Library collections, archives and other information that aren't accessible online, and how to find them. Use the links at top right to ask a question or submit a post. Contact: jacquelinekbarlow [at] gmail [dot] com or tweet @thatsnotonline

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Materials Library

Image by Jennifer Morrow

The Institute of Making , a project based at King’s College London, describes itself as

a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to clothes, furniture to cities.

All sorts of materials, ranging from the lightest solid in the world (aerogel) to a material that can smash concrete without getting damaged (a silicon nitride ball bearing), are kept at the Institute. The aim is to explore the scientific properties of physical objects, but also to look at how the materials themselves inspire creativity and innovation. The Institute recognises the significant amount of information that can only be gathered physically.

The Institute is a result of the growth of the Materials Library

an interdisciplinary collaborative team that make objects, events and exhibitions that foreground materiality.

While most of the research happens in the lab, the Institute (and Library) have gained international attention. It regularly receives samples from around the world, and have participated in various art installations. It also has a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

While the Institute of Making and That’s Not Online! have different reasons for being interested in exploring the physical world, it is great to know that there is someone else out there who recognises the importance of physical information.

There are also several other materials libraries, and many of them do have websites in spite of the nature of their collections.

Smell, part two: The Sensorium

Image by Lindsay Wilson

While there are several traditional museums dedicated to perfumery (See Smell, Part One for an example), there have also been some more unique interpretations of how fragrances can be used in museums.

Among them is the Sensorium, a pop-up installation that ran from 7 October to 27 November in New York and definitely can’t be duplicated online. The project is reminiscent of one of Andy Warhol’s ideas, quoted in The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, about collecting semi-empty bottles of perfumes in order to better remember past experiences, which in turn echoes the scientific link between scent and memory. As a 4D exhibit, the Sensorium was a unique exploration of “the complex interaction of impressions conveyed by various ingredients and how they blend together" dreamed up by two leading fragrance companies and carried out by two creative firms. The exhibit features a scent deprivation chamber and two more rooms that produce visualisations of scent experiences—for example, videos of blossoming flowers in a room designed to smell like the first day of spring. They were even designed to play in time to an individual’s sniff. Though the experience itself can’t be recreated online, some videos are available.

Art at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Image courtesy of Jennifer Howard

The Library, Art and Archives department at Kew Gardens has one of the most impressive botanical collections in the world, containing over half a million items. While the library has a detailed online catalogue, and there is a digitisation project for part of the archive collection, the art collection remains offline apart from a few online exhibitions.

Its offline status does not diminish the collection’s significance at all, though. Among the holdings are:

  • A complete run of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the longest running horticultural periodical in the world, which started in 1787 and continues to be published today. Early issues include hand-drawn and hand-coloured illustrations by leading botanical illustrators such as Walter Hood Fitch and Lilian Snelling. The exceptionally detailed nature of the drawings makes them an important reference for botanists all over the world. A few can be seen on the National Agricultural Library’s website, but the majority of them remain undigitised.
  • A copy of Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Only about a dozen copies of this handmade book of experimental photographs exist today, and it is a fine example of how the Victorian discovery of photography interacted with the popularity of exploring the natural world.
  • A large portrait collection. Subjects vary from the expected ones like botanists to rather more unusual ones, like Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine.

The art department also has a huge collection of early books of botanical illustration, including the influential Flora Graeca and works by Redouté. All this illustration is in addition to the paintings by Marianne North (prints of some of her paintings can now be purchased online) and Shirley Sherwood held there, and the work of previous artists in residence at the gardens.

More information about the collections of art department is available on its website.

Genizat Germania

For a time, manuscript fragments were often used as pastedowns or endpapers in newly bound books. Genizat Germania (link in German) is a project based at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz that recovers and investigates some of the documents that were victims of this practice  — Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript fragments discovered in library collections throughout Germany. By analysing the fragments and searching for provenance information, researchers hope to contribute to a clearer picture of Ashkenazi Jewish culture in the late Middle Ages. In particular, the project hopes to find out what books were being read in different parts of Germany and how often, thereby discovering regional religious identities.

All fragments discovered are being catalogued, but only a sample catalogue is currently available online. The four page sample catalogue can be downloaded from the project’s main website; click Katalogbeispiel in the list of downloads. The text is in German, but there are a few photographs of manuscripts. A few more images can be found here.

A book of articles about the project was published in 2010. Dr. Andreas Lehnhardt, leader of the project, also presented at the 2011 European Association for Jewish Studies colloquium, which focused on the role of binding fragments in uncovering information about Jewish history across Europe. An English summary of the conference can be found here. Genizat Germania is part of a larger project called Books Within Books (link in English) dedicated to studying Hebrew manuscript fragments found across Europe.

The project’s title is taken from the Jewish term genizah. Genizah is essentially a synagogue’s corpus of writings containing the holy name, which cannot be destroyed in Jewish tradition.

Pressed plants

It may be strange to think of plants as data, but they are critical for botanical research. The Encyclopedia of Life is an international database of information about the world’s plant and animal species. One of the latest projects designed to expand it is the  digitization of the Herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Herbarium specimens are traditionally pressed flat and mounted on paper. This preserves the specimens effectively, but makes sharing them difficult. Digitization will allow researchers around the world to access the specimens and have an even greater base for specimen comparison. It is also hoped the digitization will reduce handling of specimens, helping them stay preserved even longer.

Scanning 3-D objects, especially awkwardly shaped ones like palm leaves or coconuts, can be challenging, but Missouri Botanical Garden isn’t the only place to do it; Kew Gardens also has an ongoing herbarium digitization project for its collection of over 7 million specimens. Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue can be searched here. For those interested in seeing the digitized specimens, advanced search options include searching only items that include images.

The UK government’s department of Museums, Libraries, and Archives statistics show that cultural websites are well used, especially by young audiences, and a 2011-2012 report from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport shows that cultural website use is on the rise. It’s difficult to put entire collections online, though, so many objects remain offline.

Wikipedia would like to see this change. To strengthen its coverage of topics about culture, it’s spearheading a project called GLAM: Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums. The goal is get volunteers from cultural institutions around the world to add Wikipedia entries about or photographs of objects from their own collection. project would add even more information to Wikipedia’s knowledge base, but it also gives the entries about cultural topics more credibility. They are also invited to edit and strengthen existing entries. A list of existing projects is already online. Reflecting the variety of ways that people write, each institution’s page is structured slightly differently. Significantly, all include a list of things people would like added about the institution and a list of things already added by volunteers.

If you’re interested, a volunteer co-ordination site is found here.

Photo courtesy Flickr.

Science Museum

Image courtesy Science Museum website.

Most libraries have uncatalogued materials, and the library of the Science Museum is no exception. With the largest collections based in Wroughton rather than London, the library & archives of the museum own over half a million items. Most of the modern books are available through the online catalogue. But there are many items in the library’s collection that are still offline: The museum’s nineteenth century book collection, for example, is still card catalogued! Smaller collections of pamphlets and ephemera sometimes lack even card records.

One of the most significant collections not online is the Trade Literature Collection, devoted to materials like patents, business advertisements and related information. There are a couple of reasons this collection may have remained offline so far. It is a very large collection, and its uses are not as immediately obvious as some more recent materials. However, trade literature provides a lot of insight into the ways business culture has changed and how society’s expectations have evolved. The collection has also recently been helping people find out more about their ancestors; it has even contributed to popular TV series Who Do You Think You Are? Luckily, the value of the trade literature collection is starting to be recognized, and the Science Museum is working on making the collection more easily accessible to users.

Lister copperplates

Credit: Bodleian Library/Univ. Oxford, Lister Copperplates 858; originally published on Nature's website.

Martin Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum, an encyclopedic collection of known shells, was printed between 1685 and 1692. It was accompanied by over 1000 engravings, originally created on copperplates by his daughters Susanna and Anna. They were skilled artists who demonstrated an exceptional attention to detail when creating illustrations for Lister’s book. Some of the copperplates featured parts of seashells only visible under the microscope.

After a period of relative obscurity, the copperplates have recently come into the spotlight again at the Bodleian Library. Dr. Anna Marie Roos gave a lecture on how they reflect women’s role in 17th century science at the end of 2010. But Dr. Roos didn’t locate the copperplates by looking online:

When I was writing my biography of Lister, I assumed that the plates were lost. After all, Lister’s donation of specimens of natural history to the Ashmolean had disappeared with the vagaries of time. But then, through a friend of a friend, I was introduced to biologist Jeremy Woodley who mentioned that he had seen the plates in some “tea chests” at Oxford several decades ago. Lee Peachey at the University of Pennsylvania then confirmed that the plates still existed. But where were they?

Dr. Roos eventually tracked them down by writing to the Rare Books section at the Bodleian Library. The plates remain offline and it is only through the Rare Books section that an individual item level description is available, though the plates are described at collection level here. Slides of a few are available on Nature’s website.

Many thanks to Liz McCarthy for bringing these to our attention.


Image courtesy SpindlierHades.

As useful as the web is for finding resources, sometimes it just can’t duplicate the experience of seeing them in person. This is especially true of non-written materials like textiles. Researchers are trying to create tactile pixels that would allow us to feel some textures on a screen, but in the meantime there are a lot of collections that are best consulted in person. Several do have a web presence, but there’s nothing like a visit for the true textile experience.

The Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles is a valuable source of information for anyone interested in the traditional production or use of textiles. Based at Goldsmiths University Library, the collection includes:

traditional costume, folk art, social customs, textile materials, techniques and processes such as weaving and embroidery, domestic textiles and catalogues of international museum collections and textiles reference works. There is a substantial section on textile and fibre art…

The Constance Howard Centre also maintains a material archive and a textile reference library that includes rare books and first editions. Some photos of the material are available online, but a large portion of the collection remains strictly offline.

Not surprisingly, the Victoria & Albert Museum also has a large collection. The website is a great starting point, including subject hubs for forms of textile crafts like quilting and embroidery. They also have fun things like free 1940s knitting patterns. The textile archive collection is part of the larger Archive of Art and Design, housed near Olympia.

Expanding on the knitting theme, the University of Southampton houses a Knitting Collection and Knitting Reference Library. It includes examples of knitting equipment and completed knitting projects, as well as over 5,000 patterns.

More UK textile archives and libraries can be found through the UK Craft Council.

In the United States, the Textile Museum might be worth a visit. Its library has a large collection of textile samples and books about textiles. Both the museum and library are open to the public, and the website includes a convenient glossary of textile terms.

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