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Christian Drury: Placement at the National Library of Scotland 

I undertook my placement at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh from 1st June-15th July 2022. My placement involved looking for interesting materials relating to the Arctic in the Library’s collections, particularly items that could be used in future NLS exhibitions. I was based at the Library’s main building on George VI Bridge, but also spent time at the Causewayside building, where NLS’s map collections are held.

During my time at NLS, I worked closely with Paula Williams, a member of the Library’s Maps and Rare Books team and the main curator for the Mountaineering and Polar Collections. Working with Paula gave me a good overview of the Collections and how the Library works, as well as her plans for future exhibitions and what I could provide for the Library that would be useful to them. We decided I would provide the Library with a spreadsheet of key Arctic items that I had examined, with notes on their specific points of interest, as well as general context.

I focused on three main lines of inquiry during my time at NLS, looking in the Collections for material that related to:

  • collection items reflecting Scotland’s relationship with the Arctic (with a view to a possible exhibition and in line with the Scottish Government’s Arctic Connections framework)
  • indigenous Arctic voices in the collections (for Addressing Bias in the Collections)
  • Arctic and climate change related works (as laid out in the Library’s Climate Action Policy).

The booklist I created indicated which of these criteria the materials I had examined related to and how the Library could address these areas of concern in a potential future exhibition on an Arctic topic.

On a day-to-day basis, I worked in the NLS reading rooms, going through material from the Collections. I also spent a morning shadowing the Special Collections Reading Room staff, to get a better sense of how the Library functioned in a practical sense. Most of the materials I looked at came from the Graham Brown and Wordie Collections, which form the majority of the Mountaineering and Polar Collections. Donated by Professor Thomas Graham Brown in 1961 and Sir James Mann Wordie in 1959, these two collections reflect both men’s’ interests in mountain and polar environments, as well as their involvement with Scottish and broader British expeditionary culture in the first half of the twentieth century.

I also looked at materials from outside of the Mountaineering and Polar Collections, such as the travel journals of John Francis Campbell of Islay. Campbell travelled widely in Sápmi in the mid-nineteenth century and his journals contain interesting descriptions and visual depictions of life and landscapes there. I decided to write a blogpost for the Library website about the Campbell journals as they are particularly interesting objects, containing notes, images and ephemera from his journeys. One even includes a piece of whale skin! They also address all three of the key themes listed above and I particularly stressed how we can read Sámi voices in the journals.

Key themes which Paula and I discussed included Scottish connections across the North Atlantic, different types of Arctic travel and alternative ways of framing the Arctic. This included discussions about moving away from simply discussing exploration to consider other reasons why people went north, such as employment in industries such as whaling. This also involved companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and we discussed the connections between this and histories and legacies of the British Empire in the Arctic. We also looked at projects such as the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate (SSS), which tried to open coal mines on Svalbard in the 1910s and ‘20s. The SSS framed Spitsbergen as a connected, accessible place, in order to attract investment for the project, as well as stressing its novelty. Similar projects, as well as extensive tourism, offer a different picture of Scottish and Scottish-connected Arctic travel and interest – one that would be interesting for the Library to address in a future exhibition.

I plan to discuss my experience at NLS, particularly the shape of their Arctic holdings, at the “Collecting the North” conference held at the University of Oslo in October 2022. This will allow me to discuss some of the more theoretical ideas coming out of the placement with an audience of scholars who look at the relationship between the Arctic and museum and library collections. I also look forward to hearing more about future Arctic exhibitions at NLS and hope my work has contributing towards formulating an interesting and distinctive future discussion and representation of the region.

The placement has been extremely useful for me, particularly in helping me to think about how to present research to public audiences. It has also been interesting to see how an institution like NLS works, as well as the practical running of a library’s collections from the other side. I am very grateful to NLS and to DurhamARCTIC for the opportunity and would particularly like to thank Paula Williams for her help and support during my time at NLS.


National Library of Scotland