Friday, August 12, 2011

Royal Geographical Society

enerally speaking, when most people think of archives it all seems rather boring. Stacks of dry pages recording the mundane conversations of dusty old men talking about the weather from sixty years ago. But there is always a diamond in the ruff, something that makes people stop and wonder at the marvels within. The Royal Geographical Society is one such diamond.,_Kensington.jpg
 Those of us who grew up watching Indiana Jones all secretly yearned for a chance to be just such an explorer. The RGS, founded in 1830, was instrumental to the exploration, discovery, and mapping of much of the world's unseen places. The RGS archive houses 2 million items relating to expeditions of the earths surface. There are 1 million maps, half a million photographs and drawings, 250,000 books and periodicals, and 15,000 artifacts.

The RGS has commonly been viewed as something of an old boys club. The Society wished to make archive's materials  more accessible to the public so in 2004 the Foyle Reading Room was built  to bring more patrons to view the collections. The collections are open to RGS members and to the public but non-members are required to pay a small fee unless they work in education and are doing research for their teaching. The catalog is available online and patrons are encouraged to e-mail what materials they need the day prior to coming to the reading room so that the archivists have time to retrieve the materials. One can drop in unannounced and request materials but will have to wait about 10 minutes for their requests to be retrieved. Some materials are available for lending to members.

Faced with the daunting task of cataloging the archives 2 million items, archivists outsourced the cataloging to India. This saved the staff much time and effort. But such endeavors always come with some minor glitches so the archivists are still involved with ensuring all the information is accurate. To maximize the best use of the place available the items are stored such that the books and maps are together and the artifacts, archives and pictures are housed together.

So just what kind of artifacts are we talking about here? When I arrived, the archivist had a huge table absolutely covered in different objects from various expeditions. There were metal collars with the name of a ship and the longitude and latitude to be placed on foxes to try and locate a ship which disappeared in pursuit of the North Pole. There is an unopened canister of meat left from the abandoned ship Resolute. Timbers from this ship were used to make the desk which now resides in the Oval Office in the White House. There was a hand-drawn map of Arabia by Lawrence of Arabia. There were articles of clothing from some of the most revered explorers in modern history. Included in these artifacts were diaries, log books of ships, correspondence, planning papers, receipts, and sketches.

The highlight of this visit was not just being able to see and touch these incredibly rare objects. Our welcoming host, Eugene Rae, took the time to explain the complete history of these unique items. The RGS is so much more than just and archive, but a living vessel of exploration history; a unique gem for anyone who loves history and to dream of unexplored places.

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Cap project.

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