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Horniman Museum Library

The Museum and Library

The Horniman familys successful 19th century tea business funded Frederick Hornimans wonderfully diverse private collection which he shared with the public. Eventually he put it into a building described in Pevsner as no doubt one of the boldest public buildings of its date in Britain. (1) standing in beautiful gardens. In 1901 gave it all to the people of London, starting the Horniman museum and library.

Over the years the building has seen changes. The original dramatic entrance under the tower on the main road demanded mountaineering legs, so a new main entrance has been created. You now go through the gates of Horniman Gardens to the modern way in through the side of the building. This allows people to get in and out without climbing steps.

The Library

The library, with around 30,000 books ranging from modern to historic and popular to learned, as well as periodicals (over 100 current journals are taken), CDs, videos and audio tapes, is free and open to all for reference use every day except Mondays and Bank holidays (the museum is open every day except at Christmas).

It specialises in ethnography, natural history and musical instruments, supporting the museum. Within these broad classes the stock still reflects Frederick Hornimans passions and those of successive museum curators, So, for example, if you are looking for books on bees you will be better served than someone interested in bears. Naturally, tea and its place in history is well covered but, looking through the catalogue, many other topics caught our attention. Just a few of them were: drums of the world, the metallurgy of 17th and 18th century music wire, folklore, boats (from the fishing luggers of Hastings to Eskimo watercraft), food and cooking around the world. Many titles appeal to the imagination: Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts Festivals of China, Cats Paws and Catapults.

The staff put a lot of effort into welcoming users and making life easy for readers. In May 2006 David Allen, the Librarian, told us theyd made a long anticipated move into a building right by the way in to the main museum and had put the catalogue onto the internet. When we visited we found the librarians busy fitting themselves and their stock into their new situation while continuing to serve the needs of readers. The building has plenty of natural light and views out onto lush planting; this is such a change from the years they spent in the museum basement.

On going into the library you first enter a Family Room with books on open shelves which both adults and children can use without registering or other formality. Behind a glazed screen there is a separate Study Area with work desks and if you use a laptop you can plug it in. You will need to sign a visitors book to use this area.

Children doing projects are welcome; they may get a light grilling about the subject, but are then quickly introduced to the right books to study.

As well as keeping books in the library, some sections of the museum have a book selection to help visitors understand the exhibits.

Visiting the library

The main museum building stands on a busy bus route, a 15 minute uphill walk from Forest Hill Station. Its massive clock-tower is a conspicuous land-mark and additions to the main museum are just as remarkable; the library is in a grass-roofed ecologically friendly building just outside.

You get to it by a short wooden path going off to the right on the way in to the museum. Like the rest of the buildings it is wheelchair friendly and, being also eco-friendly, it has bicycle stands. There is no signpost yet but youll notice the grass roof and see library shelves through the large windows.

Finding and ordering what you want

Some of the stock is on open shelves, but for many items you will need to have the volume you want fetched from store.

The library is continually trying to improve it has recently put the catalogue on the internet. This is particularly useful if you want to do some searching to decide whether to visit. The catalogue is simple, and the usual author, title, and keyword searches are easy though it did take us a little while to figure out the significance of crosses and ticks by the list of volumes it found. We found it a bit limited for the more complicated things users of specialist libraries often want for example we have not found any way of limiting a search to just periodicals, or books, nor of searching for things published before or after a specified date. The address for the catalogue is below, or go to the museum website and follow the trail Collections Library Catalogue online.

If in doubt about whether this library is for you, telephone to discuss your interests with the librarians, who are ready to help you decide.

In the library, the friendly librarians expect to be consulted and will identify the volumes you want. They know their stock and as the collections are eclectic you might want to let them find books for you and direct you to the right section of the open shelves for your browsing. Indeed, rather oddly, when we visited (May 2006) problems with the system meant that the catalogue was not available to the public in the library itself, so until this is put right you will have to ask.

When you have identified what you want (and if it is not on the open shelves) ordering is informal; you ask a librarian and your volumes will usually arrive in a few minutes. However, some volumes are stored off-site and might take a couple of days to arrive - we could not see a way of identifying from the on-line catalogue which volumes these are, so if you want a particular work it might be best to telephone before visiting.

Café, Museum and Gardens
You can get snacks and simple lunches in the museum café, near the main entrance.
While visiting the library it is worth spending a little time looking round the museum and the delightful 16-acre gardens. All free, except for major special exhibitions.

There is a website for the museum and gardens, which includes a page about the library, at the address below.

Friends group
A Friends of the Horniman group supports Horniman Museum and Gardens by fund raising and other practical help. They have a website (address below) though when we looked we could find nothing about the library.

Open: Library:-
  Tuesday to Saturday: 10.30 am 5.30 pm
  Sunday: 2 5.30 pm
  Closed Mondays and Bank Holidays
  (The Museum is open every day except for a 3 day Christmas break)
Telephone: (020) 8291 8681
Address: The Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Rd, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ (see map below)
Friends Group: Friends of the Horniman, Horniman Museum, 100 London Rd, SE23 3PQ.
Websites: Museum and Library
  Library Catalogue
  Friends Group
Travel: Rail: Forest Hill station, then a 15 minute uphill walk.
  Bus: Buses 176, 185, 312 and P4 stop outside
Buses 63, 122 and P13 stop nearby


1) The Buildings of England.London 2: South Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner 1983

Anne Bennet, Alan Dove. May 2006