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!
During the odd lunchtime during term, the Upper Library at Christ Church becomes host to pop-up displays of special collections material. Part of my Graduate Trainee role that I’ve really enjoyed is assisting with these displays, whether through invigilation, talking with visitors about the collection or selecting texts for display. Today I’ve put together a selection of texts that featured in our display on Early Modern conceptions of skin. Through the lens of travel books, anatomical texts and medical manuals we invited visitors to explore a range of cultural and medical understandings of skin during this period. I’ve chosen just three items from this display to share in this post today – read on for fugitives (of a kind), duels, and medical drama…
Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum
It’s possible that one comes across most lift the flap books during childhood. Literary giants such as Eric Hill’s Spot Bakes a Cakecome to mind. In this charming story flaps serve as an important ingredient of the mischief and excitement of the book. A flap that takes the form of a wave of chocolate cake batter can be lifted by the intrepid reader to reveal Spot stirring up a storm beneath, for example.
Much to my dismay, we do not hold Spot Bakes a Cake in our collection at Christ Church, but that does not mean we are completely bereft of lift the flap books. Despite Abe Books listing this as the ‘Original Lift the Flap’, there are in fact earlier examples of such a technique, and one such text featured in our display.
Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum (Augsburg, 1619) is the first anatomical atlas to use flaps to illustrate layers of anatomy. Instead of joining Spot in his mission to bake a birthday cake for his dad, you are invited to step into the shoes of the 17th century physick, learning about the intricacies of the muscles, bones and beyond of the human body. The plates show first a male and a female figure surrounded by figures of isolated body parts, including the eye, ear, tongue and heart. All of these are represented at their different levels with flaps – the man and woman to a depth of 13 superimposed layers. Each new layer reveals what can be found in the body at different stages of a dissection.
A later edition of this text, published in 1670, sets out on the title page that this book contains:
‘an anatomie of the bodies of man and woman wherein the skin, veins, nerves, muscles, bones, sinews and ligaments are accurately delineated. And curiously pasted together, so as at first sight you may behold all the outward parts of man and woman. And by turning up the several dissections of the paper take a view of all their inwards’ .
The flaps themselves are referred to as ‘dissections’ here, the act of the reader lifting a flap becoming amalgamated with the incision of the anatomist’s scalpel. ‘Curiously pasted together’ is a good description – the nature of the ‘lift the flap’ anatomy book imbues the medical diagram with an enact-able curiosity that only increases with interaction with the different layers.
Despite my attempts to tip the balance with this blog post, when it comes to breath-taking 17th century anatomical books, the phrase ‘lift the flap’ is not bandied around with much regularity. Strange! Rather, they are grouped within a pioneering class of anatomical print known as the ‘fugitive sheet’ or ‘compound situs’. This technique is first recorded as being seen in 1538 in works by Heinrich Vogtherr, which made use of layers of pressed linen to create the same effect we see in Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum.
These fugitive sheets would have been a fantastic way for users to understand the internal workings of their bodies, even without proximity to a cadaver. However, writing about Remmelin’s anatomised Eve, one commentator notes how the figures in these engravings ‘[sit] amid the horrific attributes of sin and death […]. If this is self-knowledge, one might prefer extroversion.’
Gaspare Tagliacozzi’s De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem
Also included in our display was Gaspare Tagliacozzi’s De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (Venice, 1597). The copy held at Christ Church is a pirated edition of the first book devoted entirely to plastic surgery. In fact, multiple un-official editions of this text appeared soon after the original due to its popularity.
The realities of plastic surgery met a real need in the 1500s, largely because duelling and violence were pretty rife. If you had taken a rapier to the face in a duel for your honour (perhaps your reputation is on the line when the last slice of chocolate cake has disappeared and you are found with crumbs round your mouth) a spot of light plastic surgery might be just what you’re after.
Around thirty years before Tagliacozzi wrote De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was taking some time out from considering the stars and turned to the far more terrestrial pursuit of losing his nose in a duel against Manderup Parsberg, his third cousin. While he and Parsberg later became friends, Tycho was landed with wearing a prosthetic nose for the rest of his life. Word on the 16th century street was that this prosthesis was crafted from finest silver, but when Tycho’s corpse was exhumed in 2010, it was a brass nose that was found, not silver.
While coming a little too late to be of use to Tycho, Tagliacozzi’s text focuses on the repair of mutilations of the nose, lips and ears, using skin grafts in an operation that became known as the ‘Italian graft’. This technique allowed for facial reconstruction via a skin graft taken from the left forearm. The graft would remain partially attached to the arm while grafted to the mutilated area so the skin cells would not decay. Tagliacozzi’s talents did not stop at medical innovation however – he also had an eye for (practical) fashion. Due to the importance of the patient being able to hold their arm to their face after the surgery to facilitate the complete adherence of the graft, Tagliacozzi designed a complex vest, not unlike a straightjacket, to make sure there was no unwarranted movement. The process was supposed to take from two to three weeks.
William Cowper’s Anatomia corporum humanorum
The final book that will feature in my post today is William Cowper’s Anatomia corporum humanorum (Leiden, 1750) and at the heart of this text is one of the most famous controversies in medical history.
The plates that feature in Anatomia corporum humanorum were not originally produced for this text, but rather the earlier Anatomia humani corporis, by Govard Bidloo (1649 – 1713). Originally published in 1685, Anatomia humani corporis features 105 striking copperplate engravings of the human body. The plates illustrate the muscular, skeletal, reproductive, and systemic organization of the human body and are seen alongside scientific commentary.
An English contemporary of Bidloo, William Cowper, bought the printing plates from the printing house and reissued them under his own name with new accompanying text in his Anatomy of humane bodies. A text that, in a profound lack of tact, also featured ‘numerous harsh criticisms towards Bidloo’s contributions’. Unlike today, plagiarism – especially over national boundaries – was largely tolerated at the time, as it was difficult to police. Bidloo objected strongly to this instance of plagiarism from Cowper, however, promptly and publicly excoriating him in a published communication to the Royal Society.
What could be termed as Cowper’s lack of imagination when swiping someone else’s prints was more than made up for by Bidloo’s creative insults in this pamphlet – on one occasion calling him a ‘highwayman’, and another a ‘miserable anatomist who writes like a Dutch barber’. I think I’d rather be on the anatomist’s table than have such lines about me circulating in print. All’s fair in love and science I suppose…
The plates in question were produced by the Dutch painter Gerard de Lairesse. For Lairesse, the anatomical illustrations commissioned by Bidloo were an opportunity for an artistic reflection on anatomy. They are very different from the tradition kick-started by the Vesalian woodcuts in De humani corporis fabrica.
Lairesse displays his figures with a tender realism and sensuality, which at first glance seems unfitting for an anatomy book. The figures seem docile, as if in a light sleep rather than deliberately posed objects of scientific inquiry. In these illustrations dissected parts of the body are contrasted with soft surfaces of un-dissected skin and draped material. Flayed, bound figures are depicted in ordinary nightclothes or bedding, as if they will soon be put back together again and woken up.
That’s all I’ll share today – I’m off to make a case for Spot Bakes a Cake as being a prime investment for Christ Church library’s collection.
This is Part IV of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For more background information on who Richard Ovenden is and how he came to be Bodley’s Librarian please see Part I.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
Last week we discussed the duty and future of libraries and archives especially with regards to the digital age. This week, in our final post of the Richard Ovenden Blog Post series, we will look at some examples of how libraries are able to collaborate and serve their various communities.
“we’re [not] just a supporting service … we are actually part of the University.”
As previously mentioned in our first post of this series, Richard Ovenden is Head of Gardens, Libraries & Museums (GLAM) as well as being Bodley’s Librarian. This is a post he took over from Professor Anne Trefethen early last year, “I became head of GLAM in February”, which Richard Ovenden has described as involving “trying to build on all of the work of my predecessors as head of GLAM in supporting the cultural and scientific collections in the University”. Following our interview, Richard Ovenden mentioned that he had a meeting with “the University and Strategy Plan Programme Board which is working on the University’s new strategy”. In particular, Richard highlighted his aim of emphasising the importance of libraries, and their contribution to the University of Oxford: “What I’m trying to do is to help the University develop a strategy that has these kinds of issues that we have just been talking about, as centrally as possible” libraries are “[not] just a supporting service” but instead “we are actually part of the University.”
Throughout our interview, Richard makes a point of discussing Libraries within the context of the communities that they serve. For the Bodleian that primarily encompasses the staff and students at the University of Oxford (although not insignificant are the various independent researchers and even members of the general public who may also interact with our collections). But each library will have diverse communities that they need to determine how best to provide for.
One anecdote in particular that stood out was Richard’s mention of Uma-Mahadevan-Dasgupta, a woman he met who is not a Librarian, but in fact “a civil servant in India … her whole raison-d’être is to build a public library network in rural India”. The community she serves in this process is one that is “disenfranchised from knowledge, if you like, and as part of their educational experience they don’t have those opportunities and that seems to me tragic.” But the work that she’s striving to achieve is “just incredible … it’s very, very simple stuff but it’s kind of transforming the opportunities for people in rural India – young people opening books for the first time, it’s just phenomenal.” Richard’s admiration for Uma and the work she’s doing is clear, and understandable. There are few library staff who wouldn’t see the appeal in getting to create, shape, and expand a new network of libraries across a nation with previously limited access to such resources. As Richard says, “she’s been one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in a long time, and just incredible.”
“Public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.”
But one doesn’t need to travel all the way to India to see ways in which libraries can change to better serve their underrepresented communities. Richard mentions a recent trip to Berlin where he “gave a talk in a public library”. He describes the library itself as, “a very good public library with a children’s library section and books, but not many. Small, on a modest scale.” It serves “an area of Berlin that has a big immigrant community, they’re facing defacement and vandalism from the far right because they have services directed towards the Turkish” and other marginalised groups. These groups are just as fundamental a part of the local community as any of the other residents and these “public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.” The talk Richard was giving was in fact directly intended to address the issues of vandalism faced by the library and the wider community, it was on the subject of “censorship and banning books” which shows just how much work even ‘modest’ libraries will put in to serve and protect its users. As Richard says, “they’re really standing up for [their community].”
On the same trip to Berlin, Richard made a visit to the director of the Staatsbibliotek, or ‘Berlin State Library’. The Staatsbibliotek is a part of a wider organisation called the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or ‘Prussian Culutural Heritage Foundation’ which is “responsible for the museum and state libraries and state archives, state everything.” The Foundation is one of the largest cultural organisations in the world and “responsible for these amazing institutions.” Lucky for us then that Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (of which Richard is the head) already have “an MOU” (Memorandum of Understanding – a non-binding letter that says the institutions will work together.) “with that organisation, which sits alongside the MOU between Oxford university and the four Berlin universities.” As Richard says, “this is a cultural and knowledge partnership alongside the academic partnership,” the opportunity for two such prestigious institutions to be able to work together on future projects is a wonderful opportunity for both parties. However, as this MOU was signed just before the pandemic “we haven’t really been able to do much collaboration.” Now that restrictions are loosening however, “we actually have an agenda for collaboration between the Bodleian and the Staats.” This agenda is hopefully one that will continue into the future as, “next year we’re re-signing the MOU with the Stiftung and GLAM.”
One can’t help but feel that this all harks back to the advice Richard gave in our first article. The importance of networks and connections between library staff is central, not just to developing one’s personal career trajectory, but also between institutions as a way of supporting global efforts to protect and preserve knowledge and serve individual communities. Libraries can only continue to do the fundamental work that they are engaged in if they cooperate, share knowledge, and support one another. After all, isn’t that really what libraries are all about?
We would like to thank Richard Ovenden for very generously giving up some of his time to meet with us. We really enjoyed our conversation with him and learned a lot by listening to his experiences of the library world. We hope these blog posts will be useful to those wanting to learn more about what happens behind the scenes at the Bodleian and the wider world of libraries!
This is Part II of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For more background information on who Richard Ovenden is and how he came to be Bodley’s Librarian please see Part I.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
Last time we spoke about Richard’s early career and how he was supported by mentors and colleagues as well as having a solid grounding in a variety of different libraries and library jobs. This time we focus more on one of the biggest issues facing librarianship as a career: accessibility.
Accessibility issues are a wide topic for discussion, encompassing not just physical accessibility of, in many cases, listed buildings, but also the accessibility of the profession to people who are members of certain marginalised groups. “If you look at the make-up of the Bodleian staff it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.” Richard acknowledges. For him part of this issue is “how can we change that when – the make-up, particularly when you go up the organisational structure it’s increasingly white.” And race isn’t the only issue, “there are other forms of diversity that are slightly better represented but still not adequately represented.” One of the more recent comprehensive surveys of the LARKIM (Libraries, Archives, Knowledge and Information Management) industry backs this up. It found that the lack of ethnic diversity within the profession is pronounced and whilst we are a female dominated profession, there is still a significant gender pay gap.
“This is one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.”
For Richard Ovenden, accessibility is “one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.” An issue that he acknowledges is not unique. “We share that across the museums and the cultural and scientific collections at Oxford. Particularly thinking about Oxford as an institution that has been … very implicated in empire and all of what that entails.” It’s a legacy that will take more than a few years to undo, but the Bodleian is in the process of addressing at least some of the issues it caused. This impetus for change is coming from the very top. Richard mentions a “Bodleian strategy to address diversity and equality” and looking at the Bodleian Libraries Strategy for 2022-2027 you can see that the drive to improve diversity runs throughout the objectives laid out, as well as being explicitly stated as one of the core Guiding Principles in delivering the strategy.
Pre-dating this strategy, however, is an ongoing project called ‘We are our history’. The project involves several teams working on a variety of key issues related to improving diversity. One aspect of this is metadata, or the information we keep about the items in our collection. This can range from something as simple as the title and author of a work to descriptions of the item, its provenance or even how and when it was printed. With so much information to consider there are many ways in which we need to pay mind to the language we’re using and how we’re using it. As Richard puts it: “is our metadata fit for purpose, and how do we change that?”
Another aspect that Richard mentions is “How do we diversify the collecting of books?” The Bodleian libraries are of course one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, meaning that we are entitled to a copy of every book published here. But as Richard points out, “we’re one of the great libraries for the study of Sub-Saharan Africa – are we buying books from African publishers, are we supporting the book trade in Africa? Or are we just buying books because it’s easier and cheaper to do it from library suppliers in the UK?” Being aware of where we source our collections and the potential biases that might entail is crucial to ensuring we have a strong and diverse body of knowledge available to our readers.
But it’s important also to consider how we present that knowledge to the wider public, to “look at our exhibitions” as Richard explains. We’re sat with him in the main hall of the Weston library and he gestures behind him, “asyou can see here at the moment”. Currently the newest exhibition at the Weston is ‘These Things Matter’, a fantastic collaboration between the Museum of Colour, the Bodleian, and Fusion Arts. The exhibition examines items from the Bodleian’s collection that illustrate the horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery, and invites seven artists to interpret and respond to the material in a variety of mediums, including sound, art installations and digital displays.
Beyond even the collections, however, we also need to think about our staff. Richard points out that biases can creep in “even in how we advertise our jobs”. He wants to strive for job postings that are “easy for people who might not have thought about working at the Bodleian – from communities who do not usually send their members to work in university libraries.” Unless we are able to employ a diverse staff, these projects become more difficult to carry out, and less impactful.
“It’s got to be part of our everyday business”
Whilst all these initiatives under the ‘We are our history’ project are fundamental to addressing these issues of accessibility, Richard warns against becoming too complacent. “Funding has allowed us to get a project manager to help co-ordinate that but really, it’s for my senior colleagues in the library to take the responsibility for that. So, it can’t just stop when the funding for the project has run out. It’s got to be part of our everyday business.” Until we make accessibility and diversity as intrinsic to libraries as the books themselves we cannot really say we have made true progress. And as Richard rightly points out, “that project’s really looking most at race and ethnicity but there’s also gender, equality, sexuality, even disability to think about.” Libraries are meant to protect and preserve information to be accessed by everybody, and unless we consider the different needs of some of the myriad groups who, arguably have greater reason than many to make use of our services, we’re falling short of the basic requirements of the profession.
Richard has delivered numerous talks about the delivery of e-content by libraries in the UK and the US, the role of libraries and archives, and the 2018 Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston . He has also written a number of articles, essays, research reports, and is the author of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ , which was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize.
Last year a few of us trainees had the very exciting opportunity to speak with Richard Ovenden at the Weston Café over tea (and delicious cakes). Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing what we discussed in a series of blog posts, beginning with Richard Ovenden’s journey to Bodley’s Librarian – his interest in librarianship and where it came from
This is Part I of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
After settling down with our beverages and cakes, we asked Richard how his journey into libraries began.
For him, it started early, “being taken to my public library with my mum when I was about three. So, borrowing books from one of my public libraries, and then, when I was a teenager, going by myself and reading.” This kind of memory may be familiar to many, but over the years, Richard made the change from reader to staff member after becoming a student librarian at his college library in Durham. The role was fairly typical, “mainly tidying – nothing very exciting”. But it was in his second year there when an opportunity arose that seems to have lit a spark in the young Richard Ovenden. The construction of a new college bar meant that he was offered the chance to move the secondary sequence “which was basically a basement room full of mouldering books” and told that if he stayed over the summer holidays he would be paid for his trouble. As Richard recalls, “this was great. I was the first from my family to go to university so my parents thought this was great as I was being paid.”
“For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.”
Whilst working on this book move, Richard came across some early books, “15th century things”. Not knowing what to do with them he went over to the University Library “to ask someone some advice – literally walking up to the enquiry desk”. The staff there “pointed to this door that had a brass plaque on it, which said: ‘Keeper of Rare Books’, which I thought was quite cool. There was a wonderful holder of the office called Beth Rainey, and she was incredibly kind and generous and patient and helpful, and I thought – wow, this is really good. For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.” After this revelation, he then stayed on as a trainee librarian at Durham with three others. “We moved around different departments of the university library and then went to library school”. For Richard, the event that really shaped his future in libraries “was really that moment – becoming a student librarian and meeting lots of serious professional librarians.”
After leaving the traineeship at Durham, Richard’s career progressed through a number of library jobs. Notably, at one point he became a member of what is now ‘The Rare Book and Special Collections Group of CILIP’ a title equally as impressive to impressionable young graduate trainees as the grand ‘Keeper of Rare Books’ must have been to Richard. But through all of his inspiring career moves, he credits his colleagues as being key mentors who were instrumental in his path towards becoming Bodley’s Librarian.
Whilst he was a member of the special collections group at CILIP, the chair of that same committee, Barry Bloomfield, “was a very senior figure in librarianship. He was just, again, very kind and helpful.” Another key figure in Richard’s early career was Ian Mowat, Chief Librarian at Edinburgh University Library. “He was a fantastic leader,” Richard reminisced. “Just working with him for four years, I learnt a huge amount. Not that he taught me but just watching him – I absorbed it.” After Ian Mowat died young, Richard felt the need to move on. “I couldn’t think of staying there and not working with him. So, I came to Oxford.” Whilst there Richard had the opportunity to work under his two predecessors in the role of Bodley’s Librarian. First was Reg Carr, who was instrumental in the integration of the departmental libraries at the Bodleian. Richard recalls that he “was also very involved in digital things and JISC – in the old days of JISC. So, he was great.” Then Richard’s direct predecessor Sarah Thomas “was a very different character, and I learnt a huge amount from her – I worked very closely with her. So, that was like a masterclass.”
“The variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.”
Part of the strength of Richard’s career history is not only in the calibre of colleagues he has had the pleasure of working with
over the years, but also the sheer variety of roles he has undertaken. In Richard’s own words, “the older I get, and the more I look across the profession, I think the variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.” Obviously he has a strong background in academic libraries, and he admits, “I’ve worked in university libraries most of my career” but as mentioned above he also has experience “in National Libraries and in parliamentary libraries” as well as being “involved in various ways with other special libraries as a trustee, like at the Chawton House Library which is for Rural Studies and has rural literature.”
Richard’s opinion is that “it’s good to be involved with all those different aspects because there are commonalities between them all, but their variety is partly what makes life interesting.” Beyond just keeping the spice in life however, he also makes the point that “they all serve their communities differently,” a sentiment which rings true for many of us in the library world.
We finished our interview by asking Richard Ovenden if he had any final pieces of advice for those looking to pursue a career in Librarianship. Ever the generous boss, he gave us two: Firstly, “just try and visit and talk to as many libraries and archives as possible. Just seeing the work of a diverse range and talking to professionals of a diverse range is just really good.” And finally, “your network – your own network. My network has in the past and continues to sustain me in different ways. I utilise it to ask questions and see who I can get to come and speak and see who I can connect my new colleague with to help him or her and the problem that they’re trying to solve. So that network that you’re building now – think about it as you are doing it. Collect people’s business cards, capture their profiles in your contacts lists, follow them on social media, go on LinkedIn – it’s really, really important. Nurture it and curate it and stay in touch with each other.”
Our hope is that the advice and information provided by this blog will help those of you out there who are also interested in pursuing a career in Librarianship and can serve in some small way to kickstart your own network of information and contacts. Anyone who is interested in connecting with other people at the beginning of a career in Libraries should check out the ECLAIR (Early Career Library & Information Resource) Community.
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.
Outside my day job as a graduate trainee librarian, I am a keen climber with an interest in climbing and mountaineering history and literature. In the past, I served as the Librarian of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club and the editor of its journal, and I spent long days paging through the OUMC’s rich guidebook collection, dreaming of working in a specialised library. When I first started my library traineeship and was encouraged to see various libraries, arranging a visit in the library of the Alpine Club was one of the first things on my to-do-list.
I do not suppose many of our readers will be familiar with arcane mountaineering terminology, so a bit of a background: the Alpine Club is the oldest mountaineering club in the world, founded in 1857 to facilitate access and exploration of the mountains of the world. Since its inception, its members have been the leading mountaineers and explorers of their generations, including household names such as George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to attempt to climb Qomolangma (Mount Everest) in 1921, 1922, and 1924. Today, the Alpine Club is based in Shoreditch, London, and houses one of the most extensive collections of mountaineering literature in the world: over 30 thousand books, magazines, photos, and other archival material. Truly an exciting place for a budding climber-turned-librarian.
To organise the visit, I reached out to Nigel Buckley, Assistant Librarian at Balliol College (my DPhil home) and the former Librarian of the Alpine Club. Nigel very kindly agreed to travel with me to London to show me around on a particularly sunny November Tuesday.
Upon our arrival to the hip borough of Shoreditch, the first of our two stops was the Library itself. Full of excitement, I foolishly did not take many photos, so my description will have to do. The Library, located in the first floor of the club house, is a small room with a handful of reading spaces, full up to a brim with all kinds of mountaineering literature: guidebooks, maps, biographies, historical accounts of climbing, or magazines. I even spotted the issues of Oxford Mountaineering Journal that I edited! After some time ogling at the shelves, Nigel showed me the digital catalogue that he created during his appointment using the free library management software called Koha.
The second stop – the basement – proved to be even more exciting than the Library. It houses all kinds of material, from journals, outdated climbing guidebooks, and historic collections, to paintings, photographs, and all sort of mountaineering paraphernalia. Ice axes, ropes, compasses, tents, you name it. At one point, Nigel opened a random drawer, and there was a pair of solid leather mountain boots!
What were some of my favourite objects? I fell in love with ice axe that used to belong to Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986), a pioneer British female climber who established many routes in Wales as well as further afield in the Alps. Although hundred years old, this tool seemed much lighter and sleeker than my own modern ice axe, and it has probably seen more action in the mountains as well.
I also want to mention a couple of illustrations. The 19th-century edition of Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps made me excited for its excellent illustrations and lovely Victorian binding. Whymper (1840-1911), the first ascensionist of Matterhorn in 1865, was an engraver before he was a mountaineer, and his illustrations are an absolute joy. Furthermore, I loved the book plate of The Ladies Alpine Club (founded in 1907 and merged with the Alpine Club in 1975) which seems to capture the spirit of mountaineering very well.
There are many more books, paintings, and objects that Nigel showed me that day, but these should be enough to showcase the atmosphere of the library and the collection. We eventually made our way back upstairs to see the archives, and then moved towards the bar to finish our tour off with a pint. There was a lecture planned that evening – the cutting-edge British mountaineer Tom Livingstone spoke about his latest ascents in the Himalayas – so we stayed in London until about 10pm before catching the train back to Oxford.
I have enjoyed the visit tremendously, and I encourage you to make use of the Alpine Club collections if you are in the slightest interested in mountaineering and climbing. Many thanks, of course, go to Nigel Buckley for taking the time to show me around and chat about librarianship and mountaineering.
From reading rooms that smell of Rich Tea biscuits to practising calligraphy and visiting the fascinating Tutankhamun exhibition, the Library Lates at the Weston Library have been among the highlights of the first Michaelmas term working in Oxford for myself and previous and current trainees. The Library Lates took place in the evening between 7.00pm and 9.30pm and featured free talks, drop-in activities and exciting performances.
The first Library Late took place in October and showcased the delightful Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston. It began with a guided tour of the exhibition by one of the curators, who spoke about the aims of the exhibition: to highlight different ways in which readers engage and interact with books using senses such as sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and proprioception. Books on display included illuminated manuscripts, pop-up books, very large and very small books that need to be moved with extreme care, books made from fruit and vegetables, the ‘cheese book’ (a book kept permanently in a fridge and made entirely of cheese slices, as the name suggests!), along with many more interesting and unusual items.
I was very much intrigued by the collection of bottled scents available for visitors to smell. Each one captured the aroma of certain books in the Bodleian Library’s vast collection, or the smell of certain readings rooms. For instance, the Duke Humphreys Library, I can now testify, smells of Rich Tea biscuits.
Following the tour, we had the opportunity to engage with a number of activities set up in the Blackwell Hall. These included embossing our initials in a Gothic font, attempting calligraphy, speaking with members of Bodleian Conservation and learning a bit more about the work they do. Along with other trainees, I found myself gravitating towards the Guide Dogs and then the printing press, where we had the exciting opportunity to create our own little prints which we proudly took home. We also had the chance to choose and take home a flip book – artwork commissioned by Oxford for the Sensational Books exhibition .
As well as activities, there were also several short lectures that visitors were invited and encouraged to attend. Topics ranged from the creation of multisensory books to the use of smells to support children’s engagement with books and their stories, as well as unusual books (including a presentation on a book covered in mushroom spores!) and what this means for libraries and conservators.
Excavating the Egyptians:
The second Library Late took place in mid-November (100 years since Howard Carter and his team discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb) and celebrated the wonderful exhibition: Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive, which is still on at the Weston. A wide range of performances, presentations and activities awaited us in the Blackwell Hall. From watching screenings of an artist’s work, listening to analyses of Carter’s diaries, writing our names in hieroglyphs, playing ancient Egyptian board games in the Weston café, to being inspired by images of the golden Shrine to Nekhbet in order to create and emboss our own foil decorations, we trainees had an enjoyable and entertaining evening at the Weston.
I highly recommend visiting the wonderful (and free) Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive exhibition, which is running until the 5th of February next year. Items on display include photographs and annotated drawings of the archaeological discoveries made during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as pages from the diary Carter kept in 1922. Nearer to the end of the exhibition there was a short video which used records from archives to show what the tomb must have looked like originally in 1922 when it was first discovered.
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.
In the middle of a mild October, myself and some of my fellow trainees attended a tour of the libraries at St Edmund Hall (SEH). This visit was prompted by their exhibition of ‘Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ and also, admittedly, curiosity to see how another college organised their libraries.
When I reached out to the library team at SEH about visiting the exhibition, they very kindly offered to talk us through not just the exhibition, but also give us a behind the scenes of the Hall and its libraries (and medieval crypt! Result!)
Curated by Dr Catherine Batt, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds, the Crossley-Holland exhibition was first shown at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. Since this debut it has made its way to Oxford and, more specifically, the Old Library at SEH.
Crossley-Holland studied English at SEH and is a ‘prize-winning children’s author, translator, poet, librettist, editor and professor’. I was familiar with his Arthur books from reading them as a child. These absorbing stories intertwine Arthurian legend with the story of a boy living at the turn of the 13th century who sees these myths unfolding in a lump of obsidian. It could be fair to say that these books (along with the BBC’s Merlin, of course) sealed my fate with regards to my un-wandering obsession with the knight-errant.
Crossley-Holland is an honorary fellow at SEH so it seems fitting that an exhibition charting his explorations of language, place and legend would be held there, possibly where his love for all things Arthurian began.
On the day of the tour, we learnt that the library collection at SEH began under the crafty eye of Dr Thomas Tullie, who was the principal of the Hall from 1658 – 1676. He introduced a tradition by which departing students would gift the Hall with a book or silver plate worth £5. That was no small fee in those days – £5 would be what a skilled labourer would earn in 71 days!. These rather substantial tokens of gratitude for lessons learned at SEH shaped the collection that still survives to this day.
Before Tullie’s scheme, the Hall (the first documented reference to which dates to 1317) had existed for many years without a library, but on our visit to SEH we were treated to tours of not one but two libraries, and I feel as though their addition can only have changed the Hall for the better.
The Old Library
The first stop on our tour was the Old Library – this is where the books that were gradually gifted by students as they left the Hall from the 1680s found their first home.
The books in this library cover a range of subjects and serve as a window into the tastes and tilts of the Hall’s attendees across its history. Upon our visit, yet another window into the Hall’s more recent history was open to us.
The ‘Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ exhibition tracks the works of Crossley Holland chronologically, beginning at one end of the Old Library with books containing the Old English texts and fragments he would have studied as a student, and ending with his most recent publications. This journey through literary history and Crossley-Holland’s own academic ventures ducks and dives in and out of rabbit holes of a creative’s endless fascinations – we see explorations into photography, fiction, poetry, translation…
The closest end of the table upon entering the Old Library was laden with what felt like a crash course in Old English. I felt transported back to the beginning of my own degree in English Language and Literature, with manuscripts holding translations of Cædmon’s Hymn and many versions of Beowulf, including a translation by Crossley-Holland himself. It felt like watching the new iterations of inspiration from texts that have moved readers, writers, artists and students for hundreds of years literally spill out of these works as you moved through the room and exhibition.
Prior to starting at Christ Church as a library graduate trainee I spent some time working in a gallery. I am really interested in how the space an exhibition is displayed in influences and informs the work and the way it’s experienced. At the Old Library at SEH you spiral up a narrow staircase to a room filled with dark wood, grated bookshelves and warm light – the exhibition is just asking to be poured over.
One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was the artworks that Crossley Holland has commissioned over the course of his career to compliment his work. Hung from the grating on the shelves, these images ranged from intricate prints to expressive illustrations.
Here are a couple of my favourites:
This piece is titled ‘Malory’ and is a lino print by Edward Bawden: bold, with a particularly playful depiction of chainmail, though a rather violent depiction of everything else…. Bawden and Crossley Holland worked together on Chronicles of King Arthur.
Hannah Firmin’s pieces in Axe-Age, Wolf-Age particularly charmed me. Plus, the brightly coloured block prints in this selection of Morse Myths make for a lovely contrast to the bold black and white of Bawden’s lino prints.
Towards the more joyfully bizarre end of the Oxford libraries spectrum we have SEH’s working library – housed in a 12th century church, St Peter-in-the-East. The church was deconsecrated in 1970, but readers in this library still work above a medieval crypt – one wonders if there is a notable influence on student’s work from such proximity…
The approach to the library is a pathway through a graveyard – a rather maudlin approach to a study session, perhaps. (If you want to become better acquainted with those lining such an expedition, SEH’s website has transcriptions of the names on the gravestones). Once in the library and weaving through student desks, our guide pointed out gorgeous tiling decorated with angels – hiding, slightly shyly, behind a row of German dictionaries. Stained glass splashes the working space with colour and a stone tomb stands in line with a study desk. The bronze plates that adorn its surface were apparently pilfered from another tomb – the features of a different family are thought to be engraved on the other side!
All the accoutrements of a church used as a place of worship until 1965 brush shoulders with the conveniences of a modern library here, and the effect is distinctly unique. Slinking through the stacks in this library feels like embarking on a treasure hunt – can you spot all the signs of hundreds of years of history?
I’d like to finish this post by thanking the lovely library team at SEH who very kindly showed us around and shared the fascinating history of the Hall and its libraries with us – we had a wonderful time!