Connie Bettison, St John’s College Library

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.

img_7063The 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.

Tour of the Weston Library, Conservation and Special Collections – Tom Dale

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.

Broad Street, Oxford photographer, Oxford University, Weston library,,
Broad Street, Oxford photographer, Oxford University, Weston library,,


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

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.

Magna Carta1

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.

Engaging with Digitisation.

By Duncan Jones, Hannah Hickman and Sarah Arkle

The world we live in is changing or, really, has changed because of the internet. This has had an astounding impact on libraries, from the advent of online catalogues (although the EFL still have their card catalogue from 1989 if you want to get really old school) right the way through to having fully digitised resources like e-journals, e-books and digitised manuscripts. As a result, libraries have had to adapt to these changes in order to keep up with the demand for easy and instantaneous access to content that the internet has afforded us all.

Aquiles Alencar-Brayner from the British Library visited Oxford last week to talk about ‘Widening Access to Collections and Services’, giving examples of digital projects the British Library has embarked upon using their vast collections. The opportunity to expand access and facilitate collaborative research were two of the key driving factors behind the British Library’s digitisation work — two motivations that run through the Bodleian’s digital work as well. This was an interesting experience for the trainees in attendance, as we had recently had a session with some of the Bodleian Digital Library Systems & Services (BDLSS) team regarding E-Developments within the Bodleian Libraries.

Getting down and digital at the Bodleian Libraries  

In our acronym-filled E-Developments training session a few weeks ago, we were talked through a number of different projects, including the Digital Manuscript Toolkit, EEBO-TCP, and Sprint for Shakespeare, by some of the team from the BDLSS.

The Digital Manuscript Toolkit (DMT for short) project aims to create new ways to use digital manuscripts; instead of having a static catalogue of images to simply look at, the intention is to build a programme that would allow the manuscripts to be used, developed, and repurposed. The DMT looks to be an incredibly exciting and rich way to approach digitised material – we were given a run-through of some of the ways it hopes to compare different editions of the same text or different manuscripts from the same workshop, or to bring together dispersed or fragmented manuscripts across international collections, or change the sequences of the leaves… Importantly, the DMT project will involve its users from the beginning, offering mini-grants to scholars to discover the desiderata before developing functionality. The toolkit works to the standard of the International Image Interoperability Framework which promotes access to digital resources through the use of Linked Data to share information across collections. Another project focused on the digitisation of more recent, ephemeral material, is the John Johnson Archive. Again, the delivery focused on the users, with the ability to create a lightbox allowing you to store images in a personal collection, but the site also has a curated side, with six themes drawn out from the items ranging from “popular print” to “crimes, murders, and executions”. The accompanying blogs are here and well worth reading.

 Not part of the DMT project, but from a Bodleian manuscript (Bodley 764). From the BodLibs Pinterest page

Not part of the DMT project, but from a Bodleian manuscript (Bodley 764). From the BodLibs Pinterest page

EEBO-TCP (or Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership) is a joint venture between the University of Oxford, University of Michigan, and ProQuest, which aims to produce a fully transcribed and searchable database of every unique title in the English language early modern corpus, using TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) guidelines to tag certain structural features: stage directions, epilogues, letters, and so on. It’s kind of a mind-blowingly huge project – especially since OCR (Optical Character Recognition) could not be used due to the variation and complexity of the texts, so only human transcribers could be used — and will have a huge impact on the use value of an already highly used resource. The first phase of texts (a whopping 25,363 of them) will become freely available to the public as of January 2015.

Sprint for Shakespeare was a 2013 crowdsourcing project to find money to fund the digitisation of an unused First Folio. Unused?, I hear you cry. Well, unstudied. The First Folio in this case is the only Folio extant with its original binding – which is so fragile that it cannot be given to readers or even sent to conservation. So, the target of Sprint for Shakespeare was to raise enough money to digitise the text and make it accessible online in order for it to get the scholarly attention it deserves — and they managed it. The digitisation itself was publicly funded, and the release of the corresponded full text funded privately. you can check it out here. As for Pip’s ‘Elephant’ – that is a pun that would lose its comedy in the explanation. But trust me, it’s solid library humour.

Imaging technology in use -- not an instrument of torture (from Sprint for Shakespeare)
Imaging technology in use — not an instrument of torture (from Sprint for Shakespeare)

What the British Library did next…

In comparison to this, although the British Library projects were about encouraging collaborative research, it was not necessarily with such an academic thrust. Where the Bodleian E-Developments were very much working toward improving scholarly research opportunities, the British Library’s projects seemed more focused on creating and encouraging collaborative research communities without an obvious agenda for the participants they crowdsourced.  With one project, they released maps on Twitter to be Georeferenced by anybody who wanted to be involved – in less than a week the maps were complete.  Crowdsourcing is fast becoming a solid means of making things happen and it’s amazing to see how many volunteers you can get for digitisation projects if you merely ask.  Another successful use of crowdsourcing was for the British Library’s Europeana 1914-1918 exhibition, where people brought their own untold stories of wartime to life through artefacts, letters and other ephemera which the British Library have turned into a digital collection.

Another really quite delightful project is the Mechanical Curator, which uses a code to find images from early modern British Library holdings at random and posts them online with metadata to contextualise exactly what it is the ‘curator’ has decided to spit up at us.  There is no obvious scholarly agenda behind this website. It’s a tumblr site – hardly something to be referenced in an academic context – but it reaches out and brings libraries forward into the 21st century by connecting with a new generation of potential library users – the all tweeting tumblr- pinterest-post-myspace generation who might learn something interesting from following something like the curator online.  This is something that is really great to see an institution such as the British Library working on, because it really shows the value that libraries still maintain in society, and it’s also just very impressive in terms of innovation.  The Mechanical Curator may seem gimmicky to some, but it’s improving access to collections that people will otherwise never be able to see – a share here, retweet there and before you know it, more people have seen a digitisation of an image from an 18th Century book in 24 hours than have seen it in real life in 10 years, hypothetically.  An interesting side effect of this sort of crowdsourcing is the curation which users undertake themselves when they assign tags in order to group relevant images together.  In this way, digital collections spring up and increase the opportunities for discovery and exploration.

An image from the Mechanical Curator - Not an acceptable way to treat a book! (
An image from the Mechanical Curator – Not an acceptable way to treat a book!

Back to the Bod – the innovative use of Crowdsourcing to widen access to collections. 

The Bodleian are also utilising crowdsourcing as a tool to widen access to collections, which is actually very much in sync with what the British Library projects are trying to achieve. Using the ‘citizen science web portal’ known as Zooniverse, the Bodleian has been finding volunteers to help transcribe their vast collection of music scores to make them more accessible – publicly. 38, 127 sheets of music have been transcribed so far, which amounts to 44% of the collection.

Where do we go from here? Issues with digital-born content and the future….

However, when working with digital content, certain issues do arise that are not so evident with physical items. One of the topics which Aquiles raised during his talk was the challenge that information services face in handling so called ‘digital-born’ content in an archival context. Historically, a writer’s papers might contain multiple drafts of a piece with opportunities for a scholar interested in analysing the creative process.  Word selections and alterations could be seen in scored out lines, with arrows denoting the rearrangement of sentences or paragraphs.  A copy of this digital document would only show the polished product and not the processes of collaborative revision (although perhaps Google has all of that filed away somewhere?).  That sort of data can be extracted from computers using forensic software but there are privacy implications in its analysis.

Furthermore, it is easy to imagine that websites and digital data have a sort of timeless permanence on the internet but this is not the case.  Hosting all of this data requires physical computer servers and the reality is that something like 75% of web pages are deleted within a year of creation.  Many others will alter hugely in style and content over that time period.  The Internet Archive is a project which takes snapshots of any and every web-page at set intervals and offers, amongst other things, opportunities to see how media coverage changes on a day by day basis around a significant event or simply to access material on a site which is no longer actively hosted.  The Bodleian has a focused project called the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive which is concerned with archiving the University’s pages and also anything that could be considered useful to research.  These sorts of projects and technologies are really still in their infancy with little idea of their usefulness in later research.  It would be interesting to know if future generations consider that we have succeeded in preserving records of our digital lives.

It’s really great to be given the opportunity to learn about these projects and see that the work that academic libraries do is not always with the view of keeping things locked away strictly for those privileged enough to go to university. There appears to be one goal underpinning all these projects, and that’s access – making information freely available to as many people as possible, utilising as many people as possible to do this along the way, connecting people, collections and information, creating a huge research community, and kind of just making the world a better place as a result. Moreover, from a career perspective it is also very interesting as few of this year’s trainees can really remember a time when they didn’t have access to the internet. it is therefore easy enough to feel like we live in a society where we can’t really go that much further with digital developments, but this is far from the case, and it is an exciting time to be coming into librarianship as a career as there’s no real certainty regarding where we can go in the future – the possibilities may well be endless.

More information…

Listen to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner’s talk for yourself here

More about digitisation at the British Library

BDLSS website – general enquiries to

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

Curating a Special Collections exhibition on the theme of war

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

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

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

The exhibition poster and handlist cover picture

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

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

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

Promotion of the exhibition in the College events flyer

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

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

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

Visit to Trinity College Library, Cambridge

On a gloriously sunny Saturday a group of trainees ventured to the Other Place to meet with our Cambridge counterparts and have a nose around their libraries. After a lovely cup of tea, our first visit was to Trinity College, where Harriet Hale, the current trainee, showed us round.

Trinity is the largest of the Cambridge colleges, founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Two existing colleges were combined to form Trinity: Michaelhouse (in existence since 1324) and King’s Hall (originally established by Edward II in 1317). It is stunningly beautiful – if I had been a student there, I’m not sure I would have ever managed to get much work done because I’d have been too busy gazing around in a gormless fashion!

The Wren Library (image from Trinity College Cambridge website:

The library can be found on two sides of one of the courts. The Wren Library is situated above the colonnades where Sir Isaac Newton (a member of the college) is said to have conducted experiments on the nature of echoes – quite a claim to fame. It was also interesting to hear how the colonnades were used as a hospital for wounded soldiers in World War 1 – we even got to see some photos showing the rows of beds along the corridors, with the courts simply blocked off by a temporary wall.

We headed first to the working library, which is spread over the Reading Room and Lower Library. Stocking books for all undergrad courses, it was full of hard-working students getting ready for Finals. All loans are issued at the desk by humans, and they have a large team of librarians to keep on top of this. As well as books and journals, there is a large selection of DVDs available to borrow, and it certainly seemed to be a very busy and popular library. We had a quick peek down in the Stacks as well, which were lovely and clean (something I’m not used to) and contained some rather unusual holdings: a collection of skeletons and even a couple of brains that students can borrow!

(Image taken by Lucy Woolhouse)
(Image taken by Lucy Woolhouse)

We then moved on to the ridiculously impressive Wren Library. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also designed much of the furniture within the library), it was completed in 1695, and is simply stunning. It contains the manuscripts and early printed books that made up the collection in 1820, along with other special collections, such as medieval manuscripts, a large section of Sir Isaac Newton’s own library and much more! On display was a First Folio, a beautiful map, some fascinating notebooks belonging to Newton, and A. A. Milne’s manuscript for Winnie the Pooh. A very grand stained-glass window at one end depicts the presentation of Newton to George III (with Francis Bacon looking on approvingly) and there is a rather fabulous marble sculpture of Byron, another alumnus, created by Thorvaldsen and originally intended for Westminster Abbey. However, due to his tendency towards scandalous behaviour, the Abbey refused to accept the statue and so he now gazes down on hard-working students and tourists alike. No sign of his pet bear though…

(Image taken by Lucy Woolhouse)
(Image taken by Lucy Woolhouse)

I really enjoyed the tour of Trinity’s libraries: it was great to see a beautiful example of a special collections library sitting alongside a bustling, working college library. I really liked the way the two were accessible to the college members, and how open the Wren was to non-University visitors – sharing a resource like that sets such a great example. The Union Library is of interest to a great many people from outside the Union, and I am always pleased when people are excited to come and visit it – fostering interest in any kind of library has got to be a good thing in the current climate!

Many thanks to Harriet and her colleagues for letting us invade.

Visit to the National Art Library

Although I am undertaking my traineeship at the Law Bod and am hugely enjoying it, my background is actually in Art History and, at the end of last term, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the National Art Library for a private tour and a chance to learn more about the profession of art librarianship.

The library is housed in the wonderful Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington and, having arrived in London a little early on a particularly chilly December morning, I wasted no time in scurrying into this magical place for a quick look around. Established in the 19th century, the collection – which spans over two thousand years and four different continents – is a treasure trove of inspiration and creativity: from fashion and textiles to glass and metalwork; prints, paintings, and photography to sculpture, ceramics, and furniture.

The V&A’s John Madjeski Garden – image courtesy of Edward Hill Photography, via the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

It’s an easy place in which to lose both yourself and your bearings – and I must admit that, in my search for the library entrance, I did spend quite a while wandering around the ironwork galleries in circles and puzzling over floorplans before realising that I was looking for stairs that didn’t actually exist. But I got there in the end, to be greeted by Assistant Librarian Sally Williams and a truly beautiful reading room.

Sally explained that the NAL is a public library that anyone can register to use by applying for a reader’s ticket. This is a straightforward process without the need for formal letters of recommendation or academic credentials (although certain items are restricted), meaning that the library has a reputation for being more friendly and approachable than others of its kind. The library’s welcoming attitude also attracts a wide variety of readers – from curators and academics, to arts professionals and collectors, to students and interested members of the general public.

Like the Law Library here at Oxford, the NAL is reference only – meaning that no books are permitted to leave the reading rooms. Most of the material is stored in closed stacks rather than on open display, and readers are required to order items for consultation either in advance of their visit using the online library catalogue, or on the day by filling out a paper request slip. With the exceptions of the Linder Bequest, Linder Archive and Linder Collection (three groups of material by and relating to Beatrix Potter), the Renier Collection of Children’s Literature, and a large number of other children’s books (all of which are kept in the Victoria & Albert Museum Archives at Blythe House in West London), everything is stored within the library itself and the staff carry out book collections every hour to retrieve requested items. Sally stressed that it can take up to 40 minutes to locate and deliver an item to a reader, so I think she felt a bit better when I told her it can take an entire day here!

The library’s holdings, which consist of over 1 million items, are split into two categories: the General Collection and Special Collections. The first of these spans a variety of formats – such as books, journals, magazines and electronic resources – and includes all key artistic areas covered by the V&A, as well as a broader range of Humanities-based material such as literary and historical works. Two particularly useful features for researchers are the large collections of auction and exhibition catalogues, which can help to provide vital background information regarding the provenance and historical context of specific items. Because the library’s acquisitions remit is so broad, it also holds a number of surprising things: for example, hundreds of back-editions of Vogue (useful for fashion students) and a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.  The Special Collections continue this broad coverage, and mostly contain items that require extra care for conservation reasons – such as manuscripts or elaborately bound books. For more information about the library’s collections, click here.

The National Art Library's main reading room - image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.
The National Art Library’s main reading room – image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

Making up one aspect of the V&A’s Word and Image Department (the largest section in the museum), the NAL also functions as the curatorial division for the art of the book. As such, its staff structure – made up of around 40 people – is split into two areas: Collections and Information Services. While the Collections team are concerned primarily with the display and conservation of the physical items themselves, the Information Services team are focused more on front-of-house matters such as reader enquiries and the library’s online presence.

Sally is based in the Information Services department, and a large part of her role includes giving tours and inductions like the one she was kind enough to give me. As part of my session Sally introduced me to Librarian Bernadette Archer, who is also part of the Information Services team and is responsible for tasks including the maintenance of the library’s website and intranet, alongside more specialised projects such as the digitisation of artists’ books. Talking to both Sally and Bernadette was extremely interesting, as my conversations with them highlighted two different views on the best route into art librarianship:

Sally originally trained in textile practice, before going on to work in a museum and obtaining an NVQ in curating. In exactly the same way I’ve done, she then decided to move from the museum sector to the library profession, which is how she came to her position at the NAL and is now being sponsored through an NVQ in Information Studies. Although Sally was quick to admit that hers has been a rather unconventional journey, she was very encouraging of the idea that it’s possible to get into art librarianship at a junior level before undertaking a postgraduate qualification.

Bernadette, however, took the more traditional route of gaining a Masters in librarianship prior to employment in the field and advised that, in her experience, art libraries value a postgraduate qualification from an accredited library school more highly than a background in the arts. I was hugely surprised to learn that, as far as Bernadette knew, none of the staff members at the NAL are trained in Art History!

So, all in all, I came away with a lot of positive guidance to consider. I have since joined the UK branch of the Art Libraries Society (ARLIS UK) in order to further my knowledge and current awareness of the field, as well as to receive information on job vacancies and events. I have also been researching City University’s MA in Information Studies in the Cultural Sector, which looks incredibly interesting and is definitely something I would like to consider in the future.*

Many thanks to Emma Sullivan and Tamsyn Prior from the Bodleian Staff Development team for helping me to arrange this visit, and to Sally Williams and Bernadette Archer at the NAL for sparing the time to tell me a bit about what they do.

*Edit 01/04/2014: Since writing this post I have been informed by City University that, unfortunately, the MA in Information Studies in the Cultural Sector is being discontinued.

St John’s College Library Tour

The Old Library

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?

The Laudian Library

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?

RBSCG Conference on Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession, September 2012

Over two months ago now, I attended a CILIP-organised Rare Books and Special Collections Group (RBSCG) Conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and at last I am writing a blog post about it!

The conference was entitled Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession; I attended the third and final day, when the focus was on what special collections can contribute to communities.  Perhaps the main attraction for me was the second talk of the morning, given by Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist, John Lewis.  (To all John Lewis lovers, I am sure it will be obvious why!)  Whilst she was approaching the importance of special collections from a very specific, corporate point of view, Faraday’s understanding of her own role within John Lewis was so relevant to libraries and the contemporary issues they are facing.  She described how she needs to justify her existence to the John Lewis Partnership, by demonstrating that her work can and does have an impact, as well as being relevant to the company’s overarching agenda.  For us, then, as future librarians, the key to making special collections – or indeed the regular library catalogue – work in times of recession is simply to find ways to make them work.  We must be able, and willing, to either see possibilities for the books and spaces over which we have guardianship, or create possibilities so that we can always justify their and our existence.  The answer won’t always be the same in every situation, and perhaps this is where the true variety and enjoyment of librarianship lies.

Neil MacInnes, Head of Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Library, began the morning’s talks, explaining to us the work being done in Manchester to reassert the city’s Central Library as a valuable space and resource for the community.  He spoke of special collections touring the local libraries nearby in order to expose them to new audiences; café tabletops onto which images of special collections will be projected; displays and exhibitions on local history, which people will hopefully want to engage with.  For more details see:

As well as making special collections seem more relevant, I think that this focus on visitor experience, which it is often suggested has been undervalued in the past, will potentially help visitors to feel more relevant to the library and the things it has to offer.  This is of course the key to community living – understanding the nature and importance of our relationship to the spaces in which we move, and in which we encounter others.

Christopher Parkin, Lead Education Officer, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, provided a third insight into the importance of special collections to the community, focusing on the relevance of the Museum’s antiquarian science books.  Parkin’s was a unique insight, since the objectivity of the book offers scope for discussions on the science of materiality and construction.  The book itself, as well as what it has to say, is thus relevant to the aims and purposes of the Museum; its calls to be viewed, touched and utilised are all the louder for it.  This, along with the fact that the Museum accommodates visits from many school children, for whom interactions with actual objects and not just ideas can really bring the history of science to life, reminds us just how problematic a special collection’s relevance can be.  Its ‘special’, individual quality is both the reason it should be protected and cared for, and the reason for utilising it.  I think that this dichotomy of utility and preservation will prove particularly prevalent within the public library sector in the future, for two reasons.  Firstly, it must surely be the case that public libraries are custodians of special collections on behalf of the communities that they serve; the public therefore has a right to access and enjoy the collections.  Secondly, as Neil MacInnes highlighted, librarians’ plans for their libraries must tap into Councils’ agendas; anything that contributes something positive and enticing to a public space, and which is made relevant to people of all ages and backgrounds, will almost certainly do the trick.

What with justifying ourselves and our libraries, making our collections interesting to those whom we serve, and taking responsibility for the preservation of special collections, it seems to me that there’s plenty to keep the library and information profession, and its professionals, relevant for a good while yet.

Library Day in the Life Round 8: Wednesday

This is the third of five blog posts written for round 8 of the Library Day in the Life Project  by the graduate trainee at the Radcliffe Science Library.

Entrance to the Radcliffe Science Library8.45am: Arrive at the Radcliffe Science Library, switch on my computer and check emails.

9am: I’ll soon be joining the team staffing SOLO Live Help, our instant messaging service for helping users having problems with our SOLO (our online catalogue).  In preparation I start this morning by reading through the SOLO Live Help information pack I’ve been sent and request access to the wiki which has more information for staff.

9.30am: Meeting with the document supply supervisor.  This is one of a series of meetings that it was agreed in my progress meeting a couple of weeks ago I should have to find out about the work done in other sections of the library.  I find out how both incoming and outgoing inter-library loans are processed.  We end up having a long conversation about copyright and I borrow a couple of, thankfully short, books about copyright from her.  I’ve been thinking about copyright quite a lot recently and the more I look into it the more confusing it becomes.

10.25am: My request to access the wiki for SOLO Live Help has been approved, so I take a look at the information on there.

10.35am: Have a quick look through the books on copyright and note down a couple of useful-looking websites.

10.45am: Read through the minutes of a meeting I went to last week.

10.55am: Tea break.

11.20am: For the past couple of weeks I’ve been having problems logging on to computers in an office I sometimes need to use (due to certain software only being installed on those computers).  Someone from IT came last Friday and supposedly fixed the problem, so I go to test that I can log on, taking some reading on copyright with me in case it takes a while.

11.30am: Two error messages later and the computer is still trying to log me on.

11.40am: The computer is still trying to log on, so I decide to go and do something else and come back later to see if it gets there in the end.  I continue working on a LibGuide I am creating about reference management.

12pm: I return to see whether I’m logged on to the computer yet.  I am! But it took rather a long time and I have been logged on with a ‘temporary profile’, whatever that means.  I email the person from IT who I have been in contact with about the problem to report my logging on attempts and ask what the temporary profile means.

12.15pm: Back to working on the LibGuide.

1.30pm: Lunch

1.55pm: Leave to walk over to Osney where I need to be for this afternoon’s training session.

2pm: Most Wednesday afternoons all the graduate trainees in the Oxford libraries have a training session.  Today’s session was on archives and manuscripts and I found it particularly relevant to the work I am doing on the Druce Archive at the Sherardian Library (see Monday’s post).  The afternoon started with an overview of the work of special collections, and in particular Western manuscripts, at the Bodleian Library, including information on the kind of collections held, methods of acquisition and the stages of processing a collection requires.  We were then split in to three groups, and given three short talks on processing and cataloguing an archive, on the Saving Oxford Medicine Project and on digital archives.  I found it particularly interesting to hear about digital archives.  How to go about archiving a website wasn’t something I’d considered before!  Overall, a very interesting and enjoyable training session.

Bodleian Libraries Imaging Studio

On Thursday I joined a tour of the imaging studio at Osney. The tour was led by James Allan, Head of Imaging Services at the Bodleian.

The studio was established in the late nineteenth century by Oxford University Press, and was taken over by the University in the 1970s. It has recently moved to Osney, where it will remain until the refurbishment of the New Bodleian is completed in 2014.

The imaging services team produce digital and print copies of resources held by the Bodleian and other Oxford libraries. They provide services for individuals and institutions both inside and outside the University, and have also been involved in larger projects, such as the production of digital images of the Bodleian’s Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. The team is also responsible for negotiating copyright permissions for the images that they produce.

Imaging Services is currently part of Special Collections at the Bodleian, and much of the material that the team work with is drawn from these collections; during the tour, we saw a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript being photographed.

A variety of equipment is used in the studio, from a bitonal scanner to a high resolution (39 megapixel) digital camera. Post-production software is used to clean-up images. Most impressive was the cradle designed to hold a book as its pages are photographed. This features a vacuum bar which applies gentle suction to the back of a page, holding it in place whilst a photograph is taken.

The imaging technology used by the team is constantly evolving. However, new copies of items cannot be made every time the technology moves forward: funding is not available to do this, and the materials involved are often too fragile to withstand frequent handling. Difficult decisions must therefore be taken about when it is best to photograph or scan items in order to produce images that will remain useful for some years to come.

The team maintains an archive of images of material held by the Bodleian, which includes an extensive collection of photographic plates dating back to the 1950s; there are also large microfilm and digital collections. Images from the archive are often used to fulfil requests to view items that are too fragile to be handled or copied again. The digital archive is not yet accessible online, but there are plans to make this possible in the future.

My thanks go to James Allan for the very informative tour. More information about the services provided by his team can be found on the Bodleian website.