The BIS library – a fascinating treasure trove

A library is more than just a collection of books, in the same way that an art gallery is more than just a collection of paintings. But what defines that extra quality, what makes a library more than just the sum of its parts?

I have been drawn back time and again to the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) library over a period of nearly 30 years now, inspired by the huge range of books, symposium papers, journals, photographs and archive materials. As a lifelong book lover and amateur space historian I just can’t stay away!

The BIS library and archive is arguably the Society’s most important and valuable resource; it is possibly the single largest repository of spaceflight texts, manuscripts and photographs in the UK.

In the BIS Library

In the BIS Library

My son, Alex, and I recently joined the BIS Library Committee and have both been undertaking voluntary work to help support this wonderful collection. There is nothing glamorous about the work, which consists largely of keeping the library tidy and logging books onto the computerised index — but there is a real sense of satisfaction to be derived from helping to maintain the library, even if at times it leaves you feeling like King Canute trying to hold back the advancing tide of new books that need to be given a home. I would urge any member who wishes to undertake such voluntary work to do so in order to help preserve this sometimes forgotten treasure trove.

In a hectic and stressful world, the BIS library is an oasis of calm and quiet. And, unlike many modern libraries, the peace and stillness isn’t disturbed by the sound of keyboards being hammered on. The library is an ideal location for study for students of all ages. It is a place to browse for books that are unobtainable elsewhere, even on the internet, a place to lose yourself in every conceivable aspect of spaceflight and astronomy.

Above all, it is perhaps the very embodiment of the BIS, a physical manifestation of its history and heritage. There are times when I’m alone in the library when I can almost feel the ghosts of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Arthur Clarke emanating from the books on the shelves!

The range of books contained in the library is truly breathtaking; from books that many members will recall from their childhoods to the most technically complex papers and tomes. Enough in total for many lifetimes of study and reading.

Alex has been helping the BIS staff prepare for a book sale, which will hopefully take place before the end of the year. The proceeds will be invested in much needed items such as humidifiers and plastic covers for books. Please support this sale as a way of ensuring the preservation of the library and archive.

The Library Committee is keen to raise the profile of the library and sharp-eyed visitors to the BIS headquarters will notice that the large Saturn V display case has now been moved from the library to the ground floor reception area, as a way of encouraging people upstairs. There are similar plans to relocate one of the display cases, which will be used to feature some of the books in the library.

Ultimately, a library will only survive and thrive if people take an interest in it. This is what makes a library more than just a collection of books. The BIS library is regrettably underused so please make time to visit it the next time you attend a meeting.

It is open to members Monday – Friday, 10.30 to 15.30 (please call 0207 735 3160 before visiting in case the Library is being used for other purposes). When there is an evening lecture the libray will be until 18.50. Although pre-booking is not required, please contact us on 020 7735 3160 prior to your arrival in order to facilitate your needs.

If you are disabled and need help in using steps please contact the Executive Secretary.

– Mark Stewart


‘The BIS Library is a wonderful resource – there are very few research libraries in the UK with specialist space collections. The BIS library’s collection of European Space Agency publications is especially comprehensive, with historical materials that are hard to find even in ESA centres themselves.’
Jonathan McDowell

The BIS library proved to be a valuable resource for my doctoral research on the cultural geography of ‘British outer space’. The shelved volumes of the JBIS and Spaceflight dating back to 1934 and 1956 are a fascinating insight into the history of the BIS and space exploration.’
Oliver Dunnett

‘In the early days, the BIS library contained most of the books of any value relating to spaceflight. It also contained books that were not widely known to superficial scientists, many of whom believed the whole idea of space travel was impossible and that belief persisted for a long time, right up to and beyond the end of the Second World War.

‘One Astronomer Royal — Sir Harold Spencer Jones — even said that it would be hundreds of years before men ever reached the Moon. What swung everyone away from these ideas was the advent of Sputnik 1. Many of the ideas put forward by the BIS in its early years have proved to be right. The BIS library has an atmosphere all of its own.’
Sir Patrick Moore

Be sociable; support the BIS!