This morning I had an appointment at Guildhall Library at 10 am so decided to walk the two kilometres or so from my accommodation in Holborn. This city just oozes history, especially via its amazing architecture and walking certainly gives you an appreciation of this.
It was fitting then, that the first library on my tour should be Guildhall Library. The library is part of the City of London Libraries. This is a major public reference library specialising in London history and English local studies. With historical connections going back to the first library at Guildhall around 1425! The current library was opened in 1974 with a major reorganisation taking place in 2009.
I met Peter Ross, Principal Librarian who gave me a tour and was happy to answer my questions.
The collection is situated only partially on the main floor of the library, with manuscripts and most books held off public access but still in the same building, so a visitor needs to request items to be retrieved.
The collection consists of books, periodicals and poll books on all aspects of London. It includes family and local history society publications, English law, business history, professional directories, local trade directories, census returns, Parliamentary records, clocks and watchmaking (complimented by a clock museum located in the same building), marine history, printed parish register transcripts, printed school and university registers and peerage publications. Peter showed me some examples from their broadsides collection including a collection of sketches of suicides from The Monument (located not far from the library), built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London (1666) and to celebrate the rebuilding of the City. The Library also has an extensive collection on microfilm.
Special collections include those devoted to Samuel Pepys (an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament who is now most famous for the diary he kept), John Wilkes and Thomas More, as well as the libraries of the Gardeners’ and Fletchers’ Companions, Gresham College, and the Charles Lamb Society. Another major and popular collection includes the Lloyd’s Marine Collection, a unique maritime history resource covering 1741 to the present. Peter showed me a huge card collection from part of the 20th century which listed individual Ships including coded details of their comings and goings.
A collection with a difference includes the largest public collection of food, drink and cookery books in the UK. With material dating from the 16th to 21st centuries, this collection of over 10,000 items includes the personal library of Elizabeth David, the Andre Simon Collection and the Institute of Masters of Wine Collection.
Researchers in the library can also access numerous databases relating to national, local, social and family history including the common databases we have in Australian libraries including Ancestry, Find My Past and the British Newspapers Archive.
Researchers can access a wide range of over 180 family and local history journals. Leaflets or information sheets are available on a wide range of topics including apprenticeships records and marine sources, as well as guides to their special collections on clocks and watchmakers, wine lists from wine merchants, clubs and societies and the wine and food collections.
The Library also runs an active and engaging programme of events on aspects of London History, including book launches. The topics for each event is designed to be a bit different from the previous so that a range of interests can be explored. A program of “how to do your family history” using examples from their collection when relevant has been successful in the past but interest in this program has waned so it is in hiatus at the moment.
The Library manages a very small bookshop area where publications and maps relating to London are sold, including historical fiction and key publications.
Small exhibitions are rotated throughout the year and usually display items that are not usually available for public view. The current exhibition showcases the Worshipful Company of Bowyers, tracing their history back to 1363 when the craft of making longbows first appeared, and supplying the longbow archer with the tools of his trade.
I was reminded of Michael Gandy’s talk at Who Do You Think You Are? Live who suggested that we should look for all our ancestors who probably at some stage in their lives spent time in London. Guildhall Library certainly would be a good place to start if you can make it here in person.