(The following is part one of a two-part blog post on the 2019 OxCam Librarians’ Biennial Conference. It features individual recollections of the day’s events, kindly contributed by some of the Oxford and Cambridge University Graduate Library Trainees in attendance.)
The 2019 OxCam College Librarians’ Biennial Conference, hosted by Worcester College, Oxford, took place on the 19th March in the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre. The event provided an opportunity to share ideas and updates on developments currently impacting the library services of Oxford and Cambridge University colleges. An exhibition space had been set up in the conference centre’s anteroom, allowing delegates the chance to network throughout the day with representatives from numerous organisations, including Cambridge University Press, Temple Bookbinders, Blackwell’s, and Gresswell. Upon arrival, attendees were given a welcome pack which included a programme of proceedings, some helpful maps and floor plans, a register of delegates and, of course, a complimentary bookmark.
The day was divided into five sessions, two of which were the morning and afternoon plenary sessions, comprised of talks on mental ill-health in the workplace, the Cambridge Information Literacy Network, and a case study on Balliol’s Wellcome Trust funded project to catalogue the Nicholas Crouch Collection.
The first talk on mental ill-health in the workplace, delivered by Dan Holloway, was warmly received by the delegation and provided a positive, constructive foundation for the day ahead. Jenna, Graduate Library Trainee at the Bodleian Law Library (BLL) details the conference’s opening prelection:
‘Dan Holloway’s presentation was the first of the day, and he set a really good tone for the remainder of the conference by delivering a very thoughtful and open talk which conveyed important information in an informal and accessible way. Dan ran through some of the issues contributing to and exasperating mental ill-health in the work place; he considered the things we can do to aid workers with mental health difficulties and to break down stigmas, using facts and statistics alongside experiences from his own mental health story.’
After a round of informative and thought-provoking presentations, breakout sessions ran contiguous to the morning’s plenary session. The Graduate Library Trainees were asked to attend a special session led by Eleanor Kelly of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Ross Jones, Graduate Library Trainee at the Bodleian History Faculty Library, recounts his experience in the passage below:
‘The Graduate Trainee Special Session took place in the Smethurst Studio and served as a platform for sharing our experiences as library trainees. In all, a total of twenty trainees attended, including a party of six from Cambridge University colleges.
Discussions opened with a brief ice-breaker exercise in which we were asked to share our name and our place of work with the group. We were also asked to describe our respective libraries in one word – ‘accommodating’, ‘comfortable’, ‘warm’ and ‘antiquated’ were some examples. After a round of introductions, Eleanor organised us all into five smaller groups and prompt sheets were circulated to guide conversation towards specific talking points. These points centred on aspects of our experiences such as the skills we’d attained, any accomplishments we’d achieved, the challenges we’d faced, and the types of library work we were involved in. I think structuring the conversation in this way helped to determine the significance of any similarities or contrasts that stemmed from working in different libraries.
Towards the end of the session, the group I was in broached the possibility of applying for postgraduate courses in library-related fields and discussed whether it was preferable to enrol as a full-time or part-time student. We also speculated which career paths might suit us best in the future. It was equal parts interesting and reassuring to hear from my compeers about the various activities trainees were involved with day to day; despite the differences, it seems inevitable that every trainee will, at one point, find themselves book processing, adhering bookplates and spine labels to new acquisitions!’
Once the morning breakout sessions had concluded, the delegation broke for lunch in Worcester College Hall. It was a hurried affair as visits to an Oxford archive, museum or college library were scheduled to run concurrently in the early afternoon. Natasha, one of the visiting trainees from Pembroke College, Cambridge, reflects on her tour of the Queen’s College Library in the passage below:
‘After lunch we split into groups for one of the most anticipated parts of the day, the library visits, and the Queen’s College Library did not disappoint. Amanda Saville, the Librarian, raced through the College and Library’s histories before letting us into the Upper Library.
This space is the oldest part of the Library and it remains open as a student study area. A staircase connects it to the Lower Library which houses much of the modern teaching collection and before the extension the shelves were full. The New Library is the most recent extension and it opened in 2017. Hidden beneath the Provost’s Garden, it allowed the library to expand and houses the special collections and archives in a secure and environmentally controlled storeroom. Multiple new reading rooms allow for better access to the special collections and cater to a wider range of student needs. It was great seeing how popular the New Library is, even in the vacation, and how well Amanda’s team did in supporting their users throughout the different Library spaces.’
Meanwhile, Bethan, a trainee at the Old Bodleian Library, was among those visiting Exeter College’s Cohen Quad. Elaborating on her experience, she says:
‘I was given the chance to visit Exeter College’s Cohen Quad which contained a purpose-built facility for the College Library’s Special Collections. William Morris is a notable alumnus of Exeter, and some of his possessions were donated to the college. This included his many pipes and a lock of his hair. We were shown an array of artefacts, including books produced by Morris’s printing house, Kelmscott Press; there was a beautifully illustrated edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which apparently is the original ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ and belonged to Morris himself.
The Special Collections Librarian showed us the new facility which houses the collections and archives. This included the colour-coded rolling stacks and a purpose-built metal gate used to keep the rarest items secure. She discussed the logistics of moving over 30,000 rare books and manuscripts to the site and the challenges she faced in the process. The collections themselves were originally held in poor conditions, so each item had to be individually cleaned and restored before being moved. There was time afterwards for questions and a brief discussion about the promotion of Special Collections.’
‘Mark Bainbridge, the Librarian of Worcester College, was our knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide. I think I can safely say everyone in our group had a very pleasant visit. We first climbed up an eighteenth century cantilevered spiral staircase with over 60 steps to reach the modern (upper) library, which was created in the twentieth century. It is open 24/7 and holds 65,000 volumes across two levels. These are all digitally catalogued and can be borrowed via a self-service machine. The card catalogue was discontinued in February 2006, but is still available for consultation. They acquire around 1,000 books each year and have approximately 6 years of space left before the library is full, although there is some weeding to be done which should give them a little more time. The first professional librarian to work here introduced an in-house classification system in the 1960s, which is still used today.
Naturally the highlight of our visit was the handsome Lower Library, completed in 1736. Most of the shelves hold Dr George Clarke’s large bequest of books, manuscripts, prints and drawings, a great deal of which are not digitally catalogued. Sadly, we did not get to walk along the gallery, but we were a big group so this probably was not feasible. The Lower Library is open from 8am until midnight each day. Unsurprisingly, it is a popular place for students to work, so much so that they have to set out modern desks and chairs during particularly busy periods.
The library team had kindly selected and displayed a few interesting items for us to view in a small room next to the Lower Library…’
Across town, Jenna (BLL) and Eva of Newnham College, Cambridge, were welcomed into the grounds of Oxford University’s largest college, Christ Church. In detailing their experiences, they recount the awesome purlieus and inspiring collections of the college library.
‘It is futile to try to describe the overwhelming grandeur of Christ Church and its libraries in terms of beauty. An oddball of my generation, I am not a big fan of photographing things, preferring to just experience events and commit them to memory. The whistle stop tour of Christ Church library however had me almost instinctively reaching for my iPhone and snapping away unashamedly with the crowd around me.’
‘The visit to Christ Church library began with a small introduction to the college and the library by the College Librarian, Steven Archer, in Tom Quad with assistance from Emma Sillett who is the Reader Services Librarian. The grounds of the college are impressive – Tom Quad being the biggest quad of all the colleges – and you can see why Christ Church has a reputation for being one of the grandest colleges in Oxford. We then walked through the cloisters to what is actually the ‘New’ Library, which was completed in 1772 as a result of the Old Library becoming so full that they had to build another building to accommodate the amount of books that were being donated.’
‘What was striking about the New Library was how spacious and accommodating the surroundings felt, as well as elegant. The silence felt hushed as opposed to suffocating. It was as though the prestige of the college’s history and status created an atmosphere of inspiration, rather than intimidation.’
‘The Library’s reading rooms are on the ground floor of the New Library, which holds the working collection, and is a pleasant mix of antiquated and classical design with beautiful iron spiral staircases and wooden shelving, contrasting with white columns and domed archways. I really enjoyed seeing students using the reading rooms, which shows that the ground floor is comfortable and accessible for students to borrow and work from.
In contrast to this though, the Upper Library was arresting in its grandeur and the smell of old books – addictive to anyone working in libraries. The upper floor consists of the college’s rare books which are mainly arranged under named shelves referencing the benefactors who bequeathed the collections. This room also holds a large amount of interesting objects, such as a hat which apparently belonged to Cardinal Wolsey and a full horse skeleton which was being used by an anatomy class at Ruskin School of Art.’
‘The magnificent upper library, where the special collections are held is overwhelming. Our tour guide and head librarian Steven was at pains to emphasise the main function of the room is for the collections to be used and consulted, and that this was actively encouraged to potentially timid students.’
‘Steven had arranged for items from the college archive to be brought out for us to see, including an illuminated manuscript, one of Elizabeth I’s bibles, the foundation charter of the college, and a photograph album and draft drawings for Alice in Wonderland which belonged to Lewis Carroll who was Sub-Librarian at Christ Church during the second half of the 19th Century.’
‘The literary association with Christ Church that gets most people excited is Harry Potter, its cloisters and staircase having featured as settings for various scenes in the film series. I, however, was far more excited by another fantasy staple of fiction embedded in its history: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. To be able to stand in the same spot as Lewis Carroll did, beside his desk, and look out of the window at the ‘Cheshire Cat’s Tree’ was an eerily wonderful moment, as was being able to look at handcrafted figures of the characters made in 1900 and see original sketches Carroll’s brother drew of the book’s illustrations. I doubt I am the first to tour Christ Church and leave feeling rather like Alice.’
‘Overall, it was a really superb and informative tour which was well-structured but also allowed us freedom to explore the dizzying double-height Upper Library ourselves – I feel very lucky to have had such knowledgeable guides in Steven and Emma and I felt very inspired being ‘let loose’ in such a beautiful library.’
See part two of this blog post for details on the afternoon sessions attended by Oxford and Cambridge University Graduate Library Trainees!