Wellcome to The Reading Room

“The Reading Room is designed to encourage you to indulge your curiosity and explore…” (Wellcome Collection, no date).

Last Friday the UCL MA Publishing class of 2015 visited the Wellcome Trust in London. A strange cross between a library and a museum, the Wellcome Trust encourages interaction with their displays, and promotes discussion about the way physical environments can affect readers. The two main areas of interest for us were The Reading Room, and the Blackwell’s gift shop. The Reading Room showcases the eclectic collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), the founder of the Wellcome Trust.

My first impression of The Reading Room was that it was a very informal museum. It encourages visitors to touch, pick up and interact with many of the objects on display, as well as discuss with other visitors what you have experienced. A stone stairway leading up to a more formal library archive was cluttered by students lounging on beanbags, many reading books collected from around the room, but others simply sitting and enjoying the comfortable and tranquil environment.

For the more adventurous, straitjackets were available to try on. Touchscreens with headphones and biographic audiobooks connected to comfortable chairs were hidden in a corner for those who prefer listening. A mirror was set up with drawing pencils and worksheets, along with several art titles on self-portraits. The artwork covering the walls was at times disturbing, yet always factually accurate, and a cross-section of actual human remains took pride of place at the entrance.

This is a room designed to encourage participation and education. I certainly enjoyed myself more than in any museum or library I have visited due to the unique nature of The Reading Room.

While there are signs listing which topics are covered in each section, there are also books thrown in seemingly at random. For example, shelves dedicated to faith, religion and death held titles about Japanese mythology, the Quran and, to my surprise, a centennial edition of The Wizard of Oz. Two works on non-fiction dealing directly with religion, and a work of children’s fiction.

When you think about it though, this also makes perfect sense. The Wizard of Oz has many religious themes, the plot itself is driven by the character’s faith that the Wizard himself can help them, and there are also contemporary theories that the whole story is a metaphor for death and the afterlife.

These books and displays, which at first seemed to be so out of place, have very cleverly planted around the room in places where they would provoke the most thought from any who came across them.

Not only the books themselves, but also each display was set up to enhance a particular topic. Again, looking at the faith section, I noticed it was crested by a physical display of Christian Holy Water flasks. This physical reinforcement of the topics discussed is further enhanced by a display case of charms and amulets, and a piece of artwork depicting saints, sinners and great leaders of men. In a museum, such displays would be separated into more clearly defined areas, but the way they all sit together produces a far more interesting

By using visual and tactile displays, and stimulating more than just the visual senses, The Reading Room appeals more widely than it would have done by perhaps following a more traditional “museum-esque” approach.

“[Blackwell’s] stocks a wide and changing selection of books to complement the themes of Wellcome Collection…” (Blackwell’s, no date)

As they describe on their own website, the Blackwell’s store mimics the curated style of The Reading Room. Everything seems to be misplaced, with toys, games and novelty items displayed next to fiction and non-fiction titles which appear to have only a tangential link to each other. Neither are there signs labelling where items can be found. The lack of signs meant I had to engage in a different manner.

“Filtering out unchanging stimuli and focussing on difference helps us spot potential predators and prey,” (Glaser, 2015). That trait of desensitization is avoided by Blackwell’s to great effect. The range of titles in a specific area will all be similar, and yet be different enough to catch the eye. For example, books relating to disease are all contained within the same section of the shop. However, fiction and non-fiction books are displayed beside each other, many with their covers facing out.

The general subject is the same, and so the shopper has enough information to decide if they are interested in the items on sale in that particular area. But the differences are enough that they draw the attention, meaning that each individual book is viewed and considered on their own merits. This is completely different from a large chain bookstore, such as Waterstones, who will have clearly defined sections for fiction and non-fiction, then sub-categories for genre, and will probably be alphabetized by surname of the author as well. This means that readers have to “…rescue the book from the category to which is has been condemned.” (Manguel, 1997)

While that allows customers to head directly toward a particular book, it means far fewer of their products are going to be seen, and so impulse purchases are far less likely. Stores such as Waterstones pack their bookshelves with as many titles as possible to show off all their stock. This means that unless items are on offer or promotion, they are stored spine facing out.

Again, the differences with the Blackwell’s are marked. With the cover facing out, Blackwell’s draws far more of the attention of their customers, simply by virtue of the larger dimensions of the object on display. It also allows for greater range of colours from the whole cover design to be shown, again increasing the chance of the book catching the eye.

The Reading Room and Blackwell’s are similar in several ways, such as their eclectic and tangential style of display, or their focus on health and medicine. However, they are also very different in their motivation. The Reading Room is a free space, one where people can visit and spend hours sitting and reading if they wish. Blackwell’s is a business, one interested in making money by selling products to customers. To this end, they do not have any chairs or places to gather and talk with other customers.

Overall, I would say that The Reading Room and Blackwell’s are successful in their respective aims, education and interaction, and engagement and temptation. In the meantime, for those looking for some peace and quiet, I’d recommend The Reading Room.

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