Humans and their non-humans at the British Library

Humans and their non-humans at the British Library

Humans and their non-humans at the British Library

By Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans from the British Library talks about the inspiration for their Being Human event Humans and their non-humans. This post also features a special podcast from the event. 

On the 19 November 2015, we were delighted to hold an evening discussion event as part of the Being Human Festival. The event was inspired by our Animal Tales exhibition which was open to the public in late summer and early autumn last year. This exhibition explored how the stories we tell about animals are so often stories about us. From Aesop’s Fabels, to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, and more recently Helen McDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, the exhibition asked why animals play such an important role in literature for children and adults.

Animal Tales made us think about the many different aspects of the human-animal relationship and in particular about research which examines – from a variety of different disciplines – the strong bond that we humans have with our pets.

Before our event in November, I started to look at the collection items we hold at the British Library which support research into the human-animal dynamic. It was interesting to me that prior to 1976 there were relatively few books in our catalogue with ‘pets’ as a subject heading. So very often publishing trends are reflective of wider cultural trends, and so of course, when I was able to discuss this with our expert panel, it became apparent that the twentieth century showed great cultural change with respect to the human-animal relationship; there was an explosion in interest around pet care and training and concurrently, biological and psychological understandings of animal behaviour improved.

Cat dressThe catalogue also showed that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were lots of texts and papers on animal magnetism, which among other things, was thought to be a potential cause for human sleep walking. More recently my colleague searched our web archive to answer the age old question of our nation’s favourite pet – the cat, or the dog? In UK web space it seems cats are preferred, with a particular peak in cat references in 2005 where pages mentioning cats accounted for 4.5% of the entire UK web domain!

Our expert panel and chair for the evening brought a variety of different perspectives to our discussions. Professor Claire Molloy, Co-Director of the Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS) based at Edge Hill University was our chair for the evening. Her research focuses on the various ways in which media and culture shape and impact upon the public understanding of human-animal relationships and the lives of individual animals.

Our speakers for the evening were Dr John Bradshaw, Professor Nickie Charles and Professor Daniel Mills, whose diverse expertise and interests made the event lively, interesting and informative. They covered topics such as anthropomorphism, the benefits of pet ownership (for humans and pets), pet health, social and cultural explanations for our emotional connections and dependencies on our pets and the benefits of dog ownership to families with an autistic child.

Listen to the podcast for ‘Humans and their non-humans‘ below >