First Monday Library Chat: Wellcome Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! Today we’re featuring the Wellcome Library in London, one of the world’s major resources for the history of medicine. The Wellcome Library is free and open to the public once they’ve registered for a library card, but some of their historical recipe book highlights may be viewed online. Today I’m chatting with Helen Wakely, Archive Project Manager.

The Wellcome Library has just undergone a significant transformation over the past five years. Can you tell us more about this?

We’ve been busy implementing our five-year plan to transform the library from a physical resource into a global digital library. Alongside the targeted acquisition of new materials, and active interpretation of our collections, our core objective has been to make strategic digitisation business as usual.

In case that wasn’t enough, over the last 18 months Wellcome Collection has undergone major redevelopment to open up 30% more gallery space and double its event capacity. As part of this plan, the library’s Reading Room will reopen in spring 2015 as an interactive space that we hope will open the library’s rich collections to new audiences.

What is the scope of Wellcome’s recipe book collection? 

In addition to a small number of early leech books and a scattering of apothecaries’ recipe books, we hold over 270 domestic recipe books. A handful date from the 16th century, roughly half date from the 18th century, and the rest are split evenly between the 17th and 19th centuries. Our collection is predominately English language-based, but we do hold a dozen or so volumes in French, German or Italian.

We continually add to our collection. Hardly a month goes by without a volume – usually 18th/19th-century – popping up for sale. I have been challenged by recipe book agnostics (yes, they do exist…) to defend the purchase of “yet another one”, but we believe it is vital to keep extending the corpus of accessible recipes in order to provide a sound evidential base for researchers.

Do you have some tips for how we might search the catalogues?

The easiest way to find the recipe books in our catalogue is to browse our “Domestic medicine and receipt books” subject guides  and follow the link for each manuscript.  Alternatively, if you wish to limit your search by date/language etc., try searching the archive catalogue on terms such as recipes/recipe/receipt/receipt book/recipe book. This will bring up non-domestic recipe manuscripts too, which may or may not be helpful depending on your perspective.

When the Wellcome Library began its digitization program, your 17th-century recipe books were among the first items to be digitized. Why? 

The reasoned answer is that our recipes formed a perfect test case: there was growing demand for them from a broad range of international researchers; it was feasible to digitise a comprehensive subset of our entire collection; the majority were in good physical shape; and the project meshed with the Wellcome Trust’s key research challenge to connect “environment, nutrition and health“.

The intuitive answer is that I’d fallen under the spell of our recipe books! I was hooked by the parallels and differences in experience between the early modern world and today, and full of curiosity about the thoughts of the people who wrote them. How did the anonymous 17th-century owner of MS.4051 react to their book being badly singed?

Burnt pages in Wellcome Library MS.4051, ff.67v-68r
Burnt pages in Wellcome Library MS.4051, ff.67v-68r

What enormous sadness lay behind the lines from John Donne’s funeral elegy “Obsequies to the Lord Harrington” tucked away at the back of Bridget Parker’s unassuming 1663 manuscript?

Bridget Parker,  ‘Quotation from John Donne in Wellcome Library MS.3768, f.77v’
Bridget Parker, Quotation from John Donne. Wellcome Library MS.3768, f.77v

What’s the easiest way for us to search and access the digitized recipe colletion?

The digitised images are indexed by recipe title term and subject. The easiest way to access them or search them for specific terms is explained in our subject guide “Finding recipe manuscripts online“. Each manuscript is accessible both as a single PDF embedded in its catalogue record, and as a series of indexed PDFs (one for each double-opening).

As part of our transformation plan, we are currently working to make all these images accessible via our Player, our bespoke interface for displaying digital content. This upgraded access will greatly enhance researchers’ interactions with the online recipe books: it will be possible to choose from a flexible range of download options, or embed a digital manuscript in another website. Index term searches in the catalogue will take researchers straight to the relevant pages in the Player, from where they can move seamlessly on to the rest of the volume.

At the moment, index searches still take you to the original PDF image, not the Player. But already you can view (and download or embed) all 77 digitised manuscripts as entire objects. To get a flavour, try searching on ‘Grace Acton’ in the archive catalogue. Click ‘Request or view this item’ > View online and off you go.

Do you have plans to digitize any more of your recipe books, or other materials that might be of interest to our blog readers?

Extending digitisation and recipe title indexing to our 18th-century recipe books is definitely on our wish list, but unfortunately we don’t yet have a firm timeframe. But we are currently digitising an exciting new acquisition from 2013, a culinary and medicinal recipe manuscript owned by Grace Carteret, 1st Countess Granville (1654-1744) with close ties to our Ann Fanshawe recipe book (MS.7113). We’ll let you know as soon as the original volume and the digital version are accessible.

"To Make Icy Cream" MS.7113, f.158r
Lady Ann Fanshawe, “To Make Icy Cream” MS.7113, f.158r

Scholars make active use of your recipe books for research and teaching, but the Wellcome also has excellent public engagement projects. How do you use recipe books for exhibits, blog entries, or public lectures?

One of the reasons I love being an archivist is that I get to nose about in the everyday stuff of other people’s lives. I suspect this is why our non-specialist audiences find our domestic recipe manuscripts so engaging – their contents evoke laughter, fear, a sense of physicality, and allow us to empathise in a very personal way. Over the last few years we’ve offered many recipe-inspired public events to build on this appeal.

We have invited external speakers to mediate their academic research to a general audience. In collaboration with the Wellcome Collection gallery team we have run guided explorations of gallery objects, rare books and manuscripts on topics such as the place of the 17th-century household in global economic and intellectual networks. We have even dared to hold a Feast to Cure Melancholy right in the middle of the library!

And next spring we will get the chance to engage audiences in new ways via the Reading Room interactive space. The associated engagement programme will have an emphasis on participatory, drop-in events, so one idea we are playing with right now is a freestyle story-telling game in which the narrative is driven by historical or contemporary recipes offered up by willing visitors.

Over in the virtual world of the Wellcome Library’s blog, we post a steady stream of recipe-related snippets, such as this piece of advice that will soon be topical once again. We don’t claim quite the same breadth and depth of research as our friends here on The Recipes Project, but we hope our broad-ranging readership enjoys its taste of unfamiliar concoctions.

Thanks, Helen, for chatting with me!

You’re welcome. Drop in to see us and our recipes soon, either virtually or in person! You can find more information about visiting the Wellcome Library here, and if you have any comments or queries please do get in touch.


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