The Wellcome Library – A Picture Researcher’s Point of View

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By | In the Library

One of our Historical Picture Researchers, Rachael Johnson, is leaving the Wellcome Library for pastures new. Before she departs, she’s offered us an insight into a typical day in Wellcome Images

Wellcome Images researchers currently supply around 3,000 digital images every month to a wide client base, from academic scholars and lecturers to newspapers, book publishers, television and even design companies. No two days at Wellcome Images are ever the same, but here are some of the things we find ourselves researching.

I’m at my desk (with a cup of tea) by 9.30am and can begin by going through the email enquiries. On an average day, most are from academics requesting permission to use Wellcome Images pictures as part of their journal article, monograph or scholarly publication. I ascertain whether these clients are requesting contemporary biomedical material (which we hold as part of our contributor collections), or historical images, photographed in-house from items held in the Wellcome Library.

As well as the academic orders, we also receive numerous email requests from commercial companies, wanting to publish or broadcast our pictures. Although we are happy for academic clients to use many of our images free of charge, we do charge reproduction fees to commercial clients. A recent example is our collaboration with a Japanese TV company, who want to broadcast three of our images showing Jenner and his first vaccination. It’s enjoyable working with broadcasting companies, as we often get to see our images ‘in action’ in popular programmes including the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, The Great British Bake-Off and Victorian Pharmacy. We have recently been approached by two production teams working on upcoming feature films, wanting to use some of our images as set dressing: unfortunately the titles of both films are still a closely guarded secret, but do watch this space for more information once they hit the cinemas. One of the most unusual recent uses of our pictures was as part of the Grolsch beer website, illustrating a timeline of historical (non-beer related) events.

We always ask clients using our images in publications to send us a copy: we have recently featured on the cover of the Annals of Royal College of Surgeons, as well as History Today magazine.

We receive a steady stream of picture requests via the Wellcome Trust Press Office. As Wellcome Images hold pictures of all of the gallery exhibits in Wellcome Collection, we are frequently asked for images by publications such as What’s On and Time Out, so that they can entice their readers into our exhibitions with interesting pictures (including the image below, recently used in our recent Skin exhibition).
We receive a daily trolley delivery of items and requests from readers within the Wellcome Library. As we have an in-house studio and photographer, we can accommodate most requests for new photography, from miniature portraits to manuscripts and rare books. The most unusual item that I have ever asked to be photographed was an oil painting of the First World War, measuring almost 4 ½ metres square, which had to be photographed from above as it lay on the floor. As soon as any new photography has been completed, we catalogue the pictures and add them to our Wellcome Images website.

Although most of our clients have already seen the pictures they would like to order, we do also receive many speculative requests, where clients contact us in the hope that we can find them something rare, unusual or (in some cases) even impossible. I try to save these more involved requests for the afternoon, after I’ve been fortified with an excellent Wellcome Trust lunch.

A recent request came through for a selection of pictures showing the history of childbirth, for a publishing client. This involved searching through illustrations of birthing instruments, such as forceps, midwifery through the ages, foetal development and of course, labour itself. By the end of the day I have successfully found 53 great images for my birthing client and another 20 for a television documentary on the Plague.

The day normally ends at about 5.30pm, (unless I receive a telephone call from one of the national newspapers, who always seem to phone with an urgent request at 5.29) and I can head home, wondering what I’ll be searching for tomorrow.

1/’Wound Man’, MS. 290
2/ Front cover of History Today (featuring image of William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) MRCS, LSA, medical practitioner, in druidic costume, with goats, Wellcome Library no. 45771i), May 2009.
3/ Rubber beauty masks, worn to remove wrinkles and blemishes (Wellcome Library no. 565924i)
4/ A birth-scene. Oil painting by a French (?) painter, Åbo, Sweden (later Turku, Finland), 1800 (Wellcome Library no. 4469i).

Author: Rachael Johnson

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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