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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.


iDiscover in the library

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Researchers across the world are now able to access the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) library’s collection through the University of Cambridge’s online catalogue iDiscover. Nearly 170,000 individual catalogue records were transferred into the iDiscover database at the end of September. These records describe each and every book, article, pamphlet or disc in our extensive collection, and among them over 110,000 journal articles. Anyone interested in polar research can find these resources simply by clicking on iDiscover in the SPRI or University Library websites – anywhere where there’s an Internet connection.

Polar research is more important than ever before. Understanding our changing climate relies on understanding changes in the polar regions – and the impact they are having on the rest of the world. The peoples and cultures of the northern polar regions offer a unique perspective on the ways humans can interrelate with their environment. The iDiscover catalogue is a major resource for facilitating conversations with northern populations, and climate-change research more generally.

The SPRI library staff are delighted to be opening the collection up through iDiscover. A new user found a book in SPRI the very day the data was transferred. She had been looking for the book all summer, and suddenly it had popped up in iDiscover. She hadn’t ever heard of the SPRI library before.

The SPRI library boasts a unique collection of work on the polar regions, spanning history, biography, poetry, fiction, social anthropology and the hard sciences. Its special collection contains volumes of key importance to the history of our understanding of the world – such as a seventeenth-century description of the seas under the earth, the Mundus Subterraneus by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Readers can pursue their interests in subjects as diverse as reindeer husbandry, Arctic politics, sea ice and the meditations of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Shackleton’s polar expedition from 1914 – 1915.

The library also houses one of the world’s key collections of Russian literature on the polar regions, dating from the early explorations of Siberia until the present day. Russian research has always formed a crucial contribution to the world’s knowledge of both the north and south poles, and the people who live there. The Russian collection contains rare and valuable work on the languages and histories of Russia’s indigenous communities. The iDiscover catalogue makes the Russian collection available to scholars across the world – including scholars from the world’s indigenous northern communities. We hope the iDiscover catalogue will help indigenous communities remain in contact with each other, and with the scientific community in the world more generally. Try it for yourself here