Wellcome Collection – a library for the incurably curious

The Wellcome Collection has been a source of intrigue and delight for me for many years. Through it I've discovered fascinating things from Mexican miracle paintings to extraordinary anatomical models. And this year I've been lucky enough to work with their digital editor, Alice White, so couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask her to share her insights into one of the most curious collections going! Alice, over to you...

© Burnsc10, CC-SA - A beautiful reading room awaits the incurably curious eager to explore the intriguing collections at Wellcome

Wellcome Collection is the free museum and library for the incurably curious. As the “incurably curious” part hints, our exhibitions and collections are about health and medicine. Since almost everything we do can affect our health, this is a surprisingly broad range!

This summer, we have exhibitions about magic, psychology and deception and chronic illness. There are also permanent galleries, one on the eccentric pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Henry Wellcome and his efforts to collect the history of health, and the other, Being Human, which will open in September and explore what it means to be human in the 21st century. Upstairs are the Reading Room (pictured above) and library, which are incredible spaces for reading and researching.

Interesting avenues for research

Much to see in the Medicine Man exhibition, Benjamin Gilbert / © Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Some library materials you might enjoy delving into include these gems:

  • Medical Officer of Health reports span from 1848-1972 and were submitted annually by every medical officer in the country (and many commonwealth locations too). They give us fascinating snapshots of local information, such as births and deaths, outbreaks of diseases, whether any businesses were making people sick, educational campaigns, and programmes to build new infrastructure. 
  • If you’re interested in finding out about people or families, there are a range of materials that you can find in the collections. These include sources of biographies, school and university records, obituaries, and historical registers of doctors and apothecaries, nurses and midwives, military and naval personnel, vets, dentists, and chemists. One of the resources that I find myself consulting often from our list of online resources is the archive of The Times, for information about people, awards and events.
  • There are lots of other materials relating to public health too. For instance, our mental healthcare collections cover the history of different asylums around Britain, community care and social work.

Spreading the word

A medieval doodle from Der 'teutsche Kalender.' 'Meister Almansor spricht.'/ © Steven Pocock / CC BY

As you can imagine, with such an enormous amount of things and such variety in the collections, it's a pretty amazing place to work. I'm one of the Digital Editors here. Partly this involves being Wikimedian-in-Residence. It's great that we have brilliant collections and passionate researchers passing through our doors all the time, but not everyone knows that we exist to come and search with us. So I train people how to edit Wikipedia (the world's 5th most-viewed website!) so that knowledge, links to useful books, and stunning pictures are easier to find. If you’re interested in making it easier for people to find out about your local history, we have a residency page with more information and guides on how to edit, and I'm always happy to advise via email or in person if you're passing by!

The other part of my job involves commissioning stories for our website, where we publish on everything from present-day experiences of living with disability to the incredible creatures depicted in medieval books.

My favourite things

Curious examples of steam-driven vehicles and flying machines / © Wellcome Collection. CC BY

I’m quite biased in terms of my favourite things from our collections. For my doctoral research, I looked at the history of the psychiatrists and psychologists who went on to form the Tavistock Institute. By a wonderful twist of fate, the archives came to Wellcome around the same time that I started work here, so I dip in for another look whenever I get the chance!

My research explored World War II programmes developed with the British Army to find officers (and widen the pool beyond public school students) and to rehabilitate returning prisoners of war. But there are all sorts of intriguing projects documented in these records, from efforts to understand the psychology of workplaces like collieries or airlines to consumer research into what people in different parts of the country thought of new products – my personal favourite reveals attitudes to soft toilet paper!

Having said that, it's really hard to choose because every time I edit a new story I find a new favourite! From the history of swimming to a 17th-century pamphlet-war over whether or not someone was possessed, we're very lucky to have a great range.

Accessing the collection

It’s really simple to access Wellcome Collection materials. Anyone who would like to join the library to learn more about the history of health can bring a couple of pieces of ID and become a member for five years, for free.

We also have a huge digitisation programme, so there are plenty of things you can look at wherever you are. Our new collections search has lots of images and books to discover (and in many cases, download and re-use). At the moment the library website is separate from the Wellcome Collection website, but they're in the process of being merged together with some great new features added.

Find out more:

About Alice White

Alice White is a Digital Editor at Wellcome Collection, where she works on digital content and Wikimedia things. Before joining Wellcome, she was a freelance researcher (who did a range of projects including one on pictures of frogs and another on the history of UK science fiction fans), a secondary school English teacher, and did a PhD in History at the University of Kent.