Alexander Library of Ornithology

I thought, for a bit of variation, I should visit a library with a more peculiar name next. For those of you, who, like me, need to look it up once just to be sure, Ornithology is birds. A whole library about birds. Well, there has to be one somewhere in the world.

Alexander Library of Ornithology

Of course, there is more than one ornithology library in the world. However, the Alexander Library of Ornithology, which is closely connected to the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford, is relied on by the British Ornithologists’ Union and also by ornithologists everywhere. I found Mike, the editor of the IBIS (international journal of avian science) himself, sat in the library typing away at the next edition of the most widely-used publication in the field, and immediately realised that this was going to be a special place.

Display cabinet inside library

The subject librarian, Sophie Wilcox, kindly offered me a tour of the collections, explaining that the materials were organised into three sections sorted by different methods: by the type of bird, by geographical regions of where the birds are found, and by behaviour and characteristics of the birds (e.g. diets, breeding habits). As well as these, the library contains collections of the work and notes of influential individuals such as David Lack and Stephen Marchant, and, even deeper inside, rare one-off ornithology books, some of which are being used in a current headline exhibition on Edward Lear at the Oxford Ashmolean Museum.

Hearing that I have interests in law, Sophie found some files on bird-related legislation for me, which contained old printed copies of statutes and of Hansard (parliamentary debates). The wordplay I found was utterly brilliant (My Lords, I have a word or two to say about the clause of the Bill), as was the good old pompousness of certain nineteen-fifties Lords (I marvel at people who cannot differentiate between a gull’s egg and a plover’s egg! – Earl Jowitt).

Snapshot of collection by bird species

On further browsing of the library, I found full records of sightings of birds in places ranging from regions of Britain to provinces of China, and files on every bird you could imagine, including pigeons, white doves and hummingbirds.

Ever the mature, intellectual individual, I became extremely excited and amused to find the file on the dodo. I mean, the thing’s been extinct for hundreds of years! Here, in this box, was the reliable collection of sources of information we have about dodos. It was like something from a Roald Dahl novel coming true. I was pretty sure that when I opened the box, a happy short stout baby bird would come springing out. Although, to my dismay, this did not happen, the file did contain some genuinely great stuff. Amongst other things I found originals of travellers’ records relevant to our understanding of the dodo, containing stories of shipwrecks and hurricanes, starvation and God. If you think that studying birds sounds dull, what you’re missing is a proper look in this library.

The file on the dodo

The best thing about the Alexander Library of Ornithology? It is open to anybody with any interest in birds: scientist or bird-watcher, conservationist or researcher, from anywhere in the world, subject to appointment. It is an infinitely beautiful concept that the such a great collection of information is unrestricted to academic use. Open access to resources and knowledge etc. I am all for it; I believe in the power of ‘knowledge mobility’ massively.

And on that note, I’m going to end this post with this relevant quote from my readings at the library. Something for us all to reflect on, I think.

A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all heaven in a rage.

~ from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake

Many thanks to Sophie Wilcox, Subject Librarian and Manager at the Alexander Library of Ornithology, for giving me a tour, permission for photography, and for sharing with me her passion of libraries and of all things ornithological.


2 thoughts on “Alexander Library of Ornithology

  1. A library all of birds? Maybe it could explain why there are pink flamingoes in the pond just south of my house…here in Houston.
    I’ll answer your Blake with some neo-bluegrass lyrics from this side of the pond:

    There was a dream, and one day I could see it
    like a bird in a cage.
    I walked in and demanded that somebody free it.
    -The Avett Brothers, Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise

    1. Beautiful. Interesting question about the flamingoes. I guess, if I ever come around to visit the library again, I’ll be sure to have a look at the flamingo / Houston files for you.

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