Inside the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Inside the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)


The society was founded in 1830. It involved the combination of a group who met to discuss the matters of the day in relation to our
understanding of the world. From its inception in 1830 it really began to create the discipline of geography. Throughout its whole existence, its role has been to advance geographical science. Geography is one of those disciplines that
transcends the natural sciences through the social sciences to the humanities. Geographers
do have a unique perspective; we’re interested in how and why things vary from place to place.
The society was at the forefront of the exploration of Africa, of the Antarctic, of the Arctic
and the information that was gathered during that period was collated and documented and
became the core of the society’s collections. The archive contains a lot of the material
which researchers are most interested in because it’s the least viewed part of the collection
and some parts of it may not have been viewed since it was deposited here.
The Royal Geographical Society and Wiley have been working together to digitize an enormous
proportion of our archive. The Royal Geographical Society is such a rich
resource for primary source material of all different types and the experts and specialists
in the area are the curators who work down in the archive and the library.
We’re being entrusted with moving and scanning historic collections that are often really
rare or unique from a range of dates really from the 16th century right up to the 20th
century. All the documents involved in the project go on quite a journey from beginning
right to the end and that starts with the editorial selection of the documents. We need
to really accurately track each item through the process because they are all working collections
so at any time we may need to recall something for a researcher. Each item is then assessed
for condition and then if necessary goes to a conservator for repair.
The most common types of repairs that we do here is tear repairs and flattening as well.
The thing that we have to do is to be sure that they are safe for the scanners.
After conservation each item is then individually packed into crates or itself as a separate
object each of those units gets picked up in a van each week loaded at the London end
and unloaded in Wakefield at the scanning company. Whether it be loose leaf, whether it be bound, whether it be a large map every document needs
to be treated differently and we have to have a machine that deals with every eventuality.
At the Royal Geographical Society we have a very large amount of maps, we’ve come up with
the idea of building our own machine that means we can take multiple shots of a large
map in one instance rather than having to handle it multiple times moving it around
to make multiple shots that require a lot of stitching. There’s a lot of things that we work closely with the scanning teams to advise them and
its back and forth communication several times a day often because we really are working together
very very closely. When they gave me this opportunity to come
to work at the Royal Geographical Society, the geographical was so important for me because
I love maps and we have a huge collection of maps here. Some days I feel that I’m
in heaven because I’m really excited when I’ve found something old are rare, yeah
I love maps. With regards to the kind of damage we’ve
found in the Royal Geographical Society collections we found that they are actually in very good
condition. We have had to undertake some minimal repairs just to strengthen certain areas but
overall I would say that probably under 10% of what we’ve assessed so far has
needed any physical conservation so they’re really well kept. There are several reasons why the digitization project is so important to the society. One
is that we need to protect these materials for the future in a digital form that also
allows us to share them with researchers all over the world. The researchers don’t have to travel to West London If you want to explore the riches
and the resources of the archive of the Royal Geographical Society, it means you don’t
have to get on a plane. We are preserving history but we’re also
providing history to the world through Wiley’s platform and that brings an archive to life. The society’s map and atlas collection has over one million items and it is the world’s largest private collection. The highlights of the map and atlas collection for me are
those early manuscript maps so the very first maps that documented regions of the world
and also some of the indigenous mapping that we have within the collections. It makes it
an invaluable source of information when a researcher for example is looking at climate
change, if you take the early mapping from Everest you can see some of the changes in
the landscape using both the map collection and our photographic archive.
There are roughly half a million images in the collection, the earliest photographic
image is about 1860 and it goes to the 1950s. The archive contains the unpublished material
letters, log books, diaries from individuals and also organisations planning expeditions,
travelling all over the world. The society’s collections have a broad scope
and relevance for research. They’re relevant for a really wide range
of different types of disciplines from anthropology to political science, earth science to biological
science, but also to some of the emerging fields like data science and those who are
interested in studies of technology. The collections are complimentary so that
one can use the map, atlas and chart collection integrated with the archive material that
we have here and then also the ability to use photographic and pre-photographic imagery
What I’m also really excited about with this project is the opportunity to draw materials
from different parts of the collections together. Keyword searching on particular names whether
that’s places or people I think is a really fantastic opportunity for researchers and
as with any collection of this size there’s so much material that hasn’t really been
looked at since it was deposited with us, so the opportunity to really dig into some
of that raw primary resource material that no one has really done very much on is really
exciting as well. The archives here also allow us to ask questions
about representation or maybe more accurately under-representation. Stories that haven’t
be told around themes of gender, race, ethnicity, indigeneity and class. So its not just about the past but its also a baseline for the present. One of the things that this project does is
allow some of that material to see each other for the researcher to work across all of that
material and the interface makes that really intuitive. The platform itself is really easy to use whether its at the basic search level, whether
its at the advanced search level, or whether its through the use of the plethora of tools
that we have provided. Filtering by content type, filtering by date or date range, the
maps all come with georeferencing. The Wiley Digital Archive of the society’s
collection will broaden access and enable us to uncover some of the hidden histories
and stories behind some of the early expeditions. There really are unique things in there which
are just waiting to be discovered by researchers.

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