The Imperial War Museum Library on National Libraries Day 2016

The Imperial War Museum was founded in March 1917 as a record of the toil and sacrifice of the ‘Great War’ while the conflict was still taking place. Printed material was central to the Imperial War Museum’s early collections – the Library acquired its first printed item in April 1917, a programme of the pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’, staged by the 85th Field Ambulance in Salonika. 99 years later the Library, its printed collections, and public access to these, remain at the Imperial War Museum – in no small part due to the efforts of campaigners and supporters who fought to save the Library in 2014-15.

Today the printed books collection at Imperial War Museum is a unique national reference library on twentieth and twenty-first century conflict, with access provided freely to all in the research room and ‘Explore History’ centre at the London site. The Library collections are used by a wide range of visitors, from historians, academics, authors and professional researchers to veterans, students, family historians and museum visitors with a casual interest.

On National Libraries Day we celebrate this unique Library and its diverse and valuable collections.

On a recent visit I was shown to a seat in the bright, modern surroundings of the new Research Room, with a wall of brightly coloured book spines to my left and a window overlooking the park on my right. In front of me a tantalising stack of books, boxes and paper files containing Library collections. I had pre-selected my items, each relating to an aspect of the Great War in 1916, from the somewhat brief catalogue records on the online catalogue and I was not sure what to expect. Had I selected what I needed, what would I find between the covers, and in these boxes and files…?

The first items were published in 1916 for the soldiers on the front, to fund raise and to raise morale. Contemporary publications with a patriotic message. From home a gift book to Tommy and Jack and all in the service of King and country on land and sea began with the promise that, “The free proceeds from the sale of this book will be devoted to sending copies to those at the Front and in the Navy”. Illustrations of home, Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch and Edinburgh Castle, also served to strength resolve – the Wallace Monument in Aberdeen is included with its inscription as the caption, “I tell you a truth, Liberty is the best of all things. My son, never live under any slavish bonds.” Doing their bit: war work at home is at pains to point out the support those at the Front have from those at home, hoping our troops “will learn from it how their comrades at home are doing “their bit”. So far so much evidence that more than ‘just’ fighting a war, publications in 1916 were carefully being used to ‘manage’ the conflict too.

And next another publication aiming to raise morale. I open an ordinary red box, to discover a beautiful volume bound in brown leather with an illustration embossed with gold – a path through trees (No-man’s-land?) and light shining from behind clouds (or could it be a shell exploding?) and the title, All’s well. It’s a small volume, pocket-sized. To fit the pocket of a soldier stationed at the front in the trenches perhaps. I gently remove it from the box. Its title page reveals a subtitle, “All’s well!” : some helpful verse for these dark days of war. John Oxenham dedicates the book to his son, who is fighting with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and explains that the title, adopted out of eighty-six alternatives, “is not to be taken as expressing my opinion that all is as it should be with us generally… One has to acknowledge with sorrow that things are not as they might and ought to be, and as, please God, they yet, in His good time, will be.” Added to the front of the volume, in a tiny neat handwritten scrawl, I find a verse from another Oxenham poem ‘A little te deum of the commonplace’ from Bees in Amber. Was this verse added in 1916? Or at Easter 1918? This date has been added, with initials, on the inside of the front cover. Was the small volume I hold in my hands read in the trenches? Did it ‘help’ its owner as Oxenham hoped?

Next first-hand accounts of the First World War, all published in 1916, from Somme battle stories with its chapter, ‘Describing indescribable’ to In the Ypres Salient the story of a fortnight’s Canadian fighting, June 2-16 1916.



And on to ‘souvenir’ publications, a concept I find a little odd to understand amid the horror of the Great War (despite the fact that I may well have put away somewhere newspapers from the days following Princess Diana’s death and 9/11…) First The Bovril handy-book and diary of the War (I wondered if this was a publication that you would have saved up coupons or stamps from the purchase of Bovril to obtain, like cereal packets today?), with its cheerful cover, ensures no aspect will be forgotten with an almost day-by-day record of events.Bovril

While in The great air raids on England, September 3rd, 23rd and October 1st, 1916 souvenir photographs and official reports, poor quality black and white photos show the wrecked Zeppelin, including an image of “”Tommies” sorting out the wreckage.”

A gem for those researching military operations and who are interested in campaigns and orders of battle – out of a plain cream folder come handwritten notes, orders for the 13th Yorkshire Regiment, signed B. G. Baker, Lt. Colonel. A timetable of events, neatly written in blue ink on squared paper. Carefully laid plans and notes, “The enemy is known to reinforce along his front line from the country behind…” written one hundred years ago directing the movements of men half my age. Many of whom would never return home. I glanced up from the notes on the table and watched children playing in the park below the window.

A collection of seven rubbings of the names of those killed in 1916 – Commander Bley, Commander Mathy, Unknown German soldier – was exactly as described. An unassuming Silvine drawing books contains stark black rubbings of memorials to lives lost:

                 COMMANDER MATHY

                   KILLED ON SERVICE

                        OCTR 1st 1916



SEPTR 24th 1916

                                                                                                    AN UNKNOWN

                                                                                                     GERMAN OFFICER


                                                                                                       WHILE COMMANDING

                                                                                                      ZEPPELIN L21

                                                                                                       3rd SEPT 1916


I sensed I had saved something special for my last item. Working backwards, this had in fact been the first item on my list, which was ordered by the Library’s unique classification scheme: 01/3(496.1).0-8

A brown box embossed with gold on the spine:



Album of newscuttings

And what an album! Encased in velvet and stitched with patterned ribbon, I untied its elaborate bow.


The first clipping was short,

“From the first captain to the last recruit the men who fought in Gallipoi did something worthy to make every one of us proud of being a man, let alone an Englishman; they set up a new outpost of man’s power in the universe, and they nearly defeated the inevitable. No evil song shall be sung of their swords.”

The album contains more than simple newscuttings, though there are plenty of these:

   “Disaster due to “wait and see.” Scathing report of the Dardanelles commission”;
   “All or none! The invidious Gallipoli Medal”;
   “Facts the Empire wants to know. Dardenelles “Who did that?” Questions.”

Glued or hand scored in alongside these cuttings are personal mementoes: a ticket to a Red Cross concert at Valetta, Malta is for the Manoel Theatre, Pit and stamped 26 October 1915; a kit bag label belonging to Lieut. Topham of the 2/10th Middlesex Regiment; photos carefully inserted and captioned, “My dugout, A beach West, Sept 1915” and “Bathing off Biyuk Kemikli” with an image showing four men sat, slightly awkwardly, in clear, shallow water; postcards; hand-painted watercolours. The album ends with a Roll of Honour, that of ‘Messrs Boulton Brothers and Company’.

With my 3 hour afternoon slot also coming to an end – and with the Research Room now closed on Fridays so no chance of my return the next morning- I leave with a greater understanding of the events and experiences of 1916, but  wishing I had more time, that I had explored further, learnt more; and knowing a repeat visit will be needed…

My short visit barely scratched the surface of the Library collections from 1916 alone. Just a handful of items from this incredible collection,  which records over one hundred years of war and includes insight into all aspects of conflict, from military to social, economic to technical, from fighting abroad to the home front, from biography to poetry, from scrap books to souvenirs. A unique insight into our history.

The Library collection at the Imperial War Museum belongs to the nation, and ‘Explore History’ and the Research Room enable access to these unique and valuable collections. On National Libraries Day the Imperial War Museum should be proud of its world class Library and research facilities.

The Library at the Imperial War Museum is open to all – search the Library collections online: and make an appointment to consult Library collections in the Research Room:

IWM Explore History
IWM Explore History centre

Or you can visit Explore History to consult a limited range of items from the Library collections and to access digitised collections and resources –Explore History is open on a drop-in basis, Monday-Friday, 11.00am – 4.00 pm.

Finally, to view what others have found, discovered or learnt in the Imperial War Museum Library take a look at the #LoveIWMLibrary hashtag, and add your own photos!

Happy National Libraries Day 2016!


Outraged about Research Room charges

£9.00 for a session? £14.00 for a day? Maybe those amounts are peanuts to some but for many researchers these costs will become prohibitive.  Perhaps those inflicting them do not understand the nature of research which is a meticulous, painstaking and lengthy business often undertaken by students and early career researchers who are not on ‘fat cat’ salaries.  We can spend days and weeks in the wonderful IWM Library before all the information that is needed is slowly revealed and books, articles, theses written.

Dr Viv Newman holding 'We Also Served' – a book which would not have been possible without the IWM Library
Dr Viv Newman holding ‘We Also Served’ – a book which would not have been possible without the IWM Library

This is utterly devious: inflict a prohibitive charge which few can afford, then it can be claimed that people aren’t really interested in the material and librarians’ expertise, so hey ho the library can be closed down.

Whilst not a stealth tax, this seems like a stealth closure.

And in the years when politicians keep telling us to “Remember”.  It seems that they are the ones ‘Breaking Faith’.

Dr Viv Newman

Historian & Author

Women of the First World War: Their war, their lives, their stories

IMAGE: Dr Viv Newman holding ‘We Also Served’ © 2014 Viv Newman.  All rights reserved.

Public engagement at Imperial War Museum Library

Is the Imperial War Museum Library really that important?

Essentially this could be a really short blog piece, because surely the answer must be yes. Absolutely yes! No question. Thanks for reading goodnight!

Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum

Maybe I should expand on my answer a little, just in case it is a little vague. As a first year PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde who is currently researching military medical history, I will admit to being a little bias. Yet, my interests aside I still argue that the Imperial War Museum (IWM), both its collections and its library, is essential, particularly for public engagement with history.

Public engagement is one of the best parts of researching history. Even within my limited experience, the chance to share the little knowledge I have gained is wonderful. My suffering wife and small children are now used to my quasi lectures about a particular First World War soldier or an outbreak of typhoid. They weather the strain well whilst not really listening. However, when I take my four year old to a museum he is suddenly much more attentive. We have yet to make the journey to the IWM together, but in museums such as the Glasgow Transport Museum (Riverside Museum), wonder shone from his eyes. As both a parent and a researcher, to have your child pull you over to an exhibit and say ‘tell me about that daddy’ is a wonderful feeling.

A German fighter plane at the Imperial War Museum.
A German fighter plane at the Imperial War Museum.

I remember that feeling. As a child, not much older than my elder son is now, my grandfather took me to the IWM. I remember the marvelling at the size of the building. Being impressed with the ‘massive guns‘ outside and the planes inside. Uniforms, weapons and soldiers, it was an amazing playground. I remember the agony of choosing to continue to stare intently at a collection of rifles or move on to the scary looking gas masks. This is a very important decision to a 6 year old.

Within this fairly sentimental comparison of my childhood to my son’s is the point I am trying to make about engagement. For both my son and I, museums are a place of wonder. As an adult, whilst I admit to feeling a similar excitement in my youth within museums, no longer does a big plane or artillery leave me speechless. As a researcher I need to know more. It is here that the value of the IWM library returns.

As a Masters student, I spent a week in the IWM collections room researching soldier’s diaries and testimonies as I explored their reactions to First World War anti-typhoid inoculation. As I sat in that hushed room, surrounded by papers belong to people who wrote them almost a century before I could read, the magnitude of what I was doing would occasionally hit me. Now, I am not saying I was conducting ground-breaking research (you never know though) but more that I was touching the lives of people long dead. People who had experienced things that no matter how much I read, reached or imagined I would never fully comprehend. As I looked up at the rows of books on the sidewall, the wonder that had struck me as a child returned. The same mix of excitement and awe, which encourages me to keep learning and researching. The IWM gave me that feeling and I am grateful.

IWM Explore History centre. Image courtesy of Peter Doyle © 2015. All rights reserved.
IWM Explore History centre. Image courtesy of Peter Doyle.

The IWM facilities allow for any member of the public to experience that level of wonder. Be it from the archives or from its library. The collection began in 1917 and has amassed a wonderful collection of books. Both academics and the public can use this collection to engage with the past and learn. According to an article in the Telegraph (2014) interest in the museum has never been higher. The article states that ‘the IWM attracted 433,000 learners in 2013-14 and 256,000 children took part in its on and off-site educational programmes.’ Obviously interest exists. There is so much to learn and as the centenary continues a new generation can be introduced the rich history that is stored within the walls of the IWM.

Prospect have organised a petition against the changes within the IWM and noted academics and public figures have raised their voices in alarm to save this national institution. They are right to do so. Diane Lees, the museum’s director general, was quoted in an article in as saying, “The continuation of the Library service, Research Room and Explore History, in light of financial constraints, will necessitate practical changes to the way the public will access these services, but the most crucial thing is that these services will continue.”

Yet, questions have to be raised about whether the quality of service will remain. Certainly this is an uncertain time for an establishment which is very dear to my heart and I will be following this transition closely.

This simply leaves the matter of the opening question. Is the Imperial War Museum Library important? Yes it is. It’s important to me personally and professionally. It’s important for all of us, for public engagement, for research and for respect of a building which stands in honour of those who fell so long ago.

So not to repeat myself but… absolutely yes. No question, thanks for reading goodnight!

Simon Walker

PhD Student in Medical Military History at the University of Strathclyde

This post was originally posted on Simon Walker’s blog, ‘Medicalising the Military ~ The History of Military Medicine’ on 3rd February 2015.

Images: 1.‘The front of the Imperial War Museum’ taken by en:User:Alkivar; 2.‘A German fighter plane at the Imperial War Museum’ by GurraJG. Both images released into the public domain and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.  3.‘IWM Explore History centre, March 2015’ © 2015 Peter Doyle.  All rights reserved.