Learning from Libraries, Libraries

Learning from Librarians – The RCP Library

Gold Leaf Library Portraits, Part 1

Libraries matter, more so today than ever before. They are places for information, meeting and learning spaces, community hubs and much more. Gold Leaf frequently works with libraries across the globe, and like many of our clients, we can sometimes forget how diverse, unique and special each individual of these places are. This series is providing a focus on individual libraries: quirky and interesting, tiny and massive, ones with a long heritage and ones that are very new, those with particularly interesting, collections, architecture or stories to tell. For this, we are looking forward to interviewing many fascinating people who make these places so very special.

Library of the Royal College of Physicians

(Picture of the RCP Library Reading Room, (c) Jonathan Perugia, http://www.gaiavisual.com)

Please give us your name and describe your role.

My name is Julie Beckwith and I’m head of the Library, Archive and Museum at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), London. I have strategic responsibility for the RCP’s collections of rare and current books, archive and manuscripts, silver, portraits and medical instruments with the help of a hard-working team of 16. There are eight staff in the Library team including a library manager, a rare books librarian, an e-resources specialist, a systems librarian, reader services librarian and colleagues who provide valuable support for collections development, document delivery and office management.

Why did you choose to become / what do you enjoy about being a librarian?

I  didn’t plan to be a librarian at all. I really wanted to be a nurse and then thought about studying history but was offered a place on a library course. I have never looked back and my current role has given me the opportunity to combine my interest in healthcare, history and libraries.

I enjoy the variety of work and particularly researching, meeting people and answering queries. You never quite know what you’re going to be asked next (or by whom) so each day can be very different. One of the very first things I ever did in a Library was to fill dishes with Branston pickle ready for a lunch; I was recently involved in commissioning a tapestry by the Keiskamma Trust for the RCP’s 500th anniversary and organised a celebration featuring the Keiskamma Music Academy. Last year I worked with the Royal Academy of Music on a new music commission by composer Joseph Howard, played by brass quintet London Metropolitan Brass on the actual anniversary. So not everything has been about books and journals!

Please describe the RCP library and its aims. (How big are the library holdings, how many staff do you employ etc.)

What was then known as the College of Physicians was founded by King Henry VIII in 1518 to regulate the practice of medicine in the City of London and 7 miles around by licensing those who were qualified to practise medicine and prosecuting those who weren’t. The aim was to protect patients from unscrupulous individuals who did more harm than good. More information about the RCP’s current vision and aims are on our website (link below).

Now with more than 55,000 printed volumes, both historical and current, as well as thousands of electronic resources including ebooks and ejournals the Library was established by the first president, Thomas Linacre. Most of the original collection was lost in the Fire of London in 1666 but a bequest from the first Marquis of Dorchester came to the College in 1688 and we have continued to acquire new items by donation or purchase since then. With the Dorchester collection came a significant number of non-medical books covering topics such as religion, mathematics and astronomy, all appropriate for fellows who were required to be knowledgeable about all things, not just medicine.  We have been digitising some of these, most recently as part of a commercial partnership with publisher Wiley. We also have collections of clinical material and topics of interest to the RCP to support members and staff in their work. This is increasingly electronic. In addition, we aim to keep a copy of everything published by the RCP. A separate Medical Education Resource Centre supports the staff developing education courses and the doctors who attend these. By developing and preserving these collections we maintain more than 500 years of the organisation’s history while supporting the work of the RCP’s global membership today.

Together with the archive and museum teams we promote the collections through related services, events and exhibitions. The professionally qualified and experienced staff that make up the department work closely together, bringing a wide range of individual skills, expertise and knowledge together to create member, staff  and public benefits –  from high-profile, award-winning  exhibitions to accessible collections and a range of services.

Our aims are to

  • ensure the long-term preservation and sustainability of our collections
  • expand and develop our remote services eg e-resources, digitisation projects
  • make sure our collections are fit for the future
  • increase member and public engagement eg promotional activities
  • improve the visitor experience.

What makes the RCP library a special place to work?

A fantastic team, a variety of interesting and challenging work, opportunities to work with other organisations and to be involved in all sorts of activities – from private views of exhibitions to celebrating the RCP’s 500th anniversary and of, course, the superb collections.

What does the RCP library offer to its readers and researchers?

As well as the collections mentioned, the Library offers a range of services such as expert literature searches, inter-library loans and document delivery. We provide access to tools that help members keep up with research, we offer skills training and research space. In addition, the library team offers an enquiry service, answering enquiries not just about the library but about the work of the organisation. Apart from our e-resources we are digitising many items in our historical collections to make them more widely available. A weekly blog provides opportunities to focus on particular items in or aspects of the wider collections and we look for opportunities to show them to visitors to the building, for example in exhibitions or perhaps at one of our ‘Museum late’ events. 

Are there any special collections or projects you are particularly proud of?

It’s quite a challenge to pick out particular collections or projects as there is such a range to choose from.

What are the particular challenges you face at the RCP Library?

Libraries everywhere continue to face challenging times. They are often undervalued and the perception by some that libraries are not needed because everything can be found online is frustrating. Libraries are not just collections of printed materials – they are so much more. They have knowledgeable and skilled staff, they are spaces for social activity, interaction, culture and engagement and of course, research and learning.  Many are open to the public and are free to use.

For the RCP Library, one of the challenges is to ensure members know what we do and how we can support their work. Alongside this is demonstrating value, making sure services and collections are relevant, interesting and properly resourced and keeping up with advances in technology.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know (about yourself or the RCP library)?

I believe strongly in the value of libraries and reading and spaces such as museums, galleries etc. to health and wellbeing.


Royal College of Physicians website: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk

Library web pages: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/education-practice/library

Blog: https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/blogs

Wiley digitisation project: http://www.wileydigitalarchives.com/downloads/WLY_RCP_ProductFactSheet_R7-Web.pdf

The RCP Library Reading Room can be found on the top floor of the RCP main building at 11 Andrews Place, London NW1 4LE. It is open to the public (research appointments are required to view historical collections) and can be visited Monday – Friday between 10am and 5pm.Please check website before visiting for occasional changes to opening times.

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