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The Museum of Natural History Library: The Birds And The Bees and The Bats and The….
Mise à jour: 28.09.2018

The Museum of Natural History Library: The Birds And The Bees and The Bats and The….

Known for its quirky display cases of taxidermy and its excellent temporary exhibitions (always bilingual in French and English!) explaining the natural world with passion and a sense of humour, the Museum of Natural History is also a world-class scientific institution with a staff of bona fide biologists. As such, it has a well-appointed research library that has also become increasingly open to the general public.
Planche des oiseaux de l'Histoire naturelle de Buffon
© Christopher Park / Ville de Genève

"Mum, what’s Natural History?"

The idea of an educational collection of objects, documents and assorted bits and bobs, dedicated to the natural sciences and open to the general public is, admittedly, a little bit old-fashioned. Just like the expression "Natural History", to refer to scientific disciplines as different as zoology and geology, with all the specializations that come from them: entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, ornithology, etc.

The big white, marble-faced building at the beginning of the Route de Malagnou, with its functional horizontal lines and funky sand-dollar shaped frieze over the main entrance, is a prime example of Modernist 1960’s architecture. Hardly old-fashioned. And yet this is Geneva’s Museum of Natural  History, an institution that dates back to 1789, which benefited from the late 18th century boom in natural sciences and the passion of several members of wealthy Geneva families for them, like the geologist and physicist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, the physician and entomologist Louis Jurine or the palaeontologist and zoologist François-Jules Pictet de la Rive. All these eminent scientists donated many materials to the "Academic Museum" which finally moved into purpose-built quarters (currently the Jura wing of the Bastions campus of the University of Geneva) in 1872.

The rock collections and insect cabinets just kept growing and growing and a new venue was finally completed in 1966, to house what was not merely a public exhibition space for scientific collections but had also become a real research institute in several natural sciences: the current location of "Le Muséum", as it’s known in Geneva.

Of Bats and Birds

As soon as 1832, a generous donation by Pictet de la Rive allowed the Museum of Natural History to constitute a library. Over the years, it developed into a specialist library for scientific literature: mostly in the fields of zoology and the earth sciences. With the move into the Malagnou premises in the 1960s, the Museum of Natural History broadened its outreach and became the very popular destination for school field trips and family outings it is today. The Museum library also reflected this evolution and began to acquire more and more mainstream and general interest books and periodicals.

The library’s collections represent 4 km of shelving, with approximately 70’000 monographies, and about 500 new acquisitions every year. The Museum of Natural History library also hosts two very interesting specialist collections on behalf of the learned societies that own them. "Nos Oiseaux", a French-Swiss ornithological society, has a fabulously rich collection of materials to delight the pickiest and most passionate of bird-watchers; for the chiropterologists among you, the Geneva collection of bat-related materials is truly world-class: with hard-core scientific materials sharing the stacks with deluxe Batman comic book editions and poem collections about those adorable flying mammals.

A Bit of an Expedition… But Worth It

In terms of access, using the Natural History Museum library is not really straightforward. Visitors are required to register at the welcome desk (ID required) because the reading room is in the research part of the building, not in the public galleries. Like in other Geneva heritage libraries, the stacks are unfortunately not available for public browsing, as the main collection also contains over 4’000 rare and precious books (such as a magnificent 1789 edition of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, with hand-painted engravings) and cannot be freely consulted. The Natural History Museum librarians are aware of this fact and do their very best to bring a representative selection of general and specialized interest books up to the reading room, with new titles regularly on the shelves.

A huge number of titles in the collection are in English, not just international scientific journals and monographies, but also general interest books, for adults and kids. A good way to discover this slightly hard-to-reach resource might be to plonk yourself in the reading room on a rainy day, look at what’s on show and talk to the librarians about the kind of literature you’re interested in. They will be delighted to serve as an interface between your curiosity and the wealth of their collections.

You can also ask your "Natural History" questions on the InterroGE platform. The libraries of the City of Geneva offer this free joint service to the population. Just ask any question and you will get a personalized answer in three days, guaranteed! If your question is about the death of the dodo or the flight of the bumblebee, the Muséum librarians will be answering it and probably suggesting relevant titles from their collection to further your interest. You can also look up the library’s resources on the RERO online catalogue. And you can borrow most of the library’s books with a RERO card (available on the premises for CHF 10).




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