St John’s College Library Graduate Trainee Project, Joanne Hilliar

Curating a Special Collections exhibition on the theme of war

As I am unable to attend at the trainee showcase, I’ve written an account of my trainee project at St John’s Library instead, covering the process of organising a themed exhibition of rare books and manuscripts.

One of the reasons I applied for the traineeship at St John’s College Library was due to its fascinating range of extensive Special Collections, and the chance to explore and work with these as part of my day-to-day tasks. Items housed in the library date back to the 9th century and include some 400 manuscripts, 20,000 early printed books and significant collections of modern literary papers. In order to give College members the chance to learn more about these, we organise exhibitions displaying a number of items of interest twice a year. Each exhibition is based around a particular theme, with recent topics including a Classical A to Z and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Knowing that I would be setting up my exhibition in April, I decided to get started as early as possible and began thinking of possible themes (which gave me a great excuse to explore the collections themselves!) Three topics stood out as possibilities; witchcraft, alchemy and war. However, it turned out that we didn’t have enough variety of material to justify a witchcraft exhibition. Left with two options, I eventually decided on the theme of war – despite it not being an area I know much about – as I thought it tied in well with the marking of the centenary of WWI this year. War has become a prevalent theme in the media, with an increased topical and cultural presence.

The exhibition poster and handlist cover picture

I then had a closer look at the items I could display – choosing war as a topic made it easy to ensure that the exhibition could cover all our collections, from a 13th century Egyptian manuscript, to 17th century early printed books, to the modern literary papers of Robert Graves and Spike Milligan. The Librarian and Deputy Librarian, having a wider knowledge of the library’s collections, both suggested items to include, and I then decided on the final order. I intended this to be fully chronological, but logistical considerations (making sure all the items would actually fit in the exhibition cases without being damaged!) made this difficult. The first three cases are therefore based around different themes, before the exhibition moves on chronologically to cover the 16th to the 20th century. It sounds slightly confusing but I think it works! I learned that one of the most important things was trying to include a balance of text and image in each section in order to maintain the viewer’s interest.

The information I give in my captions for the exhibition obviously had to be meticulously researched, before being checked by the Librarian. Part of this research involved consulting a 19th century book in the Taylor Institution Library, which was a lovely place to work in and made me feel very studious!

After the exhibition was finally set up, I looked into how best to promote it. As well as using channels already in existence, such as posters, the library website and Facebook page, I took the opportunity to increase the library’s social media presence by posting on the St John’s College Twitter account and setting up a Special Collections blog for the library, (http://stjohnscollegelibrary.wordpress.com), with the first post focusing on the content of the exhibition. The College President’s Executive Assistant also included details about it in the monthly College events flyer. This part of the process showed me another important side to Special Collections work; the fact that good communication skills, both online and face-to-face, are essential in an sector which relies on gaining funding and developing innovative ways to engage readers to ensure its relevance in an increasingly digitally-focused society.

Promotion of the exhibition in the College events flyer

The range of tasks involved in completing this project reflects the opportunities the trainee scheme as a whole has given me – I’ve really enjoyed the combination of reader services and Special Collections work that being part of a College library team entails. The other projects I have been involved epitomise this variety; from sorting through 19th century letters and cataloguing Spike Milligan’s literary papers, to setting up general interest book displays and providing free squash and biscuits to students during exam time!

A selection of the treats on offer as part of our daily ‘squash and biscuits’ breaks

Overall, I feel that all of these projects and tasks, along with the training sessions provided by the Bodleian scheme, have given me excellent practical knowledge and experience of academic libraries, something I look forward to exploring in an academic context during my MA in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield.

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