As part of the Library Graduate Trainee Scheme here in Oxford, we trainees take part in weekly sessions covering a variety of aspects of work in the library and information sector. This year the sessions have been conducted remotely over Teams, and so far have included topics such as reader services, working safely, resource discovery and supporting disabled readers.
A few weeks ago, we took part in two back-to-back one-hour sessions, with the first focusing on conservation and collection care and the second on special collections. I found both sessions so interesting that I thought it would be worth writing a short post about just some of the things the conservators and collection keepers at the Bodleian Libraries get up to.
First, we were given an overview of the Bodleian Libraries’ conservation work, including the different drivers behind collection projects and the three areas within which the conservation teams operate: paper conservation, book conservation, and preventive conservation.
Next, one of the preventive conservators talked us through a little of what their work entails, including IPM (Integrated Pest Management, to keep an eye on those sneaky insects who like books as much as we do), the environmental monitoring used to maintain stable conditions in libraries such as Duke Humfrey’s Library, and, finally, some of the more peculiar conservation challenges the team has faced over the years – including how to preserve a book made of mushrooms!
Then it was time to head over to the conservation workshop. In previous years, trainees visited the workshop at the Weston Library in person. This year, the workshop held their first ever virtual tour, delivered via tablet video call. The workshop itself is a large, airy, open-plan space, and we were shown around and introduced to several of the conservators and some of their current projects. (Did you know that you can use enzymes to separate pages? I definitely didn’t!)
After a short break, we “visited” the Special Collections, and had a “show and tell” of some of the more eclectic items held by the Weston Library, including a book of processed cheese (another left-field challenge for the preventive conservation team!).
Even though we were unable to visit the Weston Library in person, it was still a real privilege to be introduced to this side of the Bodleian Libraries and to get a flavor of the kind of expertise and care that goes into curating and taking care of its vast collections. A big thank you to everyone who made it possible!
(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 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!
(The following is part two 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.)
After a busy morning of exhibitions and talks, and an insightful afternoon of visits, the delegation returned to the conference centre for the final few sessions of the day. Our story of events picks up again with Emmy, Graduate Library Trainee at Lady Margaret Hall, and her reflections on the Library Exhibitions On A Budget Session:
‘When we had returned from our lunchtime visits (and of course had a break for tea and plenty of cake) it was time for another breakout session. This time the trainees were spread between the different rooms. I had signed up for a session on how to produce library exhibitions on a budget, led byVictoria Stevens.
As an accredited library and archives conservator, Victoria had lots of experience to share with us! Some of her tips included:
Make your own book cradles andVivakleaflet stands.
Think about what story the objects tell, and don’t squash too many of them into your arrangement.
If you do have some money to invest, consider purchasing alight logger.
Watching practical demonstrations and handling samples of display materials helped me to understand how these can be custom made in the library, as long as we are careful to chooseconservation-grade materials. As I am a trainee at a college library, I am lucky enough to work with our small but interesting collection ofrare books, so I am excited to try out some of these ideas back at the library.’
In a separate seminar room, Rowan, the trainee at St John’s College, Cambridge, was attending the session ‘Speed Dating with Special Collections’. Co-hosted by colleagues from both universities, the session touched upon the strengths and weaknesses of different outreach strategies in raising the profile of special collections:
‘Julia Walworth, of Merton College, Oxford and Anne McLaughin of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge ran a session which allowed participants to all get involved discussing the pros and cons of different special collections outreach strategies. Online initiatives were popular, with many libraries making use of social media to highlight a particular item each month. However, it was raised that the main followers of library Twitter accounts are often other libraries, meaning that other options need to be utilised to engage a variety audiences. Such strategies, it was suggested, could include regular exhibitions and open days as well as practical workshops. The collaborative nature of the session meant we could learn of strategies that involve those less likely to already be accessing special collections. For example, inviting school groups to use the collections within their curriculum allows early engagement with historical materials, well before university. With all outreach strategies, there is a good deal of planning and preparation that goes into the finished strategy, and this has to be taken into account when deciding what will work best for each library. However, it pays off in the end.’
Meanwhile, Isobel of Queens’ College, Cambridge, had chosen to join the breakout session about fundraising for special collections. Lead by Naomi Tiley, the session helped to elucidate some of the issues inherent in fundraising projects. It also proved a useful introduction to the afternoon plenary session, which considered in detail Balliol College’s Wellcome Trust funded project to reclassify a collection of early modern texts, collated and bequeathed by Nicholas Crouch:
‘I attended two sessions on the topic of fundraising for special collections – a common necessity for many Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The first was a breakout session, run by Naomi Tiley of Balliol College, Oxford, where attendees were encouraged to share their experiences of fundraising, and offer observations and advice for future projects. As a topic outside of my direct experience to date, but very much in line with my personal career aspirations in rare books librarianship, I found the session extremely interesting and informative. It was especially useful to learn about potential funding bodies and application processes within the practical context of real-life projects and planned funding applications.
Following the breakout session, we returned to the main lecture theatre for the final plenary session of the conference. Focusing once again on fundraising for special collections, the presentation explored a case study undertaken by Balliol College, Oxford in conjunction with theWellcome Trust. Naomi Tiley and James Howarth (Balliol College andSt Edmund Hall, Oxford) were engaging speakers; incorporating question-and-answer based dialogues as they took us step by step through their project to secure funding for cataloguing theNicholas Crouch collection. The session was particularly informative about not only fundraising, but also both in-house and outreach opportunities that can evolve from special collections cataloguing and subsequent improved accessibility.’
As the day’s business drew to a close, all the trainees agreed that the conference had been a thoroughly inspiring day of talks, visits and networking. We all gathered a tremendous amount of practical information from the sessions we attended and took away many new ideas to implement in our current libraries and in the future. As trainees, being able to meet and hear from so many professionals in the field was hugely valuable (as was sharing our library experiences with fellow trainees from ‘the other place’!). Our only regret was that we couldn’t attend all of the breakout sessions, because they all sounded brilliant! Those of us attending as the official delegate for our respective libraries certainly had plenty to report back to our colleagues.
On behalf of us all, thank you very much to Worcester College for hosting, to all the conference speakers and sponsors, and to the organisers — Liz Kay (Brasenose), Emma Sillett (Christ Church), Diana Hackett (Nuffield), Eleanor Kelly (St. Hilda’s) and Marina Sotiriou (Lincoln).
Amy Douglas – St Hugh’s College, Oxford
Isobel Goodman – Queens’ College, Cambridge
Emmy Ingle – Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Ross Jones – Bodleian History Faculty Library and Radcliffe Camera
Hello, I’m Emmy and I’m the current graduate trainee at Lady Margaret Hall Library, one of the college libraries. For my first post, I thought I’d give an introduction to how our library and its unique personality fit into the 100+ Oxford libraries. I’ll also tell you a bit about my own interests and experiences within libraries and information, which are a little different from an academic library.
‘Filled with volumes of every kind, handsomely bound without, and full of useful learning within…’
…is how an early student described the original LMH library. It’s large for a college library, and there is a historical reason for this. LMH was founded in 1878 to allow women to study at the university; previously, colleges only admitted men. Early LMH students were heavily discouraged from visiting the Bodleian Library (where they might encounter boys!) and consequently they relied on a comprehensively stocked college library. One of the things I like about the college is how they continue their history of access and inclusivity, for example through the Foundation Year programme.
This slightly larger collection includes a rare books room (having lived surrounded by the history of the Pendle Witches for the last few years, I’m excited to meet the witchcraft books). However, we’re still smaller than the faculty libraries, and being part of a small team means I get to do a bit of everything – from the expected (turning the photocopier off and on again) to the more surprising (competing on the library’s Giant Jenga team and definitely not cheating).
So how did I end up here? Saturday afternoons spent helping out at my local Sue Ryder shop were my introduction to systematising written materials: sipping tea in the stock room, I’d sort bin bags of dusty-smelling books into alphabetised piles. Later, I became interested in the information side of things. Between university lectures I volunteered with the student charity Sexpression:UK, who facilitate workshops in schools around PSHE topics. This made me reflect on where the young people I was working with sourced knowledge and information, and how they were (or weren’t) being encouraged to evaluate it.
Having developed this interest in information in health contexts, I looked for some work experience with Library and Knowledge Services at my local NHS trust. Besides trying out shelving, the label machine, and other more traditional library activities, a clinical setting presents more unusual opportunities. I found myself testing wet-wipes with nurses, learning my way around a forest plot, and listing as many synonyms as I could find for ‘hip operation’. Healthcare knowledge and information is an area I’m hoping to become involved in following the traineeship, so I’ll probably talk a bit more about what this entails in another post.
Having looked at the past and the future, I’ll leave you with what’s currently going on in the library at this time of year. Students are about to resume their studies. This means there are inductions to prepare (which may involve jelly beans and our resident skeleton, Freddy) and the latest textbooks to process. Meanwhile, the library pages in my notebook are already filling up with events, meetings and scribbled ideas. I’m looking forward to sharing them on here as they happen.
Hi, I’m Bryony and I am the graduate trainee based at the English Faculty Library this year. I have just finished my MA in Classics & Ancient History at Durham University, where I have been based on and off since 2013 – living down south again has taken some getting used to! While at Durham I spent some time volunteering in the Classics Department Library, but other than that I am very new to the world of Librarianship.
Myself alongside our lovely bust of Tolkien – at the EFL we very much embrace hobbit dining culture… elevenses and afternoon tea breaks are very much encouraged!
The English Faculty Library can be found in the St. Cross Building on the corner of Manor Road. It shares the building with the Bodleian Law Library, and is also just around the corner from The Social Science Library so I can wave to my fellow trainees there on my way in to work. The English Faculty Library was founded in 1914 and functions primarily to serve all those reading and teaching English at Oxford, alongside other readers needing to access the collections held here. The Library holds over 110,000 volumes and subscribes to around 80 current print journals. The collection is catalogued on SOLO, and the majority of the books, except for those in our special collections, are available for loan to registered borrowers. Our special collections consist of the Wilfred Owen Collection, Pre – 1850 Collection, the Napier Collection, the Icelandic Collections, and the Meyerstein Collection.
Two of my favourite items so far in our special collections – an 1895 William Morris edition of Beowulf and our copy of The Elizabethan Zoo: A book of Beasts both Fabulous and Authentic.
So far no one day has been the same here. My duties range from staffing the issue desk, processing new books, processing new DVDs, periodicals management, managing and processing BSF material, banking, PCAS maintenance, creating displays, finding missing books, handling the post, social media (follow us on Instagram: @EFLOXF …. apologies for the shameless plug), shelving, minor book repairs and attending training sessions with the other trainees. The variety of tasks and jobs certainly keeps me on my toes, there is never a dull moment here that’s for sure.
Some books recently sent to repair that were subjected to my version of spinal surgery….
Although I am still only a few weeks in I already feel at home here at the EFL. Everyone here has been so welcoming and helpful, I can’t wait for what the rest of this year has in store.
More than a month into my time at the Sackler, I am still discovering obscure but delightful aspects of its collections. One of my newly-acquired responsibilities is to fetch items from the closed stack areas of the library. Readers can consult these special collections items in a dedicated corner of the ground floor under the watchful eye of the desk staff, as these books are often old/rare/generally difficult and expensive to replace. These fascinating resources and gems from times gone by are kept in a variety of hidden places around the library.
One of these repositories is the Rare Books Room. Here a multitude of old volumes are kept under lock and key (read: sophisticated modern alarm system) in rolling stacks.
Items in the Rare Books Room include:
folios and books containing accounts and drawings by 19th-century travellers to sites of interest such as those in Egypt;
accounts of famous archaeological excavations, such as Arthur Evans’ excavation of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, some of which used to belong to the Ashmolean Museum Library collection;
drawings of artefactsheld at the British Museum in its early days.
Curious visitors to the Sackler Library may have noticed an intriguing room set back from the edge of the main reading room on floor 1 called the Wind Room. Though this may sound like a reference to something classical or elemental, it is actually named after Edgar Marcel Wind. Wind was a German academic who became Oxford’s first Art History professor in 1955, after a stint as a lecturer at All Souls. More information about Wind and his time at Oxford can be found here . The Wind Room itself mostly contains books about western art printed between 1500-1900. Because of their age, the books are treated as special/rare books, and are locked inside caged shelves that I think are actually rather attractive.
There is also an Archives Room containing archives of various Classicists and archaeologists, along with MPhil and DPhil theses, and miscellaneous pamphlets. I’ve only been in that room twice ever, and I suspect there is more to be uncovered during future visits!
The Sackler Library also houses a major research centre for Egyptology, including papyrology , and the work being done here warrants its own blog post (or even entire blog), so watch this space…
Hello, I’m Connie, and I’m the trainee for 2016-17 at St John’s College Library.
I’ve been working at St John’s since August. Back then, the library was closed to students for the summer vacation and I became introduced to the library through the annual stock check. This meant I very quickly familiarised myself with the layout of the library which was particularly helpful as one of my first projects was to create a guide to the library for new students, and once term started, I needed to be able to help users with their enquiries.
The entrance to the Laudian Library
In the run-up to term, the library received reading lists from various departments and some large donations of books from retiring fellows. One of my jobs was to check titles against SOLO and then process the new books, from classification (using the college’s unique, home-grown system) through to shelving via holdings, bookplates, stamps, stickers and plastic covers.
At St John’s I’ve also had the opportunity to work with the library’s special collections, such as preparing materials for exhibitions, writing about specific items for the Special Collections blog, and assisting the librarian in photographing some of the library’s most precious items for the website. The Special Collections at St John’s include
A plate showing lions in MS61, York Bestiary (13th century)
early printed books …
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton printing (c. 1483)
and notable individuals’ papers…
A letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Anna. (1814)
It is currently a time of change in the library as an extension is under construction; the new Study Centre is set to open in the next academic year. Lots of aspects of the library are subject to change before the construction is finished and the related conversations surrounding the practicalities of the move are particularly interesting for someone new to the world of libraries.
I came into the traineeship almost immediately after graduating from Durham University where I studied English Literature. This was a quick turnaround from full-time study to full-time work, and my previous experience of working in a library was solely through volunteering opportunities: regularly volunteering at the Bill Bryson university library at Durham, and undertaking a brief spell of work experience at Leeds College of Music’s library.
As for the rest of the year, I’m looking forward to further training and visits to libraries with the other Oxford trainees as well as getting to know more about the collections here at St John’s.
We Oxford Library Trainees are a lucky bunch. We have had many interesting and useful training sessions and tours over the last nine months, but few were as remarkable as our trip to the Weston Library.
We met in Blackwell Hall, the Weston Library’s new public space, and were led up to the Conservation Studio. There we were shown a few of the Bodleian’s treasures and taken through how the team of expert conservators assess, repair and conserve our special collections. Highlights included a 9th Century book of Canon Tables and two 17th Century Chinese hanging scrolls, the Maps of the Heavens and the Earth.
It is no exaggeration to say that these were awe-inspiring. The fact that Bodleian Libraries has a world-class team working on priceless objects underscores just how special this library system is. We came away speculating about a career change, but these conservators have decades of training and experience under their belts. To see what they get up to, you can follow them on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/bodleianconservation/.
We were then taken to a seminar room for a meeting with Dr Martin Kauffmann, Head of Early and Rare Collections and Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts. Martin showed us three objects from the Bodleian’s collections to illustrate different ways in which historical collections are valuable. The highlight was a 1217 copy of the Magna Carta, one of three copies from that year held by the Bodleian.
The Magna Carta is even more Magna up close
We finished the day with a tour which included going onto the roof of the library, from where we could gaze out over Oxford’s famous spires.
The Trainees bask in the Oxford sun. I think there was a sun up there somewhere.
Thanks to all who welcomed and shared their work with us. It was a really special afternoon.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This week, we had a Monday morning treat in the form of our first trainee-led library tour. Joanne welcomed us into St John’s with a bit of historical background, describing the college’s foundation by a wealthy Merchant Taylor and its staunch loyalty to the Royalist cause during the Civil Wars. In fact, finding images of King Charles I in and around the library took on a distinctly Where’s Wally feel after a while!
We were welcomed in and asked to stow our bags safely behind the desk: in contrast to most of the reading rooms we saw on the Bod tour, the librarians are the main form of book detectors here. Then it was onwards into the Paddy Room, a light and spacious area with open shelves holding the library’s science, social sciences and DVD collections.
Upstairs provided a striking change of scene with the Old Library, complete with a laser security system (which Joanne managed to disable for us with her secret library ninja ways). One of the other librarians, Stewart Tiley, then treated us to a hands-on display of some of the manuscripts and early printed books. These works were passed around very gingerly! As we walked through we took in some of the display on the Seven Deadly Sins organised by Joanne’s predecessor; who knew Jane Austen would be one of the guilty party?
We then passed into the Laudian Library, named after Charles I’s archbishop. As well as holding modern humanities works and providing an atmospheric workspace for readers, this room housed yet more special collections.
We saw a botched piece of royal propaganda, a tiny New Testament written in indecipherable shorthand and a Renaissance horoscope. Some of the more bizarre curios included a macabre walking stick used by Laud right up until his execution, while Stewart suggested the reinstatement of the skeletons which used to flank the door. And to keep up the Charles I quota, there was an image of the king composed of a psalm in miniscule handwriting.
Finally, we got to take a peek into the archives, which offered a mix of the modern and the unique. St John’s is very lucky to hold collections of papers previously belonging to Robert Graves and Spike Milligan. What better way to finish a visit by looking at the Milligan’s illustration of Fluffybum the cat?