In April a few of us trainees adventured to the beautiful city of Cambridge, also known as “The Other Place”, for a whirlwind tour of some of their libraries.
Our first stop was the Judge Business School, located in the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital building with colourful balconies and floating staircases (think Hogwarts meets Art Deco meets 1920s fairground). The Library is a small but welcoming user-friendly space catering for the needs of Judge Business School staff and students, with access to the specialised business databases Bloomberg and Eikon. My personal highlight has to be beanbags within the stacks. Or potentially the graffiti wall for readers to leave question drawings, messages of hope (or dread), for the librarians to respond to. Student wellbeing and enjoyment of the space was clearly a key consideration, with sections such as ‘Boost’ for wellbeing books and a less formal ‘Weird Ideas and Disruptive Thinking’ section.
Next we took the bus over to the West Hub, a sustainable three-storey development open to all departments at Cambridge University and members of the public. The library in this building, forming part of the Technology Libraries Team and Biological Sciences Libraries, is on the upper floor, which is naturally quieter than the lower floors thanks to the architectural design of the building. There are study spaces to suit everyone, comfortable booths and sofas, areas for group work and individual study pods. With huge floor to ceiling windows looking out onto what we’re assured will soon be lakes, gardens, and urban orchards, the building was incredibly bright and open. It was incredible to visit such a green and modern space, a completely different world to some of the medieval libraries in both Oxford and Cambridge. I have since declared that every library should have a tree growing inside.
Our last stop was the Cambridge University Library, the main research library of the university. One of the six UK legal deposit libraries, the UL is a huge, imposing 1930s structure, designed by the very same Giles Gilbert Scott who designed the Weston Library building here in Oxford, Battersea Power Station, and the red telephone box. The library houses nearly 10 million books, maps, manuscripts, and photographs, stored across 17 floors and more than 130 miles of shelving (which I can imagine is easy to get lost in). Unlike other legal deposit libraries, such as the Bodleian, much of the UL’s material is kept on open shelving for readers to borrow. We got a chance to look around some of the reading rooms and inspect one of the UL’s old card catalogues. It really is an impressive space, with a great view from the tower.
We finished the day with a walk around the market place and a quick pint by the river. It was great to see how some of the libraries in Cambridge function day-to-day and their different approaches to what a library should look like. I’m sure we all came away with lots to think about for our own libraries. We’re very grateful to the staff at the Judge Business School Library, the West Hub, and the UL for showing us around, as well as the Cambridge Libraries Graduate Trainees who joined us for some of the tours!
One of the exciting projects we can get involved in as trainees is preparing for and promoting library exhibitions, whether open to the public or exclusively to university staff and students. For LGBT+ History Month, New College Library will be putting on an exhibition on Queer Love & Literature in our collections on 25th February. We have a display case in the main library for small, longer-term exhibitions of about ten items, accessible to college members only. However, this is not suitable for large exhibitions like this one. We therefore book a room in college with enough space for long tables, which also allows us to open our exhibitions to the public. The downside is the room is not secure enough to leave any of our rare books and manuscripts overnight, therefore our large exhibitions are open for one day and one day only! This involves a lot of preparation to make sure we can set up and take down the exhibition as quickly and securely as possible on the day.
However, without people coming to see our wonderful collections, all our preparation would be in vain. For this exhibition, we’ve used some successful promotion tactics from our previous exhibitions as well as some new ones to usher as many people as possible through our doors on the day. First of all is the fun bit, designing a poster for the exhibition on Canva, with a uniform logo we’re using on all of our social media channels. We then sent the design off to a print company to have it printed in A2, A3, and A4. We “launched” the news of our upcoming exhibition on the 19th January on our social media, and sent an email out to the OLIS, Oxford Libraries Information System, mail list. I also changed our Twitter and Facebook profile headers to advertisements for the exhibition. Thanks to my fellow trainees, I sent out some posters to go up in other libraries and increase awareness of the exhibition throughout the university. I also go on a wander around college putting up posters in common areas such as the café/bar and the JCR. I’m also trialling some QR codes, linked to the event page on our website, displayed around the library. The LGBTQ+ Officers for the college’s JCR and MCR do a great job of organising their own events throughout the year such as queer drinks and LGBTQ+ formals, so we let them know about our exhibition so they can spread the word around college.
As our exhibition is for LGBT+ History Month, a campaign founded by Schools OUT to increase the visibility of queer people’s histories and experiences, we added our event to their public calendar. However, we’ve found social media is the most effective method to reach a wider audience outside just New College and the University. On our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been further teasing our exhibition by posting some of the items we’ll be displaying on the day with our exhibition banner underneath to make sure our followers don’t get sick of the same poster over and over again. I have scheduled a sneaky motion graphic to go out in the week before the exhibition, just to add a little spice. We also asked the Lodge to let us put a poster in an A-frame outside the college entrance on Holywell Street on the day to draw in any walk-ins and notify visitors where the exhibition actually is, as New College can be a bit of a maze. We’re quite lucky that our collections speak for themselves, including a 15th-century manuscript copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, early printed books relating to King James VI and I, Oscar Wilde’s Ravenna inscribed by the author, and a first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There might be a few surprise additions on the day as we continue compiling the labels, but we’re hoping to show at least 30 items of queer literature.
We’re quite a small library and our exhibitions only last one day, so we don’t have the same resources and following to generate as much hype as some larger libraries’ incredible exhibitions, such as those at the British or Bodleian libraries, but we try our best! We’re also looking into putting on online exhibitions, so that our collections can be viewed digitally for longer, as it’s a shame they’re only on display for 6 hours at a time. This is the first of our exhibitions that we’ve put in this much work to promote, particularly on social media, so only time will tell if it works.
After forgetting to eat breakfast I start the brisk (and very cold) walk into college. It’s only a 15 minute walk, but I still manage to slip twice on the morning ice on Magdalen Bridge. The New College chapel and old Oxford city wall never fail to look beautiful in the morning. I get distracted and take some photos before heading into the library.
9:00 – 9:30
The start of the day at New College Library usually involves checking my calendar for scheduled events or visitors. I also check to see if anyone has requested items through our hold request system the night before and fetch the books for them ready to collect from the Click-and-Collect trolley in the hall. As it’s the start of the term, the list gets longer and longer every day – I enlist a couple of Sainsbury’s bags to aid me in my quest. I answer any email enquiries the Deputy Librarian didn’t get to first and check to see if anyone has booked our group study room.
We usually have one or two readers per week come to view our special collections. Requests are varied, from Peter Lombard’s 11th-century commentary on the Psalms to our 16th-century Isaac Newton Papers. It’s always exciting when a reader comes to view something that doesn’t often leave its shelf. Last term, a reader came to view an Italian 16th-century women’s beauty manual, which was nice to see go on a little holiday to the Special Collections reading room. If we have a reader booked in, I spend the morning invigilating, essentially making sure people are handling the books with care and not ripping out any pages as souvenirs. Today someone has booked to see our (possibly) 11th-century Harklean Syriac New Testament, which I fetched from the Bell Tower yesterday. It’s a beautiful volume. If anyone reads Syriac and wants to let me know what it says that would be wonderful.
9.30 – 12.30
I show our reader into our Special Collections reading room, make sure they have pencils and paper or a laptop (no pens allowed), and set the manuscript up on a cushion with snake beads. Invigilating today means I have time to work on longer-term projects, such as writing labels for any upcoming exhibitions, working on an article for the library’s e-journal, writing a script for one of our Curator’s Choice videos, helping run our trainee twitter account, or writing a blog post like this one. Next month we’ll be putting on an exhibition on Queer Love and Literature in our collections for LGBTQ+ History Month, so there’s a lot of preparation to be getting on with. We cannot under any circumstances leave a reader alone with a manuscript, so another member of the teams subs in throughout the morning so I can have tea breaks. Topics of tea-break conversation today: the finer points of the art of the pub quiz, the new Queer Britain Museum that’s opened in King’s Cross, and what if J.R.R. Tolkien stood for Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien?
12:45 – 13:45
Lunch time! As I’m sure my fellow college trainees have already mentioned, one of the perks of working at a college library is the free hot lunch. While the medieval dining hall at New College is very impressive, we usually eat in the less-intimidating south undercroft. Today’s menu is mushroom & tarragon soup, followed by parsnips, wild mushrooms and smoked tofu with soubise sauce, and an apple frangipane. After eating I take a walk around the cloisters and gardens. Don’t ask what the mound is for, I genuinely have no idea. I then spend the rest of my lunch break in the New College café with my book club read: Bimini Bon Boulash’s autobiography.
13.45 – 15.30
After lunch I get on with everyday tasks such as processing any new acquisitions that come in. We received a couple of boxes of books over lunch from Blackwell’s that I begin unpacking. I immediately process any books requested by students or academics and notify the reader that their book has arrived. I then start to process the rest of the books. This involves attaching them to a bibliographic record on Aleph, choosing an in-house shelfmark for them and stamping them before adding a spine label, RFID tag, and New College bookplate. I then cover the book with a plastic cover – essentially a cutting and sticking job – and put it on the shelving trolley. Most of our new rare and antiquarian acquisitions don’t have an Aleph record, so I apologetically add them to the Assistant Librarian’s pile for cataloguing. I also update our new book display, temporarily rebranded as a ‘Goodbye 2022!’ display, featuring some of the most interesting reads from last year.
This week students are back from their vacation and the library is really quite busy. Our work in term time is therefore a lot more student-focused, and we invest our time in welfare initiatives as well as everyday tasks like ordering and processing new books for our students. On Monday, for example, we put together a display from our Welfare and Wellbeing collection and gave out tea and chocolates for Brew Monday (Blue Monday with a happier twist).
Unlike some of the other college or Bodleian libraries, we don’t actually have a reader enquiries desk, but rather an open-door policy for our office in the main entrance. There are only 4 of us in the office, trying our best to look as unintimidating as possible, so readers can poke their heads around the door if they need anything. One of the best parts of the job is being greeted with gratitude and relief when returning triumphant with a crucial book needed for an essay (usually due on Monday). As most degrees here require weekly essays, we try our utmost to buy and process books for students as fast as humanly possible if its not already in our collection.
15.30 – 16.00
If there are a lot of new books arriving, processing can take up a lot of my day, but today I have a little time to head back over to the Bell Tower to take a look at the final volume of a late-thirteenth-century Bible particularly rich in strange marginalia, such as fish with human heads. I also take a quick look at our 1512 copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of Witches. I plan on talking about the book in one of our Curator’s Choice videos, writing an article on it, then perhaps even centring a small exhibition around it . . . Stay tuned. With so many funky manuscripts to look at, I pore through a couple more looking for marginalia and strangely drawn animals to post on our social media.
16.00 – 17.00
In the last hour of the day, I get on with creating content for our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We try to stay quite active on social media, both to showcase our special collections and keep our readers up to date with our new acquisitions, reader services, and any upcoming exhibitions. Our particular focus at the moment is promoting our LGBTQ+ History Month Exhibition, so do come along on 25th February to make my work worthwhile!
After getting distracted making a Twitter Header on Canva, I say my goodbyes and head over to the Rad Cam to get on with some non-library work before making my way to the pub.
Here at New College Library, we put on a number of different book displays each term, ranging from new acquisitions that catch our eye, to showcasing certain awareness campaigns. This week it’s Trans Awareness Week, in which the trans community and its allies highlight the issues faced by trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people, and celebrate those raising awareness. This annual week of observance will culminate in Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday, to honour the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. In light of this week-long campaign for trans issues, I pulled together a display of books from our ‘Q’ shelfmark, set up a few years ago by a former trainee, comprised of LGBTQ+ histories, biographies, and fictional works. With so many interesting titles, I thought I’d take the opportunity to showcase a few of my favourite reads!
This memoir by writer and filmmaker, Juliet Jacques, explores the personal story of her transition, while also critiquing 1990s and 2000s trans theory, literature and film. Jacques narrates her journey of self-discovery, giving an in-depth account of her entry into the LGBTQ+ community and her struggles with her identity; ‘I felt trapped not by my body, but by a society that didn’t want me to modify it.’ From her earliest experimentation with her presentation, we learn how films, books, and music that focus on trans identities helped Jacques explore and come to terms with her own identity. In 2012, Jacques chronicled her sex reassignment surgery in the Guardian, hoping to educate others on the harsh reality of transitioning and the importance of trans rights. Jacques’ memoir combines the personal with the political, exploring controversial issues in trans politics and promising to redefine our understanding of contemporary trans lives.
In this dynamic LGBTQ+ history, Jen Manion uncovers the stories of ‘female husbands’, a term from the 18th and 19th centuries that referred to female-assigned individuals who lived as men and married women. Manion recounts the stories of these queer pioneers, who exposed themselves to media sensationalism and, at worst, violence or threat of punishment. Rejecting the notion that reclaiming transness in the past is ahistorical, Manion refuses to define the gender identity of these ‘female husbands’, among them Charles Hamilton, George Johnson, Frank Dubois, walking the line between recovery and historicization. It is precisely this complexity that makes this such a powerful read, forcing us to challenge modern binaries of gender and sexuality as we retrace the histories of our queer ancestors.
Through a number of very personal stories, this book retraces the journey of the trans community in Britain from the margins of society to the visible phenomenon we recognise today. In their own words, trans rights advocates tell the story of the fight for their rights in the face of overwhelming opposition, and it is impossible not to respect their determination. For those interested in the current ongoing discussions about trans rights, this book is an excellent resource, despite being a difficult read at times.
This surrealist novel tells the story of a young, unnamed, transgender woman who lives with other trans women on the Street of Miracles, where different kinds of sex work take place. In response to the murder of another trans woman, the others form a vigilante gang and start attacking men on the street. Kai Cheng Thom herself is a non-binary transgender woman, who, as a writer and poet, exaggerates people from her life as characters in her work. As a response to the trope of transgender memoirs educating cisgender individuals about trans lives, Thom instead wrote Fierce Femmes to be the book that would have best helped her as a transgender teenager.
Hi! I’m Caitlín, the Graduate Trainee at New College Library. The college itself was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, and still features a lot of the original medieval architecture, as well as a section of Oxford’s city wall. As a Medieval Studies graduate, one of my favourite things about working here at New College is getting to work so closely with the library’s collection of around 400 medieval manuscripts. Of all the Oxford colleges, more manuscripts remain from New’s medieval library than from that of any other Oxford or Cambridge college.
When I get free time, you can find me in the Bell Tower poring over manuscripts, trying to find the strangest marginalia to post on our social media. My favourite volume has to be the “New College Apocalypse”, an early fourteenth-century illuminated Anglo-Norman prose translation of the Apocalypse of St. John, which I had heard about through the grapevine in my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at UCL.
I hadn’t seriously thought about librarianship until I began researching medieval universities and their libraries, and in doing so developed an interest in the day-to-day running of the contemporary university libraries I spent so much time in as a student. As a medievalist, New College Library seemed like the perfect place to apply for the traineeship. Though my research has mainly concerned late medieval Italian women, there are plenty of incredible volumes to keep me occupied here in a range of different languages: French, Spanish, Greek, German, English, Italian, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Welsh, Anglo-Norman, Dutch — the list goes on!
My day-to-day work includes processing new acquisitions to the library, setting up exhibitions, helping run our social media accounts, invigilating readers who come to see our special collections, and updating our new books display. It’s also been lovely to attend training sessions, which have given me the confidence to face Aleph — our cataloguing system. It’s been great to meet the other trainees in person and hear about what everyone else is getting up to in their libraries. With new freshers pouring in this month, I’ve been giving induction tours and praying our self-service borrowing machines don’t break. I’ve also been helping write labels for a couple of new exhibitions we’ll be putting on at the end of the month and in November, so there’s a lot to keep me busy for now!
It’s also worth noting that trainees at college libraries get free lunch, and the bar here at New isn’t half bad either — I’ve heard Hugh Grant likes to stop by for a pint or two every now and then…