Birkbeck’s image collections

Birkbeck Library has a number of image collections available for research use.

Birkbeck History is full of images of notable people and events in the college’s past.

Birkbeck was the only central London university to stay open during the Blitz. Even after the library was bombed, teaching and study carried on.

Four people are working at a table. The table is in a bombed out street.

The college was one of the first to allow women to study.

Image of edwardian artists painting a life model.

The Album of Mrs Birkbeck is made up of poems, prose and images collected by Anna Birkbeck, George Birkbeck’s wife.

There are contributions from well-known society figures over a period of about 20 years from 1825. Entries from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen show that George and Anna Birkbeck were mixing with important people in the fields of the arts and social reform. Compiling these albums was a popular activity at the time, but it is rare that one survives intact and with well documented provenance.

Image of a book with a decorative spine. The book title is 'Album'.

There are two collections, Garden History Online and London Architecture Online that are made up of digitised slides from what was the university’s slide library. The slide library is now closed. These collections are extensive and varied. They contain beautiful, historical photographs, paintings, maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Image of a formal victorian garden with flower beds surrounded by low hedges, six diamond shaped topiary bushes in front.

The collections grow and develop all the time. We are currently working on a new one that compliments London Architecture Online. It contains images of architectural, monumental, sculptural and ornamental uses of Coade Stone in the UK, bequeathed to Birkbeck College by Averill Alison Kelly.

Photo of a central London street, in the 1950s or 60s. On a large plinth is a statue of a lion standing, looking out. An old Bedford type van is parked near it.

Coade Stone is an artificial stone (in reality it is a ceramic material) developed by businesswoman, Eleanor Coade in the late 1700s. Coade worked with skilled craftsmen and artists and marketed her product to highly regarded architects of her day. It can be found across the UK and internationally. In London, noted examples can be seen at Buckingham Palace, Sir John Soane’s Museum (Lincoln’s Inn Fields), Old Royal Naval Palace (Greenwich) and Schomberg House (Pall Mall)

You can explore all our collections and find images, by subject, from other collections worldwide here.

Using coding to improve our digitisation service

Although people tend to think of the Library as a collection of physical books, a key part of our offer to students is the provision of digitised readings through Moodle. We work with module leaders to ensure that book chapters and journal articles are available online for students to read in advance of their lectures and seminars. Last year we received and processed 2,503 new requests for digitised readings and e-journal links, and a further 2,849 digitised readings which had been scanned in previous years were re-checked for compliance.

Photo of a black woman in the Library, sitting in a comfortable seat whilst working on her laptop.
Birkbeck University Library

It is very important that the digitisation of material is carried out by the Library as detailed records of each scan must be kept and reported annually to the Copyright Licensing Agency. There are strict copyright rules pertaining to the sharing of published material online and we check compliance with our scanning licence before readings are produced. This includes ensuring that no more than one chapter of a book, or one article from a journal issue, is scanned per module.*

We also work to ensure that all readings are provided in an accessible format. All materials digitised by the Library for Moodle are formatted as readable PDFs. Text can be copied and pasted, read aloud with text-to-speech software, or annotated.

It is a huge operation with deadlines in place to enable us to meet the demand for the service at peak times and to ensure the material is made available to students when they need it. We are therefore continuously reviewing and refining our workflows. The ongoing work of a member of our E-Services team, Robert Williams, has driven these improvements over a number of years.

Photo of a white woman working at one of the many computers in the Library.

Robert has applied his coding skills and understanding of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to different stages of the digitisation process. In simple terms, APIs enable software systems to talk to each other. In this case, he has written programmes which have allowed us to automate the key tasks of checking ISBNs against the Copyright Licensing Agency’s database of works covered by their license, and to find out whether we hold the latest editions. Together, these programmes have increased the speed by which we are able to process requests, reduced the chance of error and freed up staff to carry out other tasks.

This is a great example of the way individual staff initiative can have a positive benefit on our services. At Birkbeck we have fewer staff than many academic libraries, and it is therefore vital that we support their development and foster a culture whereby they are able to apply any newly learned skills. Using APIs is just one way that we have reduced the administrative burden of managing the digitised readings service.

If you’re interested, Robert has published a more in-depth account of his work in SCONUL Focus.

Further information about our digitisation service is also available.

*or 10% – whichever is the greater.