The Bishopsgate Institute in London is a rather unusual left-leaning public space incongruously situated in the financial area close to Liverpool Street Station. It offers occasional tours of its library, including its significant research collection. I tagged along on a tour given for professional researchers, who were making a week-long survey of London's archives and collections.
As you might imagine, this was a rather quiet group with little chit chat before the tour began.
The tour was given by one of the librarians who first introduced the public reading rooms and explained the history and general purpose of the collection. Something that became quickly clear was that this was not a random collection at all but a distinctly political one. Our guide, Stefan, understood this and believed in the significance of the material being broadly sympathetic to it himself. This gave the tour a much more personal dimension, which of course made it more interesting all round. Having worked in a library myself, the Chinese section of SOAS library to be precise, I know how librarians can be a special breed who sometimes place the classification and preservation of books well above their content. While I understand that this is a solid professional position to adopt, I must say, I prefer a librarian who is deeply involved in what is between the covers of the books too.
We quickly moved into the reading room where some of the more precious material came out such as the period maps. The most interesting items he mentioned, as far as I was concerned, were the 18th century guidebooks to London.
It was down in the archive that we got to see some of the more eccentric material. Bishopsgate Institute has a specialism in working class histories of the East End of London as well as covering a whole host of other 'leftist' causes such as a gay and lesbian archive, the Stop The War archive and numerous labour movements. In this sense the place is an anomaly as the surrounding area has been swallowed up the the ever expanding financial services industry.
Here, for example, is a mask of Bernie Grant, the late member of parliament for Tottenham. Other highlights were a collection of photo books of British sailors put together with a unashamedly gay eye.
The archives were bulging and we could see that the library faced the all too real problem of deciding what to keep and what to shed, as there will always be more interesting material looking for a home than there is space to store it all. More or less on that note the tour came to an abrupt end in around 45 minutes and the group shuffled destined for their next archive: the Museum of London. Our guide did a good job of making what could have been a tedious tour into an informative and entertaining introduction to the collection. Indeed, I returned later to look at the historical guidebooks and they really are the Fodor's of 1760's London. They tell the business traveller where to stay, where to trade, who the important people are and what the various institutions exactly are. I have taken some out of date audio tours before and have some old guides such as the Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide, that inspired a series of bombing raids, but this guidebook took this time-lapse to a further extreme again. Reading it I couldn't help but wonder, if there were guidebooks back then, there most probably were also people giving guided tours. When, then, were the first guided tours given? And, more curiously, why was it given and to whom?