THE LEGENDARY BURNING of the ancient library of Alexandria, the notion of storing all available or all relevant knowledge in a single repository, has exercised a powerful hold on Western imagination. Libraries touch a raw nerve, all the more so since good news concerning them seems rare. In an age that places a premium on knowledge and information, books occupy a diminishing space. Libraries are haemorrhaging books by the skip-load. They face formidable challenges: lack of space; lack of funding. At the same time there is more information available in print and other formats than ever before. As Matthew Battle, Harvard's librarian, concludes in his recent Library: An Unquiet History: 'The library in the digital age is in a state of flux, which is indistinguishable from a state of crisis.' Yet, it is possible to deal with such problems in an innovative way, as the transfer of the FCO Historical Library to King's College London shows.

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In the development of libraries it was individuals who led the way. They did so by responding to perceived needs, whether it was princes as diverse as Assurbanipal, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester or George III, to indulge in their collector's mania, or Archbishop Matthew Parker at Cambridge or Thomas Bodley at Oxford responding to more obvious educational concerns. In the case of the Foreign Office library, several people played key roles in its establishment. Richard Ancell was the first of them, in 1801-10. A royal bastard married to one of George IV's cast-off mistresses, and recipient of a pension for life, he was made the FO's first librarian in 1801, and systematized its collection. Then there were generations of members of the Hertslet family who populated, indeed monopolized, the Librarian's Department for much of the nineteenth century. Not all librarians were quite as eccentric as Stephen Gaselee in the 1920s. Invariably attired in a tail-coat that was too long and too large, replete with red silk-socks (some thought he resembled more 'a Lithuanian bridegroom' than a Whitehall official), he was as much at home discussing Coptic liturgy or the several varieties of the Malvazia grape as FO business.

To call the Foreign Office collection of books a 'library' would be doubly misleading. The old Foreign Office in Downing Street--in contrast to Sir George Gilbert Scott's florid cinquecento stately palace that we know today--was a dingy and shabby affair, 'made up of dark offices and labyrinthine passages ... with floors at uneven levels and wearying corkscrew stairs ... a thorough picture of disorder, penury, and meanness.' As a result, volumes were kept, usually several rows deep, wherever space could be found for a few shelves in niches and passages between offices. This proved unexpectedly beneficial in 1848 when it was feared that a Chartist demonstration might turn violent: the windows facing Downing Street were filled with books, loopholes being left to pass rifles through. Fortunately, the FO librarians did not have to make use of the old Brown-bess muskets that had been fetched from the Tower! It was only in Scott's new building, opened in 1868, that space could be found for a proper reference room and storage facilities. But the term 'library' is also inappropriate since, as a Royal Commission concluded in 1914, the collection 'exists mainly as being incidental or necessary to ... the work of [the Librarian's] department.' Although the department has undergone many transformations since Ancell's time to its current home in the Information and Technology Directorate, its core function has remained the same: the compilation of background memoranda to give a historical perspective and so greater strategic depth to the policy-making process. …

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