History of the Library and Archives

Photograph taken from the Museum Archives

Museum librarian Mr Woodward Bernard Barham (seated right) and his staff, 1909

The British Museum in Bloomsbury, London moved its natural history departments to the newly built British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1881.

Very few library materials were transferred over to the new location – which became the Natural History Museum a year later - so the libraries had to be developed virtually from scratch.

The new library was founded by its first librarian, Bernard Barham Woodward (1853-1930), who had previously worked at the British Museum. Woodward's classification scheme is still in use today in many of the Natural History Museum's collections, although the botanical and mineralogical materials have since been reclassified under the Universal Decimal Classification.   

Growing a world-class collection

Initially, a general library was created to hold all works that were relevant to more than one department. Recognising the inextricable link between the Museum’s specimen collections and their associated literature, each science department also had its own independent collection of specialist literature, located closer to the scientists' working areas than the general library. By 1900 the general library held 19,395 volumes and 5,569 sheet maps, while the science department libraries had a further 47,881 volumes between them.   

To keep track of the burgeoning collection, a central card catalogue was created. Between 1903 and 1940, the contents of the catalogue were published more widely under the title Catalogue of the Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Drawings.

When Woodward retired in 1920 his successor, Basil H Soulsby (1864-1933), continued building the collections. Soulsby procured a number of obscure editions of Carl Linnaeus's work through the British Museum's Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus project. Alexander Cockburn Townsend (1905-1964) took over from Soulsby in 1930 and evacuated most of the library's valuable items from London during the Second World War.

Following the death of Walter Rothschild in 1937, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum (as it was then known), and most of its specimen and literature collections, passed into the hands of the Natural History Museum. Rothschild's entomology specimens and library materials were transferred to London in the late 1960s and incorporated into the South Kensington collections. In the early 1970s, the ornithology specimen collection from South Kensington was moved to Tring, accompanied by relevant library materials, which were added to the Tring Library collection.  

In 1975 the Museum's libraries were unified as the Department of Library Services, under a central management team headed by librarian Maldwyn Jones Rowlands (1918-1995). At this point the library operated six reading rooms and received nearly 8,500 visitors a year.     

The modern Library and Archives

In 2006 the Library and Archives became a founding member of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). We are among a number of natural history and biodiversity libraries collaborating on the BHL's open access project to make biodiversity literature freely available online. In partnership with the Internet Archive, the BHL has already digitised millions of pages of taxonomic literature, representing tens of thousands of titles and over 150,000 volumes.

The Library and Archives currently uploads about 25,000 of digitised content to the BHL each month, allowing scholars worldwide to access our legacy literature quickly, easily and free of charge.

What we do

Find out more about the Library and Archives' activities.