Hello! I’m Sorrel and I’m this year’s trainee at St John’s College.
The Library and Study Centre in St John’s is roughly comprised of two main parts: a modern section, completed in 2018, and an older section. The latter comprises the Laudian Library and the Old Library, dating from 1635 and 1598 respectively. Fortunately for me, the beginning of my trainee year coincided with the reopening of the two older libraries, following a long process of renovation. I am lucky to have reason to work frequently in both spaces, shelving in the Laudian and helping with Special Collections consultation appointments in the Old Library.
Like many of the other trainees, my workload is very varied, and no two days are really the same. The past weeks have seen me processing books, checking reading lists, moving manuscripts, photographing early printed books, and preparing posters for new displays. Dealing with Special Collections has definitely been one of the most exciting parts of the job so far. The Library is home to around 400 medieval and modern manuscripts, 20,000 books printed before 1850, and the personal papers of the likes of Robert Graves and Spike Milligan. Some of the materials I have handled in my first weeks include a painstakingly hand-coloured ‘Ortelius Atlas’, dating from 1603, and a 18th century physician’s scrapbook, with ‘A piece of The tapeworm’ pasted and carefully labelled inside.
Before the traineeship, I was working in France as an au pair, studying French and volunteering at the American Library in Paris in my spare time. Before that, I completed my BA in History at the University of Cambridge, specialising in cultural and social history. Alongside my degree, I worked in a small Art museum, and it was this experience which really got me passionate about helping people to access information and ideas.
In the coming months, I’m looking forward to getting to know the library and the cross-library systems well enough to answer almost any reader enquiry with confidence! I’m also hoping to assist with work to ensure that our collections are accessible to an ever-increasing range of people.
As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, the trainees have decided to highlight female authors with a connection to Oxford. We’re starting things off with Jane Austen, but watch this space for more posts to come!
Jane Austen, the seventh child of the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen, (née Leigh) was born in Hampshire in 1775. Her family, a large and lively community, shared a love of learning that encouraged Jane’s creativity, and she began writing at an early age. Her life amongst the landed gentry and a wide network of friends and family no doubt provided ample inspiration for her writing. The family lived in Steventon, Hampshire until Jane’s father retired, after which they moved on to various locations including Bath, London and Southampton. Jane died at the age of 41 from Addison’s disease, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. 
Connection to Oxford
Jane had a variety of connections to Oxford. Her older brother James attended St John’s, as did their father, and their paternal grandfather was rector of All Souls College. When Jane was eight, she was sent to Oxford with her cousin (another Jane) and her sister Cassandra to be educated by Mrs Cawley, the widow of Ralph Cawley, a former Principal of Brasenose. 
In 2022, the Friends of the National Libraries led a campaign to save the Honresfield Library, a huge collection of manuscripts and books by a range of British authors, including Austen. The campaign to raise over £15 million was a success, which has ensured continued public access to the collection.  The Jane Austen collection from the Honresfield Library has been donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House. It features first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Northanger Abbey, as well as two letters from Jane to her sister in 1796. Letters from Austen are incredibly rare, as Cassandra destroyed or censored many of them. 
Jane Austen wrote many short stories in her teenage years. Three surviving notebooks are held in the British Library and the Bodleian Libraries. These stories were often lively and action-packed, and not entirely dissimilar from what teenage girls might write about now – typically getting into trouble, romantic or otherwise. . In the somewhat tumultuous years after her father’s death, Jane did not have as much time for writing. It was only once settled in Chawton on her brother’s estate that she began to edit Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication. The former was published anonymously in 1811, and the later in 1813. Mansfield Park and Emma were published in 1814 and 1815 respectively. Following Jane’s death in 1817, NorthangerAbbey and Persuasion were published later the same year, and were the first of her books to identify her as the author.
After publication, her books were generally received favourably (although it’s interesting to consider if this would have been the case if it was known from the beginning that they were penned by a woman), and commended for their portrayal of everyday life. Alfred Tennyson wrote that “Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection,” highlighting her skill for social observation.  Now, 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is celebrated as one of the most beloved British writers, whose works have been translated into multiple languages and adapted for the stage and screen.
Most Iconic Character
Sometimes, the most obvious answer is, in fact, the right one. Elizabeth Bennet is a British icon in her own right, with her quick-witted nature and sharp tongue (perfectly encapsulated in one of the most savage insults in literary history: “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world on whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”) Lizzie’s misjudgement of poor Mr Darcy is something I’m sure many of us relate to, and the changing nature of her opinion of him throughout the novel is what makes me return to it (and the iconic masterpiece that is the 2005 film version) time and time again.
My favourite Jane Austen novel is (unsurprisingly) Pride and Prejudice. The themes of the novel – love, social hierarchies and dealing with irritating family members offering “delicate little compliments” remain incredibly relatable to this day- the language may have changed, but our lives are not that dissimilar to the characters in Pride and Prejudice.
Special thanks to Josie from the Law Library for the transcription.
What is a college?
Heather (St Edmund Hall): A college is a community of students and staff who are all part of Oxford University, but within the university community they’re also part of their own separate college community. Most colleges have undergraduates and postgraduates, but some colleges are postgraduate only. Some colleges are very big with lots of students and staff, and some are much smaller.
Georgie (St. John’s): Students can get accommodation, catering, and teaching through their college, and as part of that, the college will have its own library.
Jemima (New): There may appear to be some discrepancy between older and newer colleges but they essentially all do the same job for their students. Even though some of them look bigger or older or have a particular reputation, they all serve the same purpose.
How does the library fit into the college?
Jemima: I think generally a college library will cater for most undergraduate academic needs, but from my experience (as a graduate student here) there was more of an expectation that a college library wouldn’t cater for more in-depth academic research. Whether that’s true or not, a college library is definitely more of a centre for undergraduates, perhaps because it’s seen as less overwhelming than a bigger Bodleian library.
Ben (Pembroke): Yes, the library is at it’s heart a hub for students. We have a few postdocs and fellows who use our library, but mostly it’s used by undergraduates and taught postgraduates who all study a wide array of disciplines, reflecting our growing library collection. We’re open 24/7 and the library is also open for all Pembroke staff. Also our library is a space for holding Pembroke’s archives and special collections which attracts visiting researchers and research students.
Heather: It’s definitely more of a direct service for the students, and I think it’s interesting that when people apply to Oxford or Cambridge, they don’t really think about the fact that they’ll have a college library, but it’s actually a really important aspect. It’s really there to cater to a student’s own needs, so at Teddy Hall, for instance, we buy a lot of student requested books, which something you can do through your college library, but is not something Bodleian libraries tend to do.
Lizzie (All Souls): All Souls Library is mainly there for the Fellows* (as there aren’t any undergraduate students at All Souls). The Fellows can request that we buy books, and also if a particular Fellow with a particular research interest is there for a number of years, we can develop a significant collection relating to that interest. But the library does serve a dual purpose because it is also open to external readers. Because the college doesn’t have its own students, if there is a book that is highly requested across the university, or quite expensive, the library will buy that book so that it’s potentially available to all students.
*Fellows are senior members of a college, whose responsibilities typically include teaching, research, administration, and participation in the college’s governance.
Georgie: Another thing to mention is study spaces. College libraries mean that the students who want to use the library can do that somewhere which, in a lot of cases, is near to their accommodation.
Heather: We have height-adjustable desks, and printing and photocopying facilities and they all get used a lot. We’re open 24 hours and you can see from the records that there are people in here throughout day and night.
Jemima: That’s actually a good point: I think a key difference between Bodleian libraries and college libraries is that Bodleian libraries aren’t open as late as college ones. At New, we’re not open 24 hours, but we are open until 2:00 in the morning. I would say that a college library is accessible at most times of day whereas the Bodleian is less so.
Lizzie: At All Souls, all the books are confined so readers can’t borrow them. That means the library is used more as a study space, since it’s very quiet and there are fewer people taking books off shelves, as all the books are locked up (though you can request me to get them for you). The library also serves as a venue for the college for events such as Encaenia, or drink receptions. Sometimes you can be participating in college stuff more than library stuff.
Can you describe your Library in three words?
Heather: Church, friendly, busy.
Ben: Unintimidating, 1970s, welcoming.
Lizzie: Unique, architectural, research.
How many staff members are there in your Library?
Jemima: We have four of us in the main office, basically full-time, then there’s the Archivist, the Curatorial Assistant (who was a trainee last year, and is now part-time), and a Shelving Assistant in the mornings in term time. I think it’s a relatively big team for a college library.
Ben: In the library team, it’s just me and the Librarian, so I often wear multiple hats and juggle jobs such as invigilating researchers, cataloguing, shelving, dissertation-binding, reading list creation, purchasing acquisitions, rare books enquiries, and lots more. Working in a small team is great! There is always something to do, and you gain a well-rounded, and sometimes unexpected experience.
Lizzie: We have a Librarian-in-Charge & Conservator, Senior Assistant Librarian, Assistant Librarian for Digital Resources, and a Graduate Trainee (me!), as well as this, we have the following staff who are part-time: Assistant Librarian for Rare Books, a Clerk to the Archives, and the Serials Librarian (who does cataloguing).
Heather: So, at Teddy Hall, it’s me as the Graduate Trainee, James the Librarian, and Emma who is the Assistant Librarian, and our Archivist, Rob, who is in two days a week. He’s also the Archivist at Oriel and I know that it’s quite common for archivists to be shared across colleges. We also have a Library Fellow on the Library Committee.
Jemima: Yes, I think our Fellow Librarian is involved in important decision-making but I barely see him from day to day. I don’t have very much contact with him at all. It sounds like a similar setup.
Lizzie: I see my Fellow Librarian every day. They do the top-level college stuff and there’s a lot of committees so they sit on those as well.
What’s distinctive about the collection in your Library?
Ben (Pembroke): As much as it is a collection reflecting Pembroke’s history as an institution (Pembroke was founded in 1624), we do have some more rogue objects, often things connected with alumni or past staff, such as Tolkien’s letters (we have an amazing letter where Tolkien writes to a friend that he is starting a book called The Hobbit which he hopes will be a success), Samuel Johnson’s desk, Samuel Johnson’s teapot, a fountain pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson, oh and a WWII Japanese sword!
Jemima (New): We have a very good manuscripts and early printed books special collection – I think that comes with the age and wealth of the college. In fact, about 30-40% of my time is spent invigilating readers who come to use our Special Collections for research.
Heather (St Edmund Hall): Something distinctive about our lending collection is that we have lots of student requests and new acquisitions – we’re working hard to try to diversify what we have. At the moment, I am starting to decolonise our history collection.
What kind of interactions do you have with Library readers?
Heather: Readers ask pretty much anything and everything – I spend about half my time on the issue desk. Our library is in a 12th-century church, so we also have people coming to see the building.
Ben: Fairly, a lot! Questions can be anything from “how do I find this book?” all the way to, “Would it be possible to see ‘x’ manuscript?”. During COVID peaks, when students are self-isolating, I deliver books around college to them. My workspace isn’t usually at an issue desk, but at the start of the year I gave lots of induction talks, so now the readers know who I am. This means they are confident to pop into my office, or stop me around college to ask me questions.
Jemima: We don’t have a specific issue desk (everyone is based in the office), so I don’t interact with readers as much as you two do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t come to the office with questions, mostly if they’re having problems with the self-issue machines or they want to borrow a book but don’t have their Bod (library) card.
How does working in a college compare with your expectations?
Jemima: I hadn’t anticipated how much social media, exhibitions and ‘internal outreach’ work I’d get to do. It’s really nice that so much of my role is about sharing the collection with people in college.
Ben: At Pembroke, the Library and Archives work together a lot of the time, which makes the job all the more fun. I can be climbing ladders in order to hang pictures in the hall one minute, then in the next I can be in the depths of the stacks, then helping out with object talks for students or working with furniture and pictures conservators the next, all the way to reader services enquires. However, I think that’s the product of my library team being so small.
Jemima: Yeah, I think it’s worth saying that I think college library jobs are really varied in terms of what you do and the influence you’re able to have.
Do you get involved with other parts of the College?
Heather: Actually, that’s another thing I was surprised by: you’re part of the College team as well as the Library team. I’ve worked with the Communications team to set up a Library Instagram, and worked with the Housekeeping department on the sustainability project.
Jemima: Although as Graduate Trainee I don’t interact with other departments that often, as a Library and Archives department we collaborate with JCR and MCR committees (similar to a college-based Student Unions) to organise tours, and with the college Warden (i.e. Principal or President) on things like exhibitions.
That concludes our discussion about college library life! We managed to get through the whole thing without mentioning the free college lunches. Oh, no, wait…
Here’s a typical term-time day as the Trainee at St John’s, involving posters, returns, acquisitions, processing, and maintaining the Library’s daily Twitter updates. A day in the life here varies based on whether it’s term-time or the vacation. Over the holidays, we have very few readers, so I work on jobs which involve spending longer away from the desk, such as updating the Special Collections inventories, or minor book moves on the reading room shelves.
Working as part of a small team, the Trainee is based on the library enquiry desk. Rather than moving between shifts on different stations, I work on various tasks from my desk, and answer the occasional reader query as and when they arise!
Without further ado, join me for a day in the life of the St John’s Trainee…
9am: Get settled
It’s a three-part process:
It’s always quiet when I first arrive. I’ll check my email, the Library inbox, and the shared calendar. The contractors are still finishing up the new building, so often we’ll have an electrician or decorator scheduled to sort one specific issue.
Next, I empty the returns box and check items back in using Aleph, the library management system. Books can be borrowed for a whole term/break, so big rushes are fairly infrequent.
Most importantly: make a coffee!
After emails, my next desk-based check is our Special Collections Twitter. Sometimes there will be a popular hashtag or event, so I like to check our feed for inspiration.
This term, my tweet days are Tuesdays and Thursdays. If I’m working on a Tweet from scratch, I’ll find the shelf mark of the item I need, locate it in the basement store, and then take some photos. Then I’ll come back to my desk to draft the optimum 280 characters.
10:30am: check on the Law Library
It is somewhat a mystery to me why this should be the case, but if a College Library has a separate area for one subject, it’s usually law. The St John’s Law Library is on the nearby Kendrew Quad site, whilst the main Library is on the original site. It’s too small to have it’s own staff, so one of us heads over to take any acquistions or work through any shelving left by the students.
11am: sandwich collection!
One of the perks of working in a College is absolutely the lunch: I can either pick-up a pack-up at 11am, or go for a hot meal when the canteen opens at noon. Walking through the historic quads on the way to the kitchen servery naturally involves nattering with the other hungry Library staff members too.
11:15am: updating the posters
Given the changing Covid-19 regulations in College, I’ll regularly update our signage about mask guidance. There are also endless other posters to make, be it a withdrawn book giveaway, or a reminder about KeepCups next to the new hot drink machine.
When it isn’t raining, I enjoy eating lunch in the College gardens. Like many of the trainees, I’m conveniently located to pick up groceries or go for a walk at lunchtime.
1pm: re-classification work
Like many other Oxford libraries, St John’s has it’s own classification system. This has both positives and negatives! Recently, I noticed that part of the Theology section was in an unclear order, so I proposed to the Librarian that we rearrange this into a chronological order. Although we only reordered or renamed about ten headings within Theology, this meant that around 150 books had to be reassessed, and potentially reclassified. I am working through these about 25 titles at a time, updating the classifications on Aleph, relabelling, and then re-shelving the books.
3pm: collect the post and process acquisitions
St John’s seems to be quite late on the postie’s route, so I usually wait until the afternoon to swing by the Porters’ Lodge and collect the day’s deliveries. At the moment, we tend to receive between 4 and 8 new books a day, which I will process and classify. We are never short of books to process as we are working on a donation given to the Library by a former fellow!
5pm: Homeward bound
If I’ve finished my book, I like to end the day by checking out the recent literary fiction shelf, and choose a new title to borrow for my own reading. I tidy up my desk in order to pass the space over to the Student Library Assistant on duty that evening.
With the holidays fast approaching, decorations have started to appear in the Libraries and a festive spirit is in the air. For some of our Graduate Library Trainees, it has been the perfect opportunity to reflect on the year so far, and talk about some of the highlights of their role.
Heather Barr, St Edmund Hall
We brought Christmas to St Edmund Hall’s Old Library this year with a display of books and archive materials with fun festive facts and college celebrations throughout the years. Our display includes beautiful wintery paintings, including one of Teddy Hall’s Front Quad in Snow (1966), given to Principal Kelly by the artist, Alexandra Troubetzkoy (see right). Our Old Library is home to the first scientific publication to interrogate the shape of snowflakes (see left): Johannes Kepler’s C. Maiest. mathematici strena seu De niue sexangula (1611) (SEH Shelfmark 4° G 18(6)).
Keplerconjectures that they must be formed as such to optimise their tessellation, like a honeycomb. Or, perhaps there is some quality in the water that causes them to freeze in their signature hexagonal shape? Most importantly, he identifies a link between the shape of snowflakes and other crystalline formations in rocks.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some cards! We showcased Christmas cards from the Archives, collected and saved by Principal Emden during the Second World War (see right). These cards were sent from all over the world,including from H.M.S. Satellite, a naval ship in the middle of the ocean. Some have rather topical designs, such as a bull charging Hitler, or the three wise men being guided by a shining Intelligence Corps crest! Today, these cards serve a positive reminder that even in the midst of worldwide suffering and disaster, small messages of hope and love can go a long way.
Izzie Salter, Sackler Library
As term draws to a close, the Sackler Library has become quieter and quieter. Between issuing books on the main desk, my colleague and I have donned it with decorations. Crafted out of library paraphernalia – who knew archival tying tape could be so versatile – I hope this has brought some cheer to our more loyal readers, staying here until closure. To those based locally to the Sackler, do walk past the Ashmolean one evening. It looks beautiful this time of year.
My first term as a trainee has been wonderfully varied. I have been so fortunate to work on some amazing projects at the library, as well as spending time learning alongside my fellow trainees. A few highlights of this term include presenting Japanese photography books (which I have researched regularly over the past 3 months) at the History of Art Show and Tell, working with the trainees to produce Black History reading recommendations, and learning about conservation and special collections at the Weston Library. I can’t wait to see what the new year brings, after a restful Christmas break.
[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]
Jemima Bennett, New College Library
New College Library Christmas started particularly early, even by Oxford standards, as by mid-November we had begun to put together a Christmas exhibition, and our Twitter advent calendar, choosing items and writing captions. I have also spent several very enjoyable afternoons wrapping books for our Surprise Christmas Loan scheme, as well as decorating our Christmas tree, and helping create an iconic book sculpture (pictured here). This term has been a blast – a wide-ranging and really relevant set of training sessions, an excellent trainee cohort, and being able to work with such beautiful manuscripts are definitely some highlights.
Lucy Davies, Social Science Library
At the SSL, we got into the Christmas mood by celebratingChristmas Jumper Day.Wearing our best festive jumpers (and masks!), we raised £142 for Save the Children. A highlight of this term has been the training sessions every week and gaining an insight into all the different jobs within the Bodleian Libraries. I especially loved the trip to the Conservation Studio at the Weston Library! I also really enjoy seeing the variety of books that arrive from the BSF every day and talking to readers about their research.
Georgie Moore, St John’s College Library
If you are following any Libraries, Museums, or Archives on Twitter, you’ll probably have noticed the annual December deluge of Christmassy content.
Outside of term time, I’m responsible for scheduling one Tweet a week, so I have been prowling our catalogue for festive material. Drafting a Tweet was part of the application process for this Trainee position, but even still I didn’t realise quite how much thought goes into maintaining a consistent tone and diversity of content.
Here are three of the tweet ideas that didn’t make the cut in December (and why not):
1. A Christmas Carol is a festive favourite for many, but Charles Dickens also contributed other seasonal stories to volumes like Mugby Junction: the extra Christmas number of All the year round (Vet.Engl.76). The small font and lack of illustrations aren’t very eye-catching for a Twitter photograph, but these advertisements provide a wintery window into Victorian buying habits: juvenile gift books, patented pickles and miniature billiards. (see left)
2. ‘The Exaltation of Christmas Pye’ – this might be cheating, but the only reason I haven’t shared this is because I didn’t find it! There are some highly quotable moments in this 17th-century mock-sermon (HB4/3.a.5.8(23)) such as when the author elevates the invention of
Christmas plum pies to the same level as ‘Guns and Printing’.
3. The Psalter (MS 82) includes some beautiful medieval illustrations. I’d wanted to caption this ‘When the waiter brings the final bill to the table after the work Christmas do’ but given the cancellation of so many Christmas parties this festive season, that felt like rubbing salt in the wound. (see left)
Josie Fairley Keast, Bodleian Law Library
Although I enjoy handling books as much as the next librarian, a surprising highlight for mehas been working with various forms of online resource provision.(This is perhaps less surprising to anyone who has had to listen to me talk about scanning recently).Fromtracking down resources for reading lists and LibGuides to navigating copyright restrictionsandexploring the UK Web Archive,I’ve really enjoyed my traineeship so far, and I’mlooking forward to getting more involved with certain areas in the new year.During a recentweekend shift, I was entrusted with decorating the LawBod Christmas tree – picturedis our resident angel,which I’m told was handmade by a previous trainee.
Sophie Lay, English Faculty Library
J. R. R. Tolkien and Nevill Coghill have donned now their gay apparel – the former in a classic Santa hat and the latter in a crown of golden holly tinsel – and the festive season has fully hit the English Faculty Library. As Graduate Trainee, it’s my job to decorate the library with the aforementioned festive headgear, as well as paper chains, miniature Christmas trees, and seasonal rubber ducks to join our regular desk companion, Bill Shakespeare.
The end of term has also left a little more time for reflection on the past few months. I’d be delighted to share with you just one of the parts of my job that I’ve enjoyed the most since starting here at Bodleian Libraries. Not to be incredibly corny, but interactions with readers really do add a delightful element to your average desk-shift. From friendly and familiar faces to unexpected compliments to charming lost-and-found items (including returning a child’s hand-written note which read ‘momy I luv yoo’), there is so much joy to be had in interacting with readers.
I’ll leave you off with a final festive treat. I’ve done some digging through the rare book room and have uncovered a little treasure. While it’s not the genuine article, we do have a delightful facsimile of Dicken’s original manuscript for A Christmas Carol, in his own handwriting and with his own edits – including his signature looping and cross-hatching. Just holding it makes me feel more festive!
Emily Main, History Faculty Library
The end of term was definitely noticeable in the library as students started heading home for their holidays. However, the arrival of Warner Brothers and the closure of the Upper Camera for filming has made for an interesting end before the Christmas closure. As well as being dazzled by extremely bright lights when sitting at reception and dodging crowds of fans, we’ve had to implement a book fetching service for books in the Upper Camera and trundle our BSF book crates on a circuitous route through the Old Bod and Gladstone Link! I have loved getting to know the trainees and the team here and enjoyed the variety of my role. A highlight of the role for me has been answering enquiries of readers that require me to dive into a search and investigate their question, for example, in helping them to locate primary resources.
Ben Elliott, Pembroke College Library
Christmas is here, and it is time to reflect. This term has flown by, but it’s been a good one. Pembroke’s library consists of the librarian, me and the archivist and because it is a small team it has meant my traineeship has been distinctly unique and varied. For instance, I have delivered a library induction to visiting fellows from Pembroke’s ‘The Changing Character of War Centre’ which involved talking to a room of senior military officers and a UN advisor… definitely not daunting at all! As well, I have met some truly fascinating and brilliantly eccentric individuals along the way, some even coming as far as from Utah.
It’s been particularly fun getting acquainted with Pembroke’s special collections, rare books and art collection and sharing them with students through object sessions and talks… especially when a talk discusses a naturalist’s book in our collection which attempts to convince readers that the platypus is, in fact, a real animal despite it looking odd!
Working with the college art has been brilliant. Inspecting the conditions of the college oil paintings with a freelance art conservator and the college archivist was a highlight. Staring at a painting of a 19th-century fellow whilst listening to ghost stories of said fellow is a moment I never expected in this job, but an enjoyable surprise, nonetheless.
Juliet Brown, Old Bodleian Library
As the year draws to a close, it is nice to see everyone getting excited about the holiday season. The decorations have gone up in the Bod, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Old School Quadrangle Christmas tree in pride of place.
As everyone gets ready to head home for the holidays, it is also a nice time to reflect on my first few months at the Old Bod, and the experiences that have shaped my role as the trainee in this incredible building. I have been very lucky to work within an incredibly supportive team, who put up with my constant questions and have made me feel at home in my new role. As the Old Bod trainee, I have been very fortunate in having an extremely varied working schedule. From duties in reader services (answering enquiries, issuing and returning books, leading tours, shelving, assisting with book deliveries, completing book scans), through to the more technical aspects of the role (helping with interlibrary loans, book processing, preparing books for repair, relabelling), my role has allowed me to complete an extremely diverse range of tasks. In addition, my manager has been keen for me to take on my own responsibilities, which have included designing new posters for the Lower Gladstone Link, creating instructional sheets for the evening team and rehoming a cupboard of abandoned books.
A highlight of the traineeship is the opportunity to take part in sessions designed to expand our knowledge about the various areas that make up librarianship. We have learnt about the technical skills needed for cataloguing, the complex world of Open Access, the importance of social media skills, and discovered the digital tools available to students and researchers at the University. In addition, the traineeship has allowed us to visit the Weston (for an insight into the role of the conservation team and special collections) and even spent an afternoon at the BSF.
I can’t wait to see what the New Year brings, both in terms of training and with my role, after a very restful break at home with my family, dog and lots of good food.
The aspect of the St John’s Library traineeship I perhaps most looked forward to was getting involved with the manuscripts and early printed books. Here are four of the Special Collections tasks I’ve been working on over my first couple of months, and a look at what’s coming next!
1. “Book first aid”
Although many colleges with historic collections work with the Oxford Conservation Consortium to preserve and repair their items, in-house we perform “book first aid” to minimize further damage. I found that the front board of this bound volume of tracts had detached. The aim of the “first aid” tying is to prevent damage to the page block, and keep the parts of the volume together. When tying, it’s important to put the knots on the fore edge side (pages) to avoid them pressing into the spine. Another consideration is choosing a cotton tape of a similar shade to achieve a discreet look. Previously, we only stocked cream tape, so one of my tasks over the students’ Christmas vacation will be to replace individual cream tapes with pairs of tonal tapes on our many taped volumes.
2. Invigilating of readers
Invigilating readers feels like a bit of a role reversal for me, as a former history student. When a researcher scheduled a visit to study our 15th century Caxton volumes, I was asked to invigilate for the first time. The Librarian and I allotted an hour to find the material and pre-prepare the best book rest set up to avoid damaging the volumes. Once the reader arrives, there are a couple of forms to fill in. Having now invigilated several times, my initial nerves have vanished, but I am still careful not to let the manuscript or book out of my sight.
3. Finding aids
Since the renovations started on our early modern libraries, the historic collections have been moved into storage in the new building. One of my first ongoing projects was creating a shelf guide for one of the basement stores to act as a finding aid. Excitingly, I was also given license to examine any books which particularly intrigued me. This was to help with task 4, although if I’d stopped to read all of the interesting ones, I’d still be in the basement right now!
4. Creating Twitter content
St John’s Library has a Twitter account dedicated to our Special Collections (go on, give us a follow at @StJohnsOxLib). Whenever I’m down in the store room, I keep my eyes peeled for Tweetable content. Usually, I hunt for intriguing bookplates, marginalia, or images which will make eye-catching photos, and then write up a brief explanation. Creating the most engaged-with content has become a bit of a friendly competition between myself and the Senior Library Assistant (Former trainee, Dom Hewett, English Faculty Library | Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees). Creating twitter content is fun because it’s hard to predict what will take off. That being said, we are both hoping that by tracking the Twitter analytics more closely, we’ll get better at that part.
5. What’s next?
St John’s Library operates a Special Collections blog, as well as a Twitter. Currently, I am researching for a new blog post, featuring one of the manuscripts and one of the pamphlets from our early modern collection. These items captured my attention because they are two very different forms of autobiographical writing by executed female criminals, so I feel lucky to be able to pursue my interest in them further, whilst hopefully creating content others can enjoy too. If you are interested in finding out more about the Special Collections at St John’s, or are eager to apply for a traineeship here, check out the blog at St John’s College Library, Oxford (stjohnscollegelibraryoxford.org)
So far, I’ve found working with the Special Collections to be incredibly rewarding. When working with early printed books and manuscripts, taking care is dramatically prioritized over acting quickly. However, working with Special Collections is not just about hiding books in the basement – and it’s fascinating to meet the visiting researchers to hear about how the items they consult will shape their scholarship. In the future, I hope to continue developing my Special Collections skills, particularly in terms of making material available to wider audiences in person, for example through exhibitions and visitor sessions (when the pandemic permits!).
Prompted by Black History Month, we trainees have come together to share contributions from Black voices across our libraries and different disciplines. We invite you to look through our selection, consider them through the coming months, and continue celebrating Black history within your reading throughout the year.
Lizzie Dawson, All Souls College Library
Amo, Anton Wilhelm, & Abraham, W. E., Inaugural philosophical dissertation on The “[apatheia]” of the human mind, Accra: Department of Philosophy, University of Ghana. (Psych.18)
While researching All Souls Library’s collection, I found this translation presented by All Souls’ first African-born Prize Fellow, William Abraham (born 1934).
At first sight, this unbound dissertation is easy to overlook, tucked away on the shelves in the book stacks, but it too is an example of a first.
This document is a translation into English by Abraham of a dissertation by Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1700-c. 1750) – born in what is now Ghana, enslaved, and then gifted to the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel – he became the first African person to earn a PhD in philosophy at a European university.
On the 16th of April, 1734, at the University of Wittenberg, Amo defended his dissertation, De Humanae Mentis Apatheia (On the impassivity of the human mind), in which he investigates the logical inconsistencies in René Descartes’ (1596-1650) res cogitans (mind) and res extensa (body) distinction and interaction. One of the 18th century’s most notable Black philosophers, Amo went on to teach philosophy at the Universities of Halle and Jena. You can read the original version of the dissertation with an English translation here.
An influential champion for the cause of abolition, Amo ultimately became embattled by racism and opposition to his beliefs. In 1747, he sailed back to present-day Ghana, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider, London: Penguin, 2019. (DE / POL / 261 / LOR)
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) self-defined as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. She was also a School Librarian in New York during the 1960s. As a feminist and activist for the rights of Black and LGBTQ people, Lorde directly challenged white feminists and Black male intellectuals who neglected the experiences of Black and lesbian women.
Although the term ‘intersectionality’ was not coined until the late 1980s, Lorde’s work repeatedly stressed the danger of neglecting differences between women. Sister Outsider (1984) features essays and speeches including her landmark “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House.” In this essay, Lorde argues that although women have been taught to use these differences to separate themselves from other women, or else ignore them, it is only by acknowledging these differences that women’s oppression can be understood and overcome.
Lorde also comments that women are expected to educate men, and Black women are expected to educate white feminists. Reading and listening to the voices of Black women helps people of all races and genders understand how Black women’s experiences are impacted by race, gender, sexuality, class, and age, but relies upon the emotional labour of often marginalised writers. As Lorde writes, poetry is the most accessible and economical form of literature because it can be written ‘between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway and on scraps of surplus paper’. Her perspective challenged me to reconsider poetry, a form I had often associated with elite white male writers, a legacy perhaps of the kind of poets still studied most widely in schools.
Sister Outsider is part of our Diversity & Equality Collection, which showcases writing by and about people in underrepresented and marginalized groups. This collaborative project began last year, with members from across the College making book recommendations. The Collection includes various disciplines, from History and Politics, to Classics, Music, Languages and more. My predecessor as Graduate Trainee was involved with the beginning of the Collection, helping reclassify items in the existing Library catalogue and acquire new material. Now, when I process our latest acquisitions, I am involved in helping the Collection grow.
Babalola, Bolu. Love in Colour: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold. London: Headline, 2021. (S33 BAB:Lov (A))
“It’s important to be able to see Black people and people of colour in love – and in these hopeful contexts that aren’t mired with darkness and strife […] reality is that we’re just living our lives and we’re falling in love as Black people”
(Bolu Babalola, ‘Interview: Bolu Babalola on Love, Diversity, Redefining Romance’ (2020)
Joining the Black History Month 2021 campaign ‘Proud to Be’, Teddy Hall Library worked closely with student BAME Officer Jeevi Bali (2019, Jurisprudence) to showcase Black authors this October. Bolu Babalola’s debut book Love in Colour was one of the books bought new for a display specifically celebrating Black British authors.
In Bolu’s own words, Love in Colour is a“step towards decolonizing tropes of love”. Through brand-new tales and retellings of love stories from history, folklore and mythology, Bolu explores love as at once intrinsically universal, and complexly personal. We move with Bolu and her characters across time, continents and genres; as she brings together West African folklore, her own bad date experiences, Greek mythology, and her parents’ romance. Perhaps most moving in the collection is Bolu’s attention questions of sight. Who is seen, who wants to be seen, who is allowed to see, are questions which circle all love stories, and they are questions which Bolu beautifully considers and handles throughout her collection. For Bolu, Love in Colour is at its core about romance. To potential readers, she says: “If you like romance, you’ll like this book; it’s as simple as that”.
Himid, Lubaina, Lisa Panting, and Malin Ståhl. Lubaina Himid: Workshop Manual. London: Koenig Books, 2018 (N6797.H5635 A4 LUB 2018)
‘Using her theatre background Himid construct ambiguous scenes, at times populated and other times not. We are not quite sure if what we are presented with is a safe place or a place of danger, if the protagonists are under threat or are in control of the situation. The vibrant colours and beautiful patterns, clothes and landscapes attract the viewer into situations that are not yet fixed. Himid’s protagonists are mostly black, and well dressed in clothes that point us to different moments and contexts; inviting us to consider our position and role in histories and what we subsequently do with them.’
(‘Introduction’, Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, p 52)
Lubaina Himid is a Zanzibarian-born British painter, based in Preston. She has spent the course of her career exploring untold stories and Black history through reams of colour and carefully-composed figures. Indeed, her singular work championing Black creativity, institutionally obscured throughout history, lead to Himid winning the Turner Prize 2017. She was the first Black female artist to win the prize, and continues to celebrate other Black artists through her work in curation and activism.
Lubaina Himid: Workshop Manual is a collection of Himid’s work and writings, encompassing over four decades of canvas painting, cut-out figures, and installation art. Although varied, her works tie together in a kaleidoscope of colour and vibrancy. Readers can see British crockery overpainted with maps, faces, and west African patterns; selected pages of The Guardian show how images and words connect in the press to harm perceptions of Black identity; painted planks of wood which celebrate the importance of one’s own past, which she reflected on when travelling in South Korea. Each are incredibly meaningful and evocative. Unfailingly, her works prompts viewers to consider hidden narratives of Black history within British culture and beyond. This is the crux of Himid’s work, creating an internal response within others and reminding them of the true world they live in.
The Manual includes ‘The Lost Election Posters’, a series of paintings mimicking typical political campaigns. Himid intends – and successfully, too – to evoke questions of who is represented across powerful institutions. In her own words, the later part of the series ‘are essentially portraits of potential power’ (see photographed). These comprise some of my personal favourites in the book, and I would recommend anyone in the Sackler taking time to appreciate it.
‘I make this work, and have always made it, for other black women. These conversations are and have always been important. I want to show that our lives are complex yet ordinary, filled with the same weight of what has been done to us but at the same time normal and boring too’ (‘A Conversation between Lubaina Himid, Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, Hollybush Gardens’, p 293-299)
You can read more about Lubaina Himid here: https://lubainahimid.uk/
[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]
Jemima Bennett, New College Library
Marechera, Dambudzo. The House of Hunger. Harlow: Heinemann,2009. (LIT/MAR)
‘My whole life has been an attempt to make myself the skeleton in my own cupboard. I have been an outsider in my own biography, in my country’s history, in the world’s terrifying possibilities.’
Novelist, short story writer, and poet, Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987) was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. A student at New College, Oxford, from 1974, he was eventually sent down after a turbulent two years and repeated clashes with staff and students. Shortly afterwards, in 1978, his first book, The House of Hunger, was published, winning the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize. Two more of Marechera’s books were published in his lifetime,Black Sunlight(1980), Mindblast(1984), with three others, including a collection of poetry, published posthumously.
The House of Hunger, a collection of short stories, consists of nine interlinked stories concerning Marechera’s childhood and youth in a Rhodesian slum, with the rest of the stories focusing on his time in Oxford. Marechera leaves his readers in no doubt of the sense of otherness and alienation which he felt while he was in Oxford: the story, ‘Black Skin What Mask’, begins with the statement ‘my skin sticks out a mile in all the crowds here’. His writing has been described as abrasive and he himself called his experience of writing in English, rather than his first language Shona, as a matter of ‘discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance.’
‘“I got my things and left” is the coolest opening line in African fiction. Marechera is nothing like any African writer before him’ (Helon Habila)
All quotations taken from The House of Hunger (see reference).
Boakye, Jeffrey. Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. London: Dialogue Books, 2019. (HT1581.BOA 2019)
“Call me Black and you’ll remind me that, racially, I’m everything I’m not, which makes me everything I am. Call me Black and I won’t even flinch because I’m so used to calling myself Black that it’s become the invisible lens. A perspective that has hardened into an objective truth. Call me Black and I’ll welcome the definition, despite the fact that it denigrates just as much as it defines. Call me Black and I’ll flinch. Call me Black and I won’t even flinch.”
Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye is an exploration of Black British culture through the descriptors used by and for Black people in the UK. Boakye examines how words and labels can reinforce stereotypes or alternatively create a sense of community. He explores 21st Century Black British identity through an analysis of pop culture and autobiographical anecdotes. The book begins with Boakye recalling how he’s “been Black since about 1988”, the first time that he was made aware of the “otherness” of his skin colour by his classmates in primary school. The theme of Black identity in the UK being perceived as an otherness runs deep throughout the book, as Boakye explores how the Black British community has been represented, oppressed, celebrated and discriminated against.
Touching on everything from the Grime scene to global Black history and the experiences of the Windrush generation, Boakye provides an accessible and entertaining yet raw and insightful view of what it means to be Black in Britain today. I would recommend it to anyone looking to question what purpose labels serve, and in what ways they can be helpful and in what ways they isolate.
Marson, U. & Donnell, A., 2011. Selected poems, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press. (PR9265.9.M37 A6 MAR 2011)
Una Marson was born in 1905 in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica. By the time she first left Jamaica, she had published two poetry collections, founded the feminist periodical Cosmopolitan, and wrote her first play and had it staged. She bought her first ticket to London in 1932, but moved back and forth between Jamaica and London multiple times throughout her life. Outside of poetry, her career was busy and varied, with highlights including:
Author and Director of the first Black production on the West End with her play At What Price.
Editor of and Contributor to The Keys, the journal of the League of Coloured Peoples (of which she was a prominent member)
Head of the West Indies Service for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
Founder of the BBC’s ‘Caribbean Voices’.
Speaker at the conference of the British Commonwealth League
Speaker at the conference of the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage and Equal Citizenship
Secretary to Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia) during his exile to London
In the words of Alison Donnell, editor of this collection, Marson is not often enough noted as the “women poet whose works pioneered the articulation of gender and racial oppression, brought Jamaican vernacular voices alongside a Wordsworthian passion for nature, and ventured to give subjectivity to powerless and marginalised subjects.” (p.11) This collection pulls together a broad selection of her work (published and unpublished) to try to present a complete picture of Marson’s poetics – as contrasting as it is enlightening.
In total, Marson published four poetry collections. Her work as a poet is as varied as her life, with a wide range of influences from European forms and models of her earlier work to the use of blues forms and dialect in her later work. Thematically speaking, her poetry often focused on Black representation, gender politics, religion, immigration, nature, love, Jamaica, and war. Despite the heavy topics, she often dwells on beauty, hope, and the uplifting. See this extract, for example, from the deceptively titled ‘Black Burden’ (pp.146-147):
Black girl – what a burden –
But your shoulders
Black girl – what a burden –
But your courage is strong –
Black girl your burden
Will fall from your shoulders
Una Marson: Selected Poems is now available to loan from the English Faculty Library, newly acquired this month.
Marson, U. & Donnell, A., 2011. Selected poems, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press.
Snaith, A. (2014) “Una Marson: ‘Little Brown Girl’ in a ‘White, White City,’” in Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 152–174. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139018852
Hi! I’m Georgie, and I am the Graduate Trainee at St John’s College Library and Study Centre (LSC). Founded in 1555, St John’s is now one of the biggest colleges, with stunning old quads, a beautiful garden where I eat my lunch, and a brand-new Library which opened in 2019.
When I was applying for the trainee role, I was working on my MPhil in Modern British History, and before that I did my undergraduate degree in History too. Given my love of history, it’s probably unsurprising that my favourite afternoon so far was an exploration of our Special Collections with the College Librarian. At St John’s, we hold everything from an illustrated second edition of Caxton’s Canterbury Tales to the first Bible (1661) published in what would become the USA, written in the North American indigenous language, Algonquian. I’m really excited to work more with these Collections throughout the year.
During Sixth Form and in the pre-pandemic University holidays, I was a Casual Library Assistant in my local public library, but it wasn’t until the final years of my University experience that I started thinking seriously about a career in Librarianship. When I began to research the Trainee Scheme, it seemed like the perfect way to learn more about the academic Library sector and confirm whether this is the right path for me.
Prior library is by no means essential if you want to apply for a Graduate Traineeship, and I’ve found myself drawing on skills from other jobs as much as those gained as a Library Assistant. Creating social media content, for example, is something I had previously done as an adventure holiday Tour Representative, and not in the library setting. Customer service skills are always handy; my experience from working in call centres has already proved helpful. Whatever your voluntary or work background, you will most likely have relevant experience to call upon!
Hello! I’m Simone, and I’m the trainee at St John’s College Library & Study Centre this year.
I’m currently finishing off my MA in English Literature which I’ve been studying with Newcastle University for the past year, having graduated with a BA in English Literature and French at Newcastle in July 2019. I work as an intern with Newcastle University’s Special Collections and completed temp work with the university library throughout my degrees. Before that I worked in retail, tutored French in a local school, and worked as an English Language Assistant in France during my year abroad.
I’ve been working in the College Library since the start of September, and I’m really enjoying it so far. Unlike some of the other trainees, I’ve been working on site since the start of my traineeship so I’ve had some extra time to ease into my role. As is the case in many work environments, due to COVID-19 regulations St John’s Library & Study Centre is functioning slightly different from usual. However, there has still been plenty for me to do and learn (albeit at a 2 metre distance!). What could have been an overwhelming experience has been rendered enjoyable by the lovely library team at St John’s. So far, I have been getting to grips with Aleph and classification, learning about the library’s history, and helping to make the Library & Study Centre as safe as possible for incoming and returning students.
My typical day begins with fetching and circulating any Click & Collect requests we may have received from staff and students, and then moving on to other tasks I have to do. These include collecting post, shelving, reviewing reading lists, managing the library’s social media pages, and classifying and processing new books. I have plenty to keep me busy! Throughout this year I will also create a digital exhibition with my colleagues and be involved with St John’s new Diversity & Equality Collection – both of which I’m very excited to be a part of!
Overall, I’m enjoying working at St John’s (and taking advantage of the free lunch!) and I’m looking forward to seeing what will be in store for the rest of the traineeship.
Hello, I’m Nadia, and I’m this year’s St. John’s College trainee. I graduated in July with an English Literature degree from the University of Warwick, and have been working at St. John’s since the start of August. I’ve really enjoyed my first few months as a Library trainee, although I can’t quite believe how quickly the past few months have flown by. During my undergrad degree, I worked and volunteered at my university library in a range of capacities, and I also have some (very limited) experience of working in a public library. These roles nurtured my love of books and libraries, something which has continued to grow during my trainee year so far.
Working in a college is a truly unique setting, and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. The start of my trainee year coincided with St. John’s move into a brand new Library and Study Centre. While this definitely felt like being thrown in at the deep end, it meant that I quickly familiarised myself with the new Library and how it works, as my first jobs included creating new stack signs and a new Library guide (complete with reading room maps). Since the start of term, I’ve been getting more comfortable with usual library jobs – staffing the main desk, fully processing new books and donations, creating book displays, giving tours of the new building, supervising special collections readers, and so on. I like having mini projects to do alongside the daily running of the Library – my main one this week is writing a new special collections blog post on St. John’s current exhibition.
I’ve also been attending the Bodleian training sessions, getting to know the other trainees, and attending the various (library and non-library related) events that are always going on in Oxford. Moving through the rest of the year, I’m excited to learn as much as possible, and get as much out of my year as I can.