SCIN Materials Library: An exciting peek into an unusual catalogue

Today, Tom Ash from #citylis and I were treated to a tour & fascinating chat at the SCIN Gallery, home of the UK’s “largest independent materials library and resource library”.

(That’s pronounced /skin/–turns out I’ve been saying it wrong for a few weeks now!)

What the heck is a materials library? In their own words:

“We are a materials Sourcing and Advisory Gallery. We find new materials and show them to Architects, Designers and Specifiers in an inspirational and informative way.”

Basically, they collect samples of materials from anyone–large corporations, architect firms, global startups, charities working with NGO’s and small businesses everywhere from Stirling to Capetown. They then organize and display these materials based on the type &/or qualities of materials. Boxes included ‘cork’, ‘upcycled’, ‘coconut’, and ‘food waste’.  You can see some of their boxes below. These boxes are easily accessible–all you do is pull them off the shelf and have a look inside.

Materials Library in the heart of London

The Green Room @TheSCINGallery

For architects, designers, and builders, the SCIN library is a dream come true. Here they can come to see either a specific material, or browse for inspiration. It’s also a place of wonder and delight for those random passersby (like me) who stumble upon it, amazed that such a place exists. SCIN melds their function as a library for materials with a sense of art and design, and even features some works of art with materials themes.

Melted wax bricks, art on display

Melted wax bricks, art on display

Perhaps most interesting were all the materials made from animal poop.

Yep, you heard me: poop. Giraffe, Rhino, and Ellie (elephant, maybe?) poop to be exact.

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The Materials Library was housed in the basement and the first floor, where they had the ‘green’ room. This room featured only materials made from naturally sourced bases (such as our poopy papers above).

On the upper two floors were the galleries, where the companies and designers who paid to be members of the library had their particular wares on display. Here were all sorts of interesting design ideas. And, again, some were made of…poop!

My particular favorite was the tile below, made of snail poop. The process is simple: Snails eat colored paper, their poop, now bright and rainbow-hued, is gathered, placed through a machine that somehow compresses it, and out comes a tile. The tile has a soft, rubbery feel. It was definitely one of the more unique materials on display.

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Here are some more that I found to be really interesting. The first is a glass container filled with delicate chunks of bone china and a soft light embedded inside. The second is self-healing concrete, which is filled with a bacteria that somehow fixes the concrete as it is broken.

Bone china, all aglow

Bone china, all aglow

Concrete infused with concrete-healing bacteria

Concrete infused with concrete-healing bacteria

From a librarian’s perspective, I was interested in the way they displayed their wood, glass, and metal samples in the galleries. You can see an example below. These diagrams were created to represent the ‘DNA’ of the various materials in the library. Here you can see Sedimentary Rock, and the various other stones that belong to this category. I liked the intuitive, almost organic style of display & classification. I wondered if it were possible to expand this type of classification to the rest of the gallery–with materials organized like a tree, with master headings, such as ‘rock’, branching into ‘sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic’, which would then extend further and further…


Adele Orcajada, the gallery manager, was kind enough to sit with us afterwards and answer some of our questions. The SCIN gallery is closing this month to move to a new location in London, and won’t be open until September. During the next 6 months Adele will begin the exciting process of updating the SCIN’s catalogue, and I for one can’t wait to see the changes she makes. She walked us through their current system, and we talked about some of her ideas for updating it.

I’m looking forward to learning more about cataloguing materials. There are so many dimensions to consider–unlike books, where you have only a few: Author, Title, Subject, ISBN. Materials have so many ways they can be classified. Process, content, place of origin, use, color, shape, texture, size, sustainability, rate of reproduction… I can go on. The challenge is deciding which categories will connect the most users with the materials they need. It will be interesting to see how the catalogue develops over the next few months.

I’m developing a strong interest in unusual libraries and archives. If you have any you’d like to suggest, or you think would be worth a visit, please comment below!