Intriguing insights

Narwhal's tusk

Unicorn horn or narwhal tusk? Wellcome Images

How does an academic library with a huge and diverse collection, sitting within a public venue, share its treasures with visitors? Eleanor Lanyon thinks magic might be the answer.

This has been a challenge that the Wellcome Library has tackled in a number of ways. Most visible to anyone accessing Wellcome Collection in person or online are the Library’s ‘Insights’ sessions. Obviously, an invitation to visit an academic library might be of limited appeal so we’ve tried instead to draw out some of the themes – both expected and unexpected – that run through our collections. You may not be interested in libraries per se, but you might well enjoy the chance to explore herbal medicine, history, art, travel, science, or quackery.

As Library Outreach Officer and charged with managing this programme of show-and-tell sessions I felt I should lead by example. And so ‘Magic Manuscripts’ was born; everything I could possibly and tangentially link to Harry Potter. In fact once I got going, there was a considerable overlap between our collections and the curriculum at Hogwarts – herbology, potions, charms, astrology, alchemy – even study of magical beasts.

Between me and a successful session were the challenges of the Library catalogue, a plethora of secondary sources and original material in Latin, French, and German. Not to mention, how to fit a full sized unicorn’s horn into my display of original material….

I’m pleased to report that I survived the delivery of ‘Magic Manuscripts’, although I was slightly disappointed when everyone correctly identified my ‘unicorn horn’ as a narwhal tusk. Visitors were intrigued by alchemical manuscripts, appalled by the interrogation techniques of witch-hunters in 17th century Europe and suitably disgusted by recipes for remedies involving horse dung and other dubious ingredients.

The range of ‘Insights’ sessions on offer has increased dramatically since we started, and we’re now experimenting with evening sessions as well as our afternoon slots. We hope to see you at one of our sessions in the future.

Upcoming ‘Insights’ sessions:

Facing Up to the Past on Thursday 1 April
Native Americans on Thursday 8 April
Caricatures and Cartoons on Thursday 22 April
Anatomies of London on Thursday 29 April
Fascinating Faces
on Thursday 6 May
The Occult on Thursday 13 May
Madness on Thursday 20 May

There’s no need to book:  you can pick up your free ticket for this event from the Information Desk from 13.30 on the day.

Eleanor Lanyon is Library Outreach Officer, and part of the Wellcome Collection Events team.