Friday, 16 October 2015

UCLPub2015 An Exploration of the Reading Room and Blackwell's at the Wellcome Collection: where curiosity comes to thrive.

“A physical book is like eating a great meal in a beautiful restaurant with a fantastic view; an e-book is like eating that same meal from a takeout box on your lap in the basement”[i]

If this is the case, then reading a physical book in the Wellcome Reading Room is like eating a gorgeous meal in a quirky little teashop at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It is a perfect hybrid of living room, museum, exhibition, and library. You’ll find prints of teeth-pulling beside bookshelves in an alcove boasting straightjackets and the kind of books that require you to wear gloves in order to touch and explore them. All of this in a space that encourages you to feel comfortable on their staircase lined with large cushions, or on one of the sofas, or at one of the reading tables. From sculptures and paintings to a dress that illustrates a stage of early embryonic development; from medical implements and contraptions to a splice of a real human body; this space is so much more than just a Reading Room, it is a place to let your imagination run as wild and uninhibited as it can and an opportunity to delve into the mind of the cat that Curiosity killed.

The reading room at the Wellcome Library succeeds in making those who enter feel both at home and like they’ve entered a place that demands their respect. The Wellcome Collection is ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’[ii]. Their Reading Room is no different; it is not there for people to find a copy of the latest bestseller or the Man Booker Prize winner; it is, in their own words, ‘designed to encourage you to indulge your curiosity and explore more than ever before’[iii]. It is organised by theme rather than genre, and being part of the Wellcome Library, they are all somehow based around medicine. So you’ll find sections on themes such as pain, breath, body, and face. In these sections the books range from medical textbooks to YA fiction; for instance, in the pain section you’ll find a copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars on the same shelf as C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and The Illustrated History of Torture.  You may stumble across a book like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and wonder what on earth a YA book like that is doing in this place at all but, in a moment, realise it has just as much right to be there as the 20th century dental station that, honestly, looks like an instrument of torture. It was so painstakingly curated and so thoroughly researched it deserves and demands awe.

It, rather wonderfully, encourages you to interact with your fellow curious souls by asking you to leave a message in the book you’ve picked up for the next reader. Whether that message be a smart quip about the book or simply message support to a fellow book lover, this reflection of community in a group of people renowned for being introvert adds to this feeling of home. It is such a beautiful and unexpected idea for a space like this; a space far more relaxed and welcoming than any library. 

Found in a book on physiognomy. Book readers are punny.

My surprise did not stop there. Having only ever experienced Blackwell’s on my university campus in Nottingham I had assumed that it was an academic book shop, only stocking fiction that was part of a curriculum. So imagine my shock when I walk towards the Blackwell’s in the Wellcome Collection and my eyes immediately fall upon The Superhero Comic Kit – an interactive book designed to help you with your comic drawing skills. I'd wager that that's not a book to be found on many curriculums. But then again, I also wouldn’t expect to find The Encyclopaedia of Unusual Sex Practices on many either. Much like the Reading Room, this Blackwell’s is organised by theme rather than genre. And in a feat of possible genius, you don’t even have to go far before you can start reading your newly purchased books because the Blackwell’s near seamlessly flows into Blackwell’s café. Who could deny themselves the enticing smell of those new books as they mingle with the smell of freshly baked goods and a steaming cup of English Breakfast tea?

So go along to the reading room, pick your theme, and read a book you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Then lounge smugly on the beanbag lined staircase, because Curiosity would not dare take you in a place that feels so much like home.

Ben Gilbert / Welcome Trust
16th October 2015)

[i] Adam Sternbergh “Why the printed book will last another 500 years” available at (Accessed 15th October 2015)
[ii] The Wellcome Trust (n.d.) Wellcome Collection Available at (Accessed 14th October 2015)
[iii] The Wellcome Trust (n.d.) Wellcome Collection: Reading Room Available at (Accessed 14th October 2015)

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