The Royal Society came into being in late November 1660. Its members were dedicated to a study of those matters that could be determined through tangible experimentation. The 17th century was the beginning of the Scientific Age. Once each week, members gathered for the presentation of papers, discussion and, insofar as possible, the actual performance of experiments. The Society’s motto is Nullius in verba, suggesting that nothing is to be accepted as true, except that which can be proven through tangible and observable experimentation. A tall order these days, when science is investigating micro-biology, molecular DNA, and atomic building-blocks of Nature at the one extreme; and at the other, surveying the cosmos to determine what happened in the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang, discovering the operations of Black Holes and trying to calculate the Mass of invisible matter.

But in the heyday of scientific observation, being a member of the Royal Society must have been especially thrilling as individuals observed and discovered the fundamentals of how the world worked, in all its myriad ways. Cast your eye upon the list of Presidents of the Royal Society over the centuries. Even relatively untutored young readers will recognize names that are familiar:

  • Sir Christopher Wren
  • Samuel Pepys
  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Sir Joseph Banks
  • Lord Lister

Imagine then, what it is to explore the archives, touch the manuscripts and see the actual experimental equipment that was used as the original “natural Philosophers” gradually defined and established the scientific disciplines and organizations we now recognize as fundamental to our understanding of the world.

The disciplines of Astronomy, Botany, Chemistry, Medicine, Molecular Biology, Physics… all of them… began—in one way or another—in the halls and meeting rooms of the Royal Society of London. And all the sub-specializations, experimental technologies, scientific advances leading to today’s almost daily transformations are still dependent upon, or, at minimum, descended from the discussions among members, debates, experimentation and encouragement of one another that is documented in the Library of the Royal Society.

Royal Society's Mace

Royal Society's Mace

Lest you think that the Royal Society wears its historical mantle with stuffy formality, on the day GLOW arrived to interview Keith Moore, Librarian of the Royal Society of London, every room and hallway in the building was abuzz. Even exquisitely decorated Library Reading Rooms with mouth-watering volumes on their shelves were filled with exhibitors of scientific instruments, models and demonstrations of every scientific kind. Hundreds (if not thousands) of teens to young adults were scrambling from one room to another visiting as many booths and exhibits that interested them. It is no exaggeration to say that the walls rebounded with energy, enthusiasm and excited shouts of discovery.

Keith explained that—as the Society celebrates 350 years of excellence in science—it recognizes its increasing responsibility not only to its professional worldwide members (who use and depend upon the Library and its Resources); but to the youngest “potential members” of the Society. There exists a conscious outreach to attract, inform, and inculcate in young visitors to the Library the spirit of curiosity, questioning, and experimentation that has formed the basis of all scientific progress over the centuries.

Our visit was a delight and a surprise. We approached the library expecting to be enthralled by the annotated manuscript of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, the Society’s Charter Book, which is signed by all Fellows, and learn not only about the documents and personal libraries donated to and deposited with the Library, but also about the new initiatives like the Science Policy Collection which is the Library’s most rapidly growing collection, containing over 10,000 documents of national and international significance. We came away with excited children’s voices ringing in our ears.

If that juxtaposition of “archival repository” and “living library” doesn’t express the reality of what libraries mean in our Society, we don’t know what does express it better.

We can’t wait to develop GLOW’s forthcoming episode on the Library of the Royal Society of London.