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Centenary « The Polar Museum: news blog


A Brief History of the Polar Library

Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

Frances Marsh, Senior Library Assistant writes about the history and future of the Library at the Scott Polar Research Institute.


I recently watched this 1961 clip of Anglia Television reporting on the Scott Polar Research Institute. There is a section in in the middle, where the reporter speaks to Harry King, Librarian of SPRI between 1955 and 1983. King’s legacy has left its traces in the library today and it has been fascinating to reflect on some of the similarities of the library in 2020, some of the big changes since the 1960s and also some of the things which could develop in the future!

Anglia Television interview Librarian Harry King in 1961

Library users

In the video, King explains that the library’s purpose is to gather together all polar literature for people to consult rapidly. The Institute was always envisaged as a centre of information for polar researchers, explorers and scientists yet to come and the library, naturally, was a vital part of that. The library today serves a whole range of people, from the cohorts of MPhil and final year Geography students working on polar and glaciological topics, doctoral students and academic researchers based at the Institute, to visiting scholars from all corners of the globe, researchers working for government and industry, and any member of the public interested in the polar regions, whether that be for personal family history reasons, a penchant for polar fiction or research interests in glaciology. I wouldn’t be so rude as to say, like King did, that we regularly get ‘odd enquiries’ but I am always amazed at the variety of research, interests and passions that the Polar Library supports!

Polar Library Collections

Our collection’s development since the early 1920s means that the cutting-edge polar research publications of their time now form an important part of the historical record of polar scholarship. In keeping with the history and original intentions of a polar research institute, the ‘nucleus’ of the library collection came from the published results of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Bequests of private libraries have helped build the collection from then on and it is for this reason that the Institute has a strong special collection, especially on the history of British polar exploration, with titles dating from the 16th century. Hugh Robert Mill, for instance, donated 500 books which now form the base of the Antarctic special collections. In 1951, the Library purchased the collection of Arctic literature belonging to the German researcher Leonid Breitfuss.

Nowadays, many information needs can be fulfilled by online information, whether open access or thanks to a University subscription, but it’s also clear that our physical collections are very significant, with people seeking out SPRI as the only library in Cambridge, the UK or even further afield to hold both historic and more recently published literature. The library selectively purchases new publications based on the current research interests across the Institute and to maintain a comprehensive collection for polar research of the future.

International cooperation for collection development

Something else that Harry King mentions in the clip is the absolutely crucial role of international cooperation for building a collection that is not limited to English-language material. The Polar Library holds scholarship in over 90 different languages and we have built up a comprehensive collection over the years thanks to partnerships with libraries internationally. We still run a journal exchange, sending the online publication Polar Record and receiving copies of many titles such as Études Inuit Studies, Advances in Polar Science, Led i Sneg and the Falkland Islands Gazette. The library has actively collected material on and from the Russian Far North since the 1930s, though it accelerated in the 1950s and 60s when Terence Armstrong set up many exchange partnerships with Soviet institutes and libraries. This makes our Russian collections particularly strong and the tradition continues today with my colleague Eleanor’s work to build and promote the Russian-language collections.

The library space

A 1934 article in Nature recounts the opening of the current SPRI building, highlighting the beautiful parquet floor and oak furniture, and proclaiming “these two rooms will be spacious enough for their purpose for a very long time to come”. The empty shelves that you see in early photographs of the library are now packed full and indeed even 30 years later as the Anglia Television clip explains, “Information has accumulated to such an extent that the library is already hard-pressed to accommodate it”. An extension to the whole building, including a huge expansion to the library space, was financed by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s and 30 years on, in 1998, the Rotunda extension was completed, adding yet more space for books to be shelved floor-to-ceiling on the curved walls. Space is still an issue for us today, and though we do not routinely deaccession items, we are thinking about how our collection works with and relies on other libraries across Cambridge, and how we might utilise the space in the Library Storage Facility in Ely to hold some of the physical copies of periodical titles that are available to consult elsewhere online.

Library systems

Harry King was Librarian at SPRI in a pre-computerised era, when the library collection was listed on catalogue cards. In 1987, most of that catalogue moved from the physical index cards into a computerised system; state of the art for its time! More recently, it has migrated from that clunky, unsupported system into the University of Cambridge’s library catalogue, iDiscover, which has opened up our collections to all those searching the University’s print and electronic holdings, and indeed library users across the globe.

In the postwar era, the Polar Library developed its own system for organising knowledge of the polar worlds; an adapted version of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) scheme. Brian Roberts is credited as its ‘principal champion’ whose ‘intellectual capital’ built Polar UDC into a detailed classification system suited to the collection at SPRI. Looking to the future, the Polar UDC classification scheme is something that we hope to update and develop so that it continues to function as an organisational system for 21st century polar knowledge. Working on the classification scheme is part of a wider strategic priority to decolonise the library, ensuring that the principles of our knowledge organisation system do not perpetuate harmful and problematic western understandings of the polar regions and Indigenous peoples. Alongside this, we are thinking about how we teach about the information in the library collection and how we can continue to proactively collect diverse, multilingual and multiepistemic material.

Library futures

Looking to the future, I think there is a role for the library to play in supporting excellent new initiatives such as Polar Impact and Pride in Polar. The library has occupied a central role in the polar research community at SPRI and across the world for the past century and I am certain it will continue to do so for many years to come. We should reflect on the inclusivity our spaces, collections and practices and think intersectionally about some of the barriers that the library presents. I think some of those barriers come down to the institutional narrative and history the library paints of itself. Looking at the account I’ve just written, I can’t help but notice how the narrative centres around a selection of white men. In reality, the library has also relied on the unacknowledged labour, expertise, knowledge and generosity of many women in its 100 year history, and I would love to learn more about the diverse people, institutions, relationships and knowledges that have influenced the development of the library collections, space and organising principles; perhaps less prominent but no less significant in the development of a truly multi-faceted polar library.


The Women Who Made SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

During lockdown, I have been working on a new temporary exhibition which will celebrate SPRI’s centenary year. Though it has been strange to think about a new exhibition, not knowing exactly when it will open or when you will be able to see it, it has been lovely to learn more about SPRI’s history. In particular, it’s been fascinating to uncover the stories of the women whose lives have been linked to SPRI since its inception and beyond. I’d like to introduce you to some of my favourites in the exhibition, and if you’d like to see them again, or learn more about any other women of SPRI (or men, for that matter!) then do come along to our centenary exhibition once the museum reopens.


The Founding Mothers

Founded in 1920, SPRI was the brain-child of Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham, but it took more than one woman to bring his ideas to fruition. Perhaps the most well-known of these early female pioneers was Kathleen Scott, the indomitable widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Kathleen was a well-renowned sculptor in her own right who had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris long before meeting her future husband. As well as donating several statues to the museum, Kathleen was instrumental in introducing Debenham to the right people to help get SPRI off the ground, and in securing funding for the Institute. Once SPRI had become a reality, British naturalist Oriana Wilson helped to furnish it with some of the most famous polar objects it holds today – her husband Edward Wilson’s Antarctic watercolours. Oriana persuaded Debenham to include a purpose built gallery in the 1934 building, so that the paintings could be put on display and admired.

Kathleen Scott

Kathleen Scott, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and George Frederick Wyatt on the bridge of the ‘Terra Nova’

Oriana Wilson

Oriana Wilson

The Shapers

In the late 1920s the British anthropologist Dr Ethel John Lindgren began a career studying different cultural groups across Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Lindgren gathered knowledge and collected cultural objects from the people she studied, later donating many of these objects to SPRI’s museum collection. Her collection was used to teach aspiring western polar explorers the best ways to deal with the harsh environments they would be facing. Lindgren also lectured the MPhil students at SPRI about the people she had met and their ways of life. Lindgren’s collections, and the many other objects donated to the Institute, had to be accurately recorded and catalogued so that they could be put to good use. In the early days of SPRI, this work fell to women who volunteered their time. Miss Winifred Drake, arranged and catalogued a good proportion of the collection, including equipment, maps and books. Her meticulous record keeping in all areas ensured the smooth operating of the Institute and its collections and she later went on to paid employment as the official Assistant to the Director. Her work forms the foundations of our records today.

‘Overnight camp on the banks of the Oura’ by Ivan Dmitriyevich Bulychov. Presented to SPRI by Dr E Lindgren.

Miss W M Drake

Miss Winifred Drake

The Knowledge Holders

Women connected to SPRI were instrumental in the formation of our knowledge about the polar regions. Hilda Richardson was a glaciologist and the only employee of the International Glaciological Society following its creation in 1936. The society, which had its headquarters at SPRI for almost 70 years, became a well-renowned international organisation under her leadership, publishing prestigious academic journals and organising international symposia.

In our understanding of the polar regions, it can be all too easy to only consider western perspectives, but indigenous knowledge is invaluable to understanding and surviving in the Arctic environment. As Dr Lindgren showed SPRI’s early MPhil students, the foremost knowledge holders in the Arctic are the people who live and work there, their ancestors having inhabited the far north for thousands of years. Gusdiana was a Tunumiit from North Eastern Greenland who was instrumental in the expeditions of British explorer Gino Watkins’ in the 1930s. Photographs in SPRI’s archives show Gusdiana sewing kayaks for the western explorers, who would use these traditional boats to hunt seal. Kayaks are made by stretching animal skins over a frame and sewing them together to make a watertight vessel, and this process of stretching and sewing is traditionally done by Inuit women. Without Gusdiana, Watkins and the men of his expedition would not have been able to hunt using these specially designed craft.


Portrait of Gusdiana

Gusdiana sewing skin on kayak

Gusdiana sewing skin on to a kayak as Gino Watkins watches her work.

Women have been instrumental to SPRI over its 100 year history. Whether by supporting its early years, to ensuring the standard and care of its collections, to making the discoveries and teaching the knowledge which informs its work. SPRI is now home to many female scientists, social scientists, museum, library and archive professionals, financial and administrative staff, and without them, and the women who came before them, the very character of the Institute would not be what it is today.


Amendement, 17th January 2022: special thanks to Anne Strathie for her assitance for providing us with Miss Winifred Drake’s first name.

A Brief History of SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

A lot has changed in the hundred years since the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was officially founded. In the 1920s, western explorers were still visiting the polar regions in wooden boats, but not fifty years later technology had advanced so much that man had landed on the moon. Another fifty years went by and now scientists and researchers can overwinter at the South Pole – once so inaccessible as to be deadly – in a station fully fitted with comfortable beds, hot meals and internet connection. So, with all the change and upheaval of the last century, what has happened to SPRI?

1920 – The Scott Polar Research Institute started life in the attic of the Sedgwick Museum – crammed full of polar artifacts, equipment and scientific data. In spite of these modest beginnings, the camaraderie and friendly atmosphere which are still characteristic of SPRI today were created by the men and women who visited the attic, united by their interest in the polar regions.

1934 – A group of famous designers collaborated on a purpose-built home for SPRI on Lensfield Road. The renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker designed the building, while MacDonald Gill painted the spectacular domed maps which can still be seen in the Memorial Hall. Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen – a distinguished sculptor – donated her own works which still keep watch over the Institute above the door and in the garden on Lensfield Road.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

MacDonald Gill and Priscilla Johnston paint the Memorial Hall domes

Bust of Captain Scott by Lady Kathleen Scott

1940s – During World War II SPRI helped the British government research clothing and equipment for Arctic missions. The museum collection at SPRI was initially a teaching collection, designed to equip polar explorers with the hard-won knowledge of their predecessors. During WWII, this specialist knowledge of equipment and polar clothing was especially useful when the War Office was considering a possible northern invasion route into Europe.

1959 – SPRI was heavily involved in setting up the Antarctic Treaty which protects the Antarctic as a continent for scientific research. An incredibly important agreement for the governance of the Antarctic even today, the Antarctic Treaty ensures that nobody owns the Antarctic. It also dedicates the continent as a place for peace and science. SPRI scientists helped to produce this remarkable treaty.

1968 – A lecture theatre, laboratories and ‘cold rooms’ for research were added to the building, more than doubling its size. SPRI is a specialist institute with specialist facilities – as scientific research within the university became ever more advanced, so more unusual features were added to SPRI. Today a large freezer in the basement is used for everything from testing kit to freezing our historic museum collections to protect them from insects and other pests!

The SPRI Lecture Theatre

1970s – SPRI scientists perfected the invention of radio echo sounding. This revolutionary new glaciological technique meant that scientists could fly over the ice sheets and measure how thick they were by emitting radio waves and measuring how long it took them to bounce back to the plane. This technique led to the discovery of a hidden world of lakes and volcanoes beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Radio Echo Sounding

1980 – SPRI welcomed the first students to its brand new Polar Studies program which still runs to this day. SPRI has always been a place of learning – first, it was for collaboration and the analysis of data by early explorers, then it became somewhere for budding polar scientists to benefit from the experience of the past. Today, students at the Institute study everything from the social sciences to climate change.

1998 – The Shackleton Memorial Library opened, securing SPRI’s position as the largest polar library in the world. The library at SPRI is home to an enormous collection of over 54,000 monographs, DVDs, Masters and Doctoral theses, as well as pamphlets, press-cuttings, periodicals and around 18,000 maps. As a resource on the polar regions it is of international importance.

The Polar Library

The Shackleton Memorial Library

2000s – SPRI was a well established hub of polar research and information as public interest in the polar regions continued to rise. As the general public became increasingly aware of the effects of climate change on the polar regions, SPRI’s role as a resource and centre for research on these fragile ecosystems became even more important.

2010 – The Polar Museum underwent a total refurbishment, in time for the centenary of the death of Captain Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. The museum now has permanent displays on the indigenous communities of the Arctic, the western explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic and contemporary scientific research in the polar regions. There is also a dedicated temporary exhibition space.

The Polar Museum

2020 – The Scott Polar Research Institute celebrates 100 years of polar research. So much has changed since the attic days of the early 1920s, and who knows what the next 100 years have in store for SPRI, but if the last century is anything to go by then it’s sure to be busy!

SPRI today


A Century of Polar Research

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

The year 2020 marks 100 years since the establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI). While our founders could never have imagined what this year would be like, we are grateful to the foresight which lead them to create an Institute, a building and most importantly, a community, which has dedicated itself to researching and understanding the polar regions ever since.

The Scott Polar Research Institute today.

Let’s wind the clock right back to the very beginning – Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova). Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley, geologists on the expedition, realised they needed a place to share their data, and the lessons they had learned on expeditions, with other polar explorers and researchers. The Terra Nova expedition ultimately ended in the tragic death of Captain Scott and the other four members of his polar party on their return from the South Pole. But Debenham and Priestley remembered their idea for a ‘polar headquarters’ and in 1920 it was made a reality thanks to funds donated after Scott’s death.

The Southern Party upon reaching the South Pole. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13

Frank Debenham examines geological samples. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.

In 1920 the Scott Polar Research Institute was officially opened as part of the University of Cambridge and it flourished. Polar explorers and researchers shared their knowledge and experience with the next generation of scientists. Documents and objects formed comprehensive archival and varied museum collections. People wrote from far and wide to ask questions of the experts who worked there, and the veranda of the old building was found to be just the right size for oiling sealskin kayaks. In 1934, the Institute moved into its current home on Lensfield Road – adorned with Kathleen Scott’s sculpture of her late husband above the front door.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

Bust of Captain Scott by Kathleen Scott above the entrance to the Polar Museum.

In spite of its Antarctic beginnings, SPRI was always also interested in the people and environment of the Arctic. Terence Armstrong and John Elbo were employed to work in the Russian and north American Arctic in the 1940s and researchers from the Institute continue to work with Arctic communities to this day. Increasingly in recent years, SPRI has been privileged to learn from the knowledge and advice of visiting indigenous scholars, artists and community representatives.

Visiting artist Willy Topkok viewing our Alaskan collection

In the Antarctic, SPRI scientists pioneered a technique known as radio-echo sounding in the 60s and 70s, which allowed glaciologists to measure the depth of ice in the Antarctic ice-sheet. This was made possible by instruments designed and developed at the Institute in a project led by Stan Evans and Gordon Robin. For the first time, we were beginning to understand how much ice was actually in Antarctica!

Radio Echo Sounding

Today, SPRI contributes significantly to our global understanding of climate change and its impact on the polar regions. Building on the work of previous expeditions and scientists, as well as spearheading new research in glaciology, glacimarine environments and remote sensing.

Drone launch

Researchers from the RESPONDER project team launch a drone

SPRI continues to fulfil its promise to educate the next generation of polar researchers. An MPhil degree in polar studies was introduced in the 1970s, its present-day form taking shape in 1980. PhD students from across the world also undertake vital research across a wide range of academic areas. Their work is enriched by SPRI’s unparalleled archives, picture library and museum collections which educate and inspire researchers and public alike. What’s more, the SPRI library is the largest library of the polar regions in the world.

The Polar Library

The Polar Library

In its hundred year history, SPRI has continually adapted to new challenges and questions in polar research. It remains as relevant today as a site for learning as it was at its conception. This year, we will be sharing our history in more detail in a series of blog and social media posts, and we can’t wait to have you along for the ride.