Week 4: Thursday, 24 July – Royal Geographical Society Library and Archive

The Royal Geographical Society
The Royal Geographical Society

Our last official trip as a group was to the Royal Geographical Society Library and Archives located in the exclusive Hyde Park-Kensington Neighborhood. The Royal Geographical Society is a non-for-profit organization and was founded in 1830 to advance the field of geography. Today the library and archive collection consists of over 200 million documents that include maps, books, artifacts, and photographs that span over 500 years of exploration.

Stairs leading down to the Foyle Reading Room
Stairs leading down to the Foyle Reading Room

Our tour took place in the Foyle Reading Room, which was an open and bright space with a wall of windows allowing for ample sunlight. A long table was set up to one side on which were artifacts procured from the archives. On one side of the table were artifacts pertaining to the African exploration; on the other, Arctic exploration. And then our guide, Principal Librarian, Eugene Rae, began to tell the story of the Royal Geographical Society’s hunt for the source of the Nile and then for explorer David Livingstone, and then for the source of Nile again before moving to the other side of the table and weaving his tale about the race of the Northwest Passage, the North Pole, Antarctica, and finally the top of Mt. Everest. At first I was a little distressed at the possibility that this was all our tour was going to be but then became drawn into Mr. Rae’s talk, brought to life by the very items owned by these great explorers. By the end I was in awe at how much an artifact can tell you if you just let it. As an historian I have been guilty of overlooking the story in a document or photograph or artifact in favor of historical significance. But what I was reminded of that day was that something only has significance because it tells us a story.

I will admit that I was disappointed that we did not get to actually view the archive space but the presentation was nice and Mr. Rae was amenable to questions, which he answered graciously. I found out that the Royal Geographical Society is not sent out a team of explorers for a long while but instead assists other organizations in their geographical explorations. Later, while I was recounting our visit with a classmate, she happened to point out that the source of the Nile is still unknown, so perhaps the Royal Geographical Society might come out of retirement just one last time to solve this great  mystery…

For information about the Royal Geographical Society Library and Archive, visit them on the web at http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Collections/Collections.htm

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