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Collections Development Plan

In 2005, the RGS-IBG Collections were awarded Designated Status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (now managed by Arts Council, England), in recognition of their national and international significance and their importance in extending the ‘understanding of cultural exchange and encounters around the world’. 

This Collections Development Plan (CDP) provides a framework for the acquisition, management and development of the Society’s Collections in relation to the wider objectives of the Society. It is a 'living document' which is subject to ongoing change in discussion with the Society's Collections Advisory Group (CAG).

This  CDP sits alongside a suite of collections policies, including an acquisitions policy and a policy on returns (both policies submitted to Council with this document in May 2023); and a disposals policy (already approved by Council, April 2022).  



For the purposes of this Plan, the Society’s Collections are arranged into five main sub-collections, whose historical development is summarised in Appendix A.   

  1. The Library Collection (including books, journals, pamphlets) 
  2. The Cartographic Collection (including maps, charts, atlases, and globes) 
  3. The Archive Collection (including letters, diaries, journals, administrative papers and ephemera)
  4. The Image Collection (including oil paintings, drawings, photographs and film) 
  5. The Artefact Collection 


The Plan provides the collecting framework for each sub-collection and identifies areas recommended for strengthening. As a living document, it is subject to revision as a matter of course, reflecting discussions at CAG as reported to Council. The Plan provides a context in which the Society may consider new areas for potential collection development, such as audio archive (at present treated under archives).

The CDP has four parts, concerned with

  1. The collections planning framework, including management considerations; 
  2. The assessment of potential acquisitions
  3. Development priorities for each of the main five sub-collections 
  4. Appendix describing the history of development and engagement in each of the five sub-collections



The Society’s collections provide an important asset, supporting delivery its key objectives in education, research and public engagement. Their designation by the Arts Council in 2005 reflected the Society’s unique history over nearly two centuries, during which the Society has acquired a variety of material providing a unique archive of the history of world exploration and encounter. Together, the books, manuscripts, maps, images and artefacts in the Collections offer new opportunities for discovery and engagement.

This CDP and associated policies on acquisition and disposal reflect the priorities of the Society as presented in its strategic plan. In developing the Collection, there are a number of important considerations to be taken into account, including the historical strengths of the collections; the Society’s track record in making them more available in research, education and engagement; and resource opportunities and constraints.

In developing its approach to Collections, the Society draws on the advice and professional expertise of members of its Collections Advisory Group. The Terms of Reference of this group include ethics and governance relating to the Collection; uses of the collections in research, education and public engagement, including work with underrepresented communities; maintenance, conservation and care of collections; development of digital access; professional skills development of staff; and advice on funding opportunities which may maximise opportunities for supporting collections development and engagement.

There are a number of practical management considerations which underpin the planning framework for Collections Development, especially as far as new acquisitions are concerned. These include storage; human resources; and budgeting.



  • All the Society’s Collections are all stored onsite within the footprint of the Society’s existing building, with the exception of silver nitrate film and photographic negatives (housed at the BFI’s purpose-built storage facilities).
  • Purpose-built storage for rare and unique historical Collections items has been provided since 2004. However, sections of the Library and Archives collections remain located on the first and upper floors of the Society, remote from the Collections team and the Foyle Reading Room, with associated logistical issues for retrieval and re-filing of items. 
  • Collections of maps, charts, and atlases remain in basement locations where environmental conditions, whilst currently stable, will require future re-assessment as stored items may degrade over time. 
  • Updates on the capacity of the current storage arrangements and related proposals will be provided to CAG, set within the wider context of the Society’s infrastructure planning including the ongoing House project. 


Human Resources 

  • The assessment process for significant potential new acquisitions must include a review as described in the Acquisitions Policy, including evaluation of staff time and any additional specialist resource required to complete cataloguing and digitisation.
  • In cases where the work required to complete the sorting, cataloguing, re-housing and digitisation of items is considered to be beyond the capacity of the existing team, the Society should explore options for funding as part of the acquisitions assessment process, including funding from the donor or from external, trust and foundation funding.  
  • Acknowledging the limited amount of staff resource available, the Head of Collections (or where that role is vacant, the Director or the Director’s nominee) and the Principal Librarian will actively explore opportunities for suitably-qualified internships or work placements to enhance staff resource in the collections team.


Financial Considerations

  • Purchasing budgets: the purchase of some item types (eg books), will continue to be made within the annual departmental budget at the discretion of the Principal Librarian.
  • Acquisition rehousing and storage: the assessment process will consider the costs of rehousing and storing items. If necessary an application will be made to the Society’s new initiatives fund to support the re-housing of items in conservation-grade boxes. 
  • Remedial conservation work: where potential acquisitions include organic material or where their condition is considered to be a risk, potential donors will be asked to confirm what if any remedial conservation work has been carried out and whether they are prepared to cover or underwrite such costs for the Society. 
  • Valuation: as part of the acquisitions assessment process, the Society will request a copy of any existing valuation and/or seek a pro bono estimate from Christie’s London which provides this service as part of a long-term undertaking for the Society. 
  • Insurance Value: the Society will establish whether the value placed on an item(s) is likely to have any impact on the annual schedule of Collections Insurance. 



All proposed acquisitions will be subject to the process outlined in the Acquisitions Policy.

The criteria for assessing the proposed acquisition of an item or collection include the following:

  • Its importance to the discipline of geography
  • Its potential to enhance or extend the Society’s existing holdings  
  • Its potential uses in research, education and public engagement
  • Its national or international importance, including its uniqueness or rarity 
  • Its ownership and documentation
  • Its costs in terms of staff, space and financial resources required to catalogue, conserve, store and make available the item or collection 


Proposals for acquisitions should be made in a form following the template provided in the Acquisitions Policy.  Such proposals will assessed using a scoring scale, as follows:


Acquisitions Scoring Scale: 

0 Out of scope for current CDP. 

1   Minimal relevance or importance to the enhancement or development of an existing collection. 

2 Partially relevant or important to the enhancement or further development of an existing collection. 

3 Fully relevant or important to the enhancement or development of an existing collection. 

4 Exceptionally relevant and important to the enhancement or development of an existing collection. 

5 Of priority relevance and critical importance to the enhancement or development of an existing collection. 



The Society’s Collections are arranged into a number of sub-collections. Summaries of the strengths and the history of engagement with each of these sub-collections is provided in the Appendix. The following are the main acquisition processes and development priorities as currently assessed. These are subject to ongoing discussion and update via CAG. 


1. The Library Collection 

The library collection is developed mainly through donation, with some purchases enabled by a small acquisitions budget. Methods of acquisition include:

  • Purchase of new books linked mainly to research on the history of geography, exploration and the history of the Society, including its Collections
  • Donation of new books by authors or publishers, including for example, library copies of academic books published by the Society through its agreement with Wiley Blackwell.
  • Donation of individual books and periodicals by Fellows and Members of the Society, or their executors, selected and approved by the library team.
  • Donation of bound volumes offered as secondary potential donations, for example in the case of a photographic collection with associated published works.
  • Continued periodical subscriptions. The number of current periodicals has been significantly reduced, given the wider availability of many series in digital form through deposit and university libraries. 


The future shape of the Library Collection is under review to ensure it remains useful and relevant which may result in the deaccessioning of some library stock, consistent with the Society’s disposals policy.


2. The Cartographic Collection: Maps, Atlases, Charts and Globes 

While the cartographic collection continues to receive donations, enhancing the accessibility of and engagement with the Society’s existing collections is a key development priority, notably in the context of digitisation. 

  • The Society continues to receive donations of contemporary maps from organisations such as Ordnance Survey and the United States Geological Survey. 
  • Donations continue to be received from other organisations following the dissolution of their collections (for example, the Foreign Office Map Library), creating opportunities to supplement or backfill gaps in our own collection. 
  • The Society will seek a contractual agreement with the Department of Overseas Survey to enable the Society to offer access to DOS historical collections for reproduction of content, currently under Crown copyright and a barrier to some forms of research use. 
  • The Society will explore further digital development of the cartographic collection to ensure that we seize opportunities to improve presentation and access. These include: using the Society’s relationships with suppliers and creators of GIS technology to showcase the map collection; map-led online exhibitions; improving online access to information in gazetteers; developing a clear programme of digital file recognition and linkage between the KOHA catalogue and maps digitised for the WDA programme; encouraging Wiley Digital Fellowship applications linked to the map collection. 
  • The appointment of a Cartographic Collections Manager in 2023 provides a further opportunity for reviewing future planning in this key Collections area.


3. The Archive Collection 

Access to the archive collection has improved through digitisation of the catalogues, project-based research and engagement, and the Wiley Digital Archives initiative. New material continues to be acquired, extending existing collections and developing new ones.

  • Material in areas linked to existing holdings, such as those of Thomas Witlam Atkinson relating to his travels in central Asia, is acquired to strengthen the Society’s collections. 
  • Completely new collections containing unique archive content, such as the collections of Eric Newby or Doreen Massey, may be acquired in priority areas. 
  • The future development of audio archive material, including born digital content, will require further discussion and liaison with specialist external bodies.
  • The future arrangements for management and storage of the archive collection, in view of the significant space and resources required to manage and catalogue the Society’s own archives, will need to be kept under review. 


4. The Image Collection 

The image collections are an area of significant development activity, especially in relation to photography and film. Current priorities include: 

  • Acquisitions in areas of significant geographical change, for example the photographic collection of Douglas Gordon relating to UAE and Dubai. 
  • Acquisitions to enhance existing collections, for example the Noel Collection of Everest photographs or the Linton Palmer sketch albums
  • Acquisitions in new areas of collection, for example the Eric Newby archive, representing the role of travel writer and photographer in the post-1945 era 
  • Digitisation and conservation of key photographic collections, especially those linked to key anniversaries, such as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) 
  • Support for engagement opportunities in relation to specialist collections, eg the lantern slide collection or the Oldfield watercolour collection 
  • Support for engagement opportunities around anniversaries (eg Everest expeditions), including image content sharing, capacity building and international collaboration. 
  • Development of policy in relation to the work contemporary photographers, where themes of landscape, place, environment and culture are prominent. 
  • Use of film archive in public engagement and community engagement, continuing  the active programme of events developed since the BFI’s digitisation of the collection.
  • Acquisitions of new film material, where the costs of digitisation can be covered by the donor or external body


5. The Artefact Collection 

The artefact collection as it exists today reflects a combination of various historical factors and its future development depends on further discussion at CAG. Points to note are:

  • The content of the collection reflects the history of the Society’s involvement in the training of explorers, popular interest in ‘iconic’ objects associated with particular explorers and the unsolicited donation of artefacts by Fellows. 
  • The history of the artefacts collection requires further investigation. In particular, the Society is committed to reviewing the status of any objects which may be regarded as potentially culturally sensitive and/or subject to a request for return. 
  • The acquisition of artefacts by donation today is relatively infrequent, and as it is not a museum the Society is often not the most appropriate repository for items offered
  • Priorities for future collections development in this area have yet to be discussed via CAG. They may include artefacts associated with the evolution of forms of expeditionary or observational technology, including photography.


Approved by CAG May 2023 




1. The Library Collection 

On its foundation, the Society had the formation of a comprehensive geographical library as one of its declared aims. In 1830, the main interest was concentrated on works of travel and books for the guidance or instruction of travellers. Reports and papers were received by the Society largely from British and foreign governments and institutions.

The development of the library collection reflects the history of geography as a subject of study in the UK. Although in its early stages it was largely devoted to travel, the history of exploration, cartography, hydrography, and typography, the collection evolved during the nineteenth century to reflect developments in geographical thought and practice, as well as continuing concerns with exploration in many parts of the globe.

By the 1880s, when the Society played a significant role in the development of geographical education, the library collection began to reflect systematic aspects of physical and human aspects of the subject. Early works on geography were well represented, particularly through significant donations from Fellows. In general, the Society’s librarians did not attempt to collect detailed statistical, economic, or political content, beyond that contained in yearbook formats now largely superseded by online access to data.

During the twentieth century, the Society’s holdings of material related to the high Himalayas and Mount Everest was significantly expanded, especially after the foundation of the Mount Everest Committee in collaboration with the Alpine Club in 1919. The Society now holds the world’s largest combined library, archive, film and photographic collection dedicated to Mount Everest based on the successive expeditions to attempt to reach the summit.

As the Society established early relations with overseas geographical societies and other organisations, a collection of periodicals, received in exchange for the Society’s Journal was built up. The potential research value of the Society’s historical periodical collection remains largely unexplored. The rarity of some of the early journals makes parts of this sub-collection of greater historical relevance. Archive material relating to the publication history of the Society’s own journals adds significantly to the potential of the journal collection as a research resource.


2. Cartographic Collection: Maps, Atlases, Charts and Globes 

From its formation in 1830, the collecting of maps, charts and atlases was seen as a core task of the Society and crucial to the delivery of its aims and objectives, including the advancement of geographical knowledge and the promotion of public understanding. By mid-century the map collection amounted to approximately 10,000 maps and charts and it was recorded that the Society’s map room was "daily visited by intelligent strangers as well as by members generally”. 

In 1854, the Government approved an annual Treasury grant to the Society of £500 guineas to provide an apartment “in which the Society's valuable collection of maps and charts may be rendered available for general reference." This grant was continued to maintain public access to the Society’s map collection for many decades as it moved from its first permanent home in Savile Row, to Lowther Lodge in South Kensington in 1913, and the expansion and re-modelling of the site to incorporate a separate New Map Room by 1930, which also enabled the hanging and display of larger rare maps.

Today, the Society holds one of the largest private map collections in the world. The collection continues to grow, almost exclusively through donation. It includes approximately 1 million sheets of maps and charts, 3,000 atlases, 40 globes (as gores or mounted on stands) and 1,000 gazetteers. 

The collection has focused historically on scientifically surveyed maps and charts from official agencies at home and abroad: currently these include maps of the Ordnance Survey [of Great Britain] at scales of 1:25,000 and smaller, British Geological Survey, UK Hydrographic Office (all regular Admiralty Charts), topographic and geological surveys of Australia, Canada, Japan, South Africa and Sweden, the topographic series at 1:24,000 scale of the United States Geological Survey and 1:200,000 Topographic Atlases of Russia. 

The Society’s earliest printed item dates to 1482, with manuscript materials from the mid sixteenth century onwards, aerial photography from 1919, alongside contemporary satellite images. A sample of the materials we hold includes ice thickness in Antarctica, trekking maps of Nepal, maps of radio emissions from Cassiopeia A, geology of the Moon, a navigational atlas for the Yenisey River, an estate plan of land acquired for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and vegetation maps of Brazil. 

The Society also holds one of the most comprehensive collections of the Survey of India mapping of southern Asia from 1827 onwards, large numbers of pre-Revolutionary Russian hydrographic charts, a sizeable amount of trench mapping from WWI, and a large representative collection of German and British WWII mapping and associated material covering Europe, Near East, and North Africa. 

The collection contains over 4500 atlases, over 200 of which are pre-1700, including Claudii Ptolomei viri Alexandrini Cosmographie, published in Ulm in 1486.

The Map Room collection also includes carto-bibliographies, catalogues, and directories of both modern and antiquarian maps and of map dealers and researchers. 

Gazetteers of the world and of the British Isles from the eighteenth century onwards are held in various languages. These, together with facsimiles and current awareness publications, help to make this collection a major national and international resource for all forms of cartographic research. 

Records for all maps and map series published before 1940 are in the online catalogue. Many post-1940 maps and map series, particularly those produced by the Directorate of Overseas Surveys (& predecessors and successors), and maps by British Military organisations have been added to the system in the last few years. All atlas records of any date are in the online catalogue. 


3. The Archive Collection 

The Society’s archives consist of two classes of material created or acquired in the course of the Society’s history since 1830: documents arising out of the conduct of the Society’s business, and manuscripts donated to the Society by other organisations and private individuals. The Society continues to maintain its own archives and to acquire the papers of individuals or bodies concerned with geography, travel and exploration. 

The historical development of the Society’s archive collection reflects many factors, including the nature of its own work, the wishes of donors and the changing nature of geography as a field. Much of the archive material is by definition unique, and in many cases it complements and contextualises items held in the other sub-collections, including library, maps, images and artefacts.

The archives have many uses in research, teaching and public engagement. Historically, they have provided essential resources for historians of travel and exploration; biographers of 19th and 20th century travellers, explorers, and geographers; and research on the development of geographical knowledge. 

The material in the Society’s own institutional archive comprises various classes of administrative records (such as minute books, ledgers, accessions registers, card catalogues and other collections documentation), files of correspondence with Fellows and with other organisations, Fellows’ election certificates, special collections (such as the papers of David Livingstone) and journal manuscripts (including referees’ reports on articles published in Society journals).

The materials donated by other individuals and organisations include diaries, logbooks, journals and letters; astronomical, meteorological, and topographical notes; and major institutional collections such as that of the Mount Everest Committee, spanning the years 1919 to 1953 and the formation of the Mount Everest Foundation, jointly managed by the Society and the Alpine Club, London. 


4. The Image Collection 

The Society’s holdings of artwork, photographs, lantern slides, negatives and its moving film collection are substantial. They include unique material of global as well as national significance. In many cases, the image collection complements and enhances material held in manuscript and print form. 

The Society’s image collection was developed initially within the library and map collection. It grew substantially from the late nineteenth century, when the Society appointed the professional photographer John Thomson as photographic instructor. Facilities for the production, storage, cataloguing and display of photographic images have long been essential elements of the Society’s infrastructure.

In most cases artwork and photographs were acquired by the Society through donation directly by the originator. In many cases they include works strongly associated with expeditions and travel, including the paintings of Thomas Baines or the albums of John Linton Palmer. In some cases, as with the Everest expeditions archive, they are the result of a concerted effort to archive and protect the holdings for future generations.

The image collection has played a key role within the Society’s exhibitions and engagement programmes in recent decades, as in the ‘Crossing Continents’ programme and the Hidden Histories of Exploration exhibition. It has also been the focus of several Collaborative Doctoral Research projects.

In recent years, the film collection has been a central focus, especially following its digitisation in 2017 enabled by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the ‘Discovering Britain’s Film Heritage’ project. The film archive, managed by the BFI, comprises some 138 complete films and rushes acquired mainly through donations from Fellows, and represents a remarkable sample of early professional and amateur documentary filmmaking. Since 2017 it has been possible to bring the collection to a wider public audience in the UK and to extend research access via the BFI for overseas researchers. 


5. The Artefact Collection 

The artefact collection, consisting of around 1,500 objects, acquired by purchase and donation. This collection includes scientific instruments that historically were used in the training of travellers; and a diverse range of other objects, some of which may have been displayed at the Society at its meetings or (after 1913) in a small museum in Lowther Lodge. 

The collection contains a significant number of scientific instruments, many of which were purchased so they could be loaned to explorers and travellers engaged if scientific work on expeditions. These include aneroid barometers, compasses and sextant acquired by the Society for this purposs, as well as other instruments donated to the Society.

The collection also contains items of clothing or equipment associated with a particular explorer/traveller or expedition. These include iconic objects such as  David Livingstone’s cap,  Ernest Shackleton’s balaclava helmet, Ranulph Fiennes’ pulk and the oxygen sets used in the successful 1953 ascent of Everest.

Finally, the collection includes a relatively small number of cultural objects donated to the Society by explorers and travellers in many parts of the world. These are mostly individual items gifted to the Society by Fellows and others, including the Oldfield Collection of Tibetan artefacts.