Collecting publications – a repository of engineering knowledge – was a vital part of the early activities of engineering institutions. Members came together to discuss the latest technical developments, and these papers were published in journals. Institutions collected reference material and copies of members’ publications, creating the first engineering reference and (later) lending libraries. Members generously donated their personal papers to create early archive collections. These resources were brought together to form a record of engineering achievements and a resource for future breakthroughs.
The first Library: the Society of Telegraph Engineers
The Society of Telegraph Engineers (later the Institution of Electrical Engineers) started a technical collection soon after its foundation in 1871. In 1874, thanks to the founder STE member Latimer Clark, the collection was transformed with the bequest of the library of Sir Francis Ronalds, telegraph pioneer. Ronalds had amassed an internationally significant collection of 2000 books and 4000 pamphlets. This was a fantastic resource for the young society, but also a considerable responsibility and expense, as the books and pamphlets needed to be bound and catalogued. The books were bound by 1880, but help was needed to open the collection to members.
In 1880, the STE appointed its first Librarian, J Alfred Frost. The collections needed to be catalogued, so people could find the information they needed, and made available in a reading room. Frost created the first catalogue of the Ronalds collection and by 1882 had indexed the first few volumes of the STE Journal. From January 1881, he opened the Library at 4 Broad Sanctuary. The Library was open to STE members, members of other professional bodies and (on application) members of the public. The principal that the Library should be open to everyone with a legitimate research interest continues today.
Move to Savoy Place and the Thompson Library
Frost died in 1887 and the STE decided not to appoint a new Librarian. Responsibility for the Library moved to the Secretary, and the rate of new books being added to the collection declined. In 1891 the then IEE Library was moved to 28 Victoria Street, and in 1903 to 92 Victoria Street. By 1905, IEE members were seriously concerned about its future. A committee, which included the head of Finsbury Technical College Silvanus P Thompson, drew up a list of new books to be added to the collection. Members were asked to donate copies of their own books, and an additional grant of £650 was awarded in 1906 to be spread over 3 years.
In 1909, the IEE leased Savoy Place as the new London headquarters of the Institution. A large room on the first floor, overlooking the river, was set aside for what the President called “one of the handsomest libraries possessed by any scientific or engineering institution in London”. This new reading room was the home of a new lending library, set up in 1914. It was also used for meetings during the First World War instead of the Lecture Theatre.
Silvanus P Thompson’s legacy did not end with the Library committee: in 1917, after his death, his own collection of 1000 rare books and manuscripts, 8000 pamphlets and 2500 19th century books was acquired for the IEE. The Silvanus Thompson Library is an astonishing personal collection ranging from late medieval manuscripts to contemporary pamphlets and advertisements, covering all topics relating to electricity and magnetism.
IERE, IProdE and IIE collections
The IERE Library had begun began in the 1930s thanks to generous donations from Sir Louis Sterling. It contained 200 reference books plus copies of radio engineering journals. The Library was open to IERE members, students, engineering companies and government departments. It occupied the first floor at 9 Bedford Square, with storage in the basement. A lending library began in 1939, but due to the war, a permanent librarian wasn’t appointed until after 1945. The Institution of Production Engineers had a similar collection, known as the Hazleton Memorial Library, which was held at Nottingham Polytechnic. The IIE also had a collection of the journals of its predecessor organisations. These libraries were transferred to the IEE (later the IET) in 1987, 1991 and 2006 respectively.
The future of the Library
In 1974, the IEE Library was one of the first libraries to use the online retrieval of information, as part of an experimental project via Queens University, Belfast. This was two years before the IEE developed its own computer-based information service, INSPEC. The reading room was refurbished in 1980 and again in 2003. In 2015, a new Knowledge Centre reading room was opened on the second floor of Savoy Place, as part of the members’ Faraday Centre. This moved the Library back to the heart of member activity in the building, with the impressive Maxwell Library on the first floor used to house the older collections and function as a new meeting space. The IET Archives and rare book collections moved to purpose-built storage and reading room space in Savoy Hill House.
Today, the Library and Archives collection contains over 5 linear kilometres of books, journals, archive collections and audiovisual material. It remains open to all IET members, researchers and the general public.
You can search the IET Library and IET Archives collections online.