Cowan Bee Collection at the Museum of English Rural Life

Cowan Bee Collection at the Museum of English Rural Life

Cowan Bee Collection:
access, research and engagement       

1. Pre-project work

The Cowan Bee Collection was sent from Defra to The Museum of English Rural Life on 29 January 2018. The first task was to unpack the books from the c. 150 boxes and arrange them in alphabetical order on shelves in our closed access rare book store. At this stage, only the books and pamphlets had been unpacked; the periodicals were unpacked and processed at a later stage.

A blog post to announce the arrival of the collection was posted on The MERL’s blog in May 2018 at

Claudia Ricci was appointed to the role of Project Cataloguer in June 2018 to catalogue the collection and undertake other promotional activities one day a week from 8 August 2018 until 30 June 2020.

The project, designed to support and stimulate new research and interest in the history of apiculture, intending to promote and make accessible the Cowan Bee Collection. The project has two main aims: to provide access to the collection by cataloguing as much of the collection as possible onto our online library catalogue, and to promote the collection to academics, students, interest groups and the general public mainly through social media, but also through journal articles and events where possible.

Buz, or The life and adventures of a honey bee by Maurice Noel, a story for children (1892)Left: Buz, or The life and adventures of a honey bee by Maurice Noel, a story for children (1892)

2. Methodology

- The unpacking and shelving of the material continued into the start of the project and is now complete. Any particularly fragile items have been placed in acetate sleeves or conserved by our in-house preservation team as appropriate. The pamphlets have been re-housed in new pamphlet file boxes and any book or periodical items have been removed from the pamphlet sequence.

 Cataloguing and classification:

- The cataloguing of the book sequence started at the beginning of the project on 8 August 2018.

 - The books are being catalogued onto the University Library’s Unicorn online catalogue using AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules 2nd edition) - an international library cataloguing standard for library records content, and MARC 21 (MAchine Readable Cataloguing) with rare book cataloguing description which allows for the description and recording of information about bindings, evidence of provenance/ownership and other copy specific information -

- The books are being given a running shelf number alongside the collection name prefix eg. COWAN BEE COLLECTION—0107

Frontispiece from 'Ontdekking van de staatkunde der natuur ...' (Amsterdam, 1764)

3. Progress

As of 28 February 2019:

- 200 books up to the letter ‘C’ in the alphabetical sequence of c. 1,800 books have been catalogued since the start of the cataloguing project on 8 August 2018.

- c. 12 books have received conservation treatment/repair by our in-house preservation team. This work will continue alongside the cataloguing work as required.

- A box of papers, including a few items of correspondence and some cuttings relating to Thomas Cowan have been passed to our archivists for accessioning as part of our archive collections.

Right: Frontispiece from 'Ontdekking van de staatkunde der natuur ...' (Amsterdam, 1764)

4. Access and promotion

- Since being unpacked onto shelving in the rare book store, the Cowan Bee Collection has been available for use by researchers and other interested individuals in our reading room. All items must be requested from our closed access store.

As the alphabetical ordering sequence matches the arrangement of the Defra handlist for the collection, it is possible to locate and retrieve items for readers if required. As mentioned in the blog post about the collection, the handlist is available from the UMASCS Librarians on request. The list has been circulated to interested members of academic staff, including Dr Rohan Deb Roy from the Department of History who is very interested in using the collection for teaching and as a possible research resource for himself and his students. His current project, ‘Imperial Insects’ examines the extent to which nineteenth-century British imperialism shaped the discipline of entomology, and how the figure of insects in turn informed the contours of colonial history.

- The collection contains numerous editions of Charles Butler’s important work ‘The feminine monarchy’, the first book in English to state that bee colonies are led by a female queen instead of a male bee. These editions have now all been catalogued as part of the project.

Claudia Ricci and Rhi Smith, our Director of Academic Learning and Engagement, have been discussing the potential of research into Butler’s work by academics working on gender studies, and Rhi has made contact with a few individuals. Butler’s work also includes the music score for a madrigal for four voices, written by Butler in imitation of the buzzing produced by bees, and Rhi has contacted a group of musicians who are interested in performing the madrigal, possibly as a public performance at The MERL.

- The collection continues to be promoted through social media, in particular through a series of Tweets highlighting recent discoveries and items of interest, including illustrations of bee veils from Cook’s ‘Manual of the apiary’ (1878) – see the following as an example of another of the Tweets:

- We are in the process of creating a collection description page for the Cowan Bee Collection, with a link to the handlist as a pdf file, on The MERL website.

Right: Unpacking a copy of Jan Goedart's 'Metamorphosis et historia naturalis' (1662)

5. Future plans

- We are pleased with the progress of the cataloguing, processing and conservation of the Cowan Bee Collection and will continue with this work in the coming months.

- We will continue to promote the collection on Twitter and other social media platforms where possible.

- We are planning to organise an exhibition of highlights from the collection for display in our staircase hall exhibition space from November 2019 until February 2020 as part of The MERL’s ‘Animals’ events theme for this year. This exhibition will be promoted through the University of Reading’s events diary publication, through our website and via social media.

- The editors of BeeCraft magazine are interested in publishing an article about the collection and arrangements are being made for two members of the editorial team to visit the collection in the near future.

Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian
Claudia Ricci, Project Cataloguer

 The Museum of English Rural Life, 
University of Reading, UK