Nine Weeks In: Please Send Snacks

Sheffield Hallam’s really rather nice library on the City campus. “Adsetts Centres, Sheffield” by Dan Cook Archived ( is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s less than a month until Christmas and the weather in Sheffield has taken a decidedly wintery turn.  The cold weather is making me very hungry all the time (hence the title). This is, however, a great excuse to head up the hill to Five Rivers Coffee Co. and have a delicious Vietnamese coffee – which is what my afternoon yesterday consisted of. (Note of caution: if you are soft like me, leaving the house without a full complement of coat, scarf, ear muffs, and gloves is not recommended).

I am genuinely in shock that tomorrow is the start of the TENTH week of the semester. I already knew that time flies when you’re having fun, but apparently it also flies when you spend several weeks up to your eyeballs in management literature and grappling with how to format a reference list in APA style. Still, that particular assignment has been handed in now, so I’m ever so slightly more relaxed than I was. Three hand-ins down, seven to go… (Must remember to breathe between now and 15th January).

There’s still lots of good things going on, and as this is Thanksgiving week, this is what I’m feeling grateful for:

  • Information Literacy is still a great module – it has a good coherent structure, the topics are consistently interesting, and I always know what I’m supposed to be doing in between classes (which is no small thing).
  • This week we have been to the University of Leeds and Sheffield Hallam (earlier in the term we ventured to Sheffield Central Library and the Sheffield Schools Library Service). I found both visits really enjoyable. I think that modern university libraries are becoming very similar in a lot of ways (in building design, services, resources, opening hours, etc.) so it’s always interesting to see what sets them apart. In the case of Leeds, I had no idea that they had such huge and varied special collections. We got to have a quick look at the current exhibition on cookery books, which was surprisingly interesting. You can find more information on their special collections at their website.
  • I managed to pin down one of my lecturers for a meeting about a possible dissertation topic. Fortunately, they really liked my potential research question! My next step is to do some more thinking about which methodologies to use, so I’m (impatiently) waiting for the books I’ve requested to be ready to collect from the library.
  • I’m now a fully paid up member of the Stationery Appreciation Society, which could not possibly be more relevant to my interests. I’ve been to a cafe social, a bullet journalling workshop, and a ‘make your own notebook’ session so far. Next week is a ‘make your own pencil case’ workshop in collaboration with StitchSoc and I am already really excited. It’s just so nice to chill out with friendly people and some crafts after a long day of academic reading and writing.

I’m much less grateful that, as mentioned in my previous post, the inconsistency of ‘homework-setting’ has not (yet) improved. It affects me less as a full-time student than it does my coursemates with jobs, but it’s still annoying as it makes it harder to plan out my weeks in advance. Hopefully it will be less of a problem next semester.

Overall, I’m still enjoying my MA experience. I’m keeping up with the deadlines and classwork, as well as shoehorning in time to have some fun and meet new people. Even though the weather is grim (it’s raining really quite hard as I write this), I’m trying to not let it get me down too much. I’ll check back in after my December hand-ins are finished to let you all know if I still feel the same!


Five Weeks In: The View from the Other Side

Sheffield” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Hello to everyone reading this! It seems like it’s been years since I lasted posted on this blog. I did mean to have a mini-hiatus of sorts over the summer, but it definitely wasn’t supposed to go on this long. Of course, life doesn’t work that way – between three different illnesses, two holidays, one bout of dental surgery, moving house, and starting my MA, writing didn’t seem quite so important. But now I’m back! I’m settled into my flat, I’m beginning to get to grips with my course, and I’ve even managed to find some time to have fun. Let the blogging begin!

First, I want to extol the virtues of Sheffield, both the university and the city. I’m really enjoying living here so far. Particular highlights:

  • Free sport every week! I go to Pilates on a Monday and Social Running club on a Wednesday, and those two are the tip of a sizeable iceberg on offer. It’s been a great way to meet people outside my department and detox from all the academic stress.
  • I’m taking full advantage of living so close to Film Unit, the volunteer-run independent student cinema: I’ve now seen six films in five weeks. Turns out it’s impossible to say no to £3 cinema tickets.
  • My accommodation is pretty much equidistant between a largeish Tesco and the city centre, which means Jammie Dodgers are always within reach. Biscuits are v important to making progress with an MA, I find.
  • There are basically endless volunteering opportunities. I’ve signed up to become a Residence Life blogger and my first post should be out next week – it’s all about how to survive uni when you don’t drink. I’ve also signed up to Sheffield Sexpression, which is the local branch of a national charity focusing on empowering young people through high quality sex and relationship education. My ideal job as an academic librarian involves a lot of teaching work, and I have absolutely zip zilch zero experience so far. However, I figure that if I can learn to teach 14 year olds about contraception, then I can pretty much learn to teach anyone anything. I’ll let you all know how that plan goes!

My course so far has been a somewhat mixed bag. There have been some things I’ve really enjoyed and some things that, well, I could have done without. Good things thus far:

  • I’m much more engaged with the Information Literacy module than I thought I would be. I’ve enjoyed all the weeks which have focused on learning and teaching in higher ed, which I’ve become really interested in recently, and I think I’m going to gain a lot from this module.
  • The optional modules are all so tempting that I’m still deciding whether or not to change the ones I’ve already chosen. This is obviously a dilemma, but it’s the best kind of one to have.
  • There’s a lot of group work on the course, both informally in class and formally for assignments. I love to bounce ideas off other people and work in a social environment, so I’m enjoying this aspect. Getting to nerd out about libraries almost every day is definitely warming the cockles of my heart.

However, it’s definitely not been a perfect experience. I agree with Harriet’s post that the irregularity of ‘homework’ setting (for lack of a more grown up word) is annoying. I’m lucky in the sense that I’m a full-time student with no job commitments (yet), but only finding out late on a Thursday evening that you’re going to need to sacrifice your Sunday to the rapacious God of Studying is not exactly thrilling. Further, a lot of our deadlines are very close together, which I’m already mildly stressed about.

Still, overall, I’m having a good time so far. Unlike my first year of undergrad, I’ve managed to meet new people, try new activities and generally put myself out there without having a single panic attack, which is HUGE progress. Moreover, although I’m already feeling a touch of the ol’ deadline panic, I’m still managing to balance work with looking after myself. Yesterday I went to the Sheffield Beer & Cider Festival with friends and it was so nice to just hang out and catch up. Hopefully I’ll be able to hang on to this balance for a while longer, but in any case, I’ll be back in a month to let you know!

Visit: The Parker Library and the Judge Business School Information Centre

Innovative or migraine-inducing? You decide! “Judge Business School” by inkelv1122 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

You’d be hard pressed to find two more different libraries in terms of collection, purpose and building than the Parker and the Judge. The Parker is almost church-like – all vaulted ceilings, huge windows and sombre wooden bookcases – whilst the Judge is a modern, primary-coloured maze of floating staircases and eye strain. Visiting both in one afternoon is actually probably the best way to visit them, as it gives ample opportunity for comparison. As a GT, I use these visits as a way of narrowing down where I would like to work in the future and what areas I would like to explore further in my MA, and this visit was definitely useful in that respect.

One thing I have decided is that rare books librarianship is not the job for me. However, this didn’t stop me enjoying our visit to the Parker. It is one of Corpus Christi’s two libraries and is named after Matthew Parker, who somehow found the time to be an avid antiquarian and historian when he wasn’t busy being a master of Corpus, personal chaplain to Henry VIII and family or the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the Library’s greatest benefactor, bequeathing over 400 manuscripts in 1575, including the 6th century Gospels of St Augustine and the oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

We started our visit with a historical introduction to the library from excitable Sub-Librarian Dr Alex Devine, who has some of the most impressive facial hair I have ever seen. He explained to us that Parker’s collection was put together with a specific purpose: after the English Reformation, Elizabeth I tasked him with proving that the English church was historically independent from Rome. His hard work has definitely paid off – 500 years later the Church of England is still going strong, and the size and beauty of his collection is making manuscript enthusiasts all over the globe very happy.

We then moved on to the terribly difficult task of admiring some of these manuscripts in the flesh. There was Thomas Becket’s favourite Psalter, which was probably with him when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. There was a giant Bible from the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, which has the most beautiful multi-coloured illuminations and illustrations. My favourite things (and Miruna’s too) were the bestiaries, which are basically medieval guides to animals both real and imagined (it is not at all uncommon to see unicorns and dragons intermingled with bears and wolves). What I like so much about them is how little resemblance the illustrations bear to real life animals; the more I see of them, the more I become convinced that the monks who created them had never seen an actual animal in their lives. The BL has some great blog posts on bestiaries: they have written on dogs, elephants, beavers, and some fantastic imagined creatures, amongst others.

After this, we headed downstairs for a quick chat about palaeography and library school with library assistant Charlie. The reading room we sat in contained a healthy collection of reference material relating to manuscripts and that period of history, which seemed like a very sensible idea. It was also next to the safe where the most important and valuable manuscripts are kept, which we were allowed a brief peek into.

After a bit of a chat about library school and what to expect, we had a quick dabble in palaeography. I have to admit, I only knew what palaeography was because I used to live with a medieval history student (hi Aims!). When it came to actually giving it a go, however, I was pretty useless. Charlie (herself a medieval historian) was able to point with confidence to passages of text in one manuscript and say which ones had been written by different authors… me, not so much. Still, it was fun trying to decipher one style of the letter ‘G’ from another, and I learnt about some new things (such as the existence of the pleasingly named Caroline Miniscule).

After saying our thank yous and goodbyes to the staff at the Parker, we headed over to the Judge Business School (JBS) for the second half of our afternoon, which is located on the Old Addenbrooke’s site, near the Fitzwilliam Museum. I knew JBS was going to be a lot more modern than the Parker, but nothing could have prepared me for stepping inside. The interior is truly bonkers – and I loved it immediately. The JBS website explains the method behind the madness: the many balconies and other large break-out spaces were designed to encourage collaboration and networking between the students and staff. If you would like to (virtually) experience the gloriousness for yourself, there are virtual tours available here.

The collection at the JBS Information Centre is the total opposite of what we had seen at the Parker: they were keen to point out that the oldest book in their collection dates from 1954! Their emphasis is simple: modernity, efficiency, convenience. Their focus on these things was clearly visible on their shelves – for example, they have an extremely popular ‘wellness collection’, which contains light-hearted books such as ‘Adulthood is a Myth‘ for when studying all gets a bit too much. Next to this was a pop business/economics collection, providing an easier way in to some of the topics being taught by the School. There was also a really excellent DVD collection, which has an ingenious double purpose – because JBS only teaches postgraduate programmes, all of its students would be classed as ‘mature’, and many have children. The Information Centre therefore provides DVD players as well as the DVDs themselves, so that students can bring their children with them without worrying about how they will be entertained. I was really impressed by the attention to detail shown by the staff at JBS, as well as by how friendly and close-knit they were.

The big thing that the staff were extremely keen to show us was Bloomberg, a mind-blowingly expensive but unbelievably useful financial database. It’s so keenly guarded by its publisher that an academic licence only permits its use on dedicated terminals inside the Information Centre (with their own complicated keyboard), which we were generously permitted to have a go on. You can do all sorts – check out currency conversion rates, track cargo ships in real time – but my favourite was the part aptly (although unofficially) referred to as ‘Billionaire’s Ebay’. If I ever come into enough money to buy a private island off the coast of Connecticut (I am not making this up), I now know where to go.

The last part of the visit was a cold drink and a doughnut on the School’s terrace. Head Librarian Ange, UX Librarian Katie and Deputy Manager Andrew accompanied us for a chat about life as a Business Librarian. They seem to get a lot more free nights out from corporate reps than other librarians we’ve spoken to, but they also work really damn hard, offering services such as ‘Bloomberg Breakfasts’ (aka training on how to use the terminals) and a lot of 1-2-1 sessions focusing not just on library skills, but also on things like employability. Overall, I don’t think I could have been more impressed by the Information Centre and its staff, and it definitely cemented for me that my ideal workplace is somewhere modern, busy and innovative (bonus points if it’s housed in a building as unique as JBS!). Although I enjoyed having a glimpse at the medieval treasures housed at the Parker, rare books/manuscript librarianship is just not where my heart lies.

Visit: The Wellcome Trust and the British Library

Apparently the BL is supposed to look like a ship. I can kind of see it (if I squint a bit, anyway). “British Library” by Sheep purple is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It seems to come as a bit of a surprise to people when I tell them that, despite always having been this much of a giant nerd, I’ve never been to the British Library (BL). I also never took up the University of York’s offer to go in a free minibus to the BL’s Boston Spa site. However, my BL-free life changed (for the better!) on 5 May, when the trainees and I tootled off down to London for another double whammy visit.

The day started, as it so often does, with a grievous coffee mishap: the café at Ely train station didn’t have any skimmed milk, so I had to have a regular latte instead of a skinny one (I KNOW. The AUDACITY.) It took me the entire 78 minute journey to recover from this, but once we reached King’s Cross I was just about okay. It was here the trainee group parted: two headed across the city to the London Library, and the rest of us set off down Euston Road in search of the Wellcome Collection and Library.

Prior to the visit, I knew basically nothing about what went on behind the walls of the Wellcome. They describe themselves as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’, and they are as intriguing and eclectic as they sound. They put on the most amazing sounding exhibitions (there’s still time to see ‘Electricity: the spark of life‘). They also, crucially, maintain a library and a glorious Reading Room.

Our visit properly started with an informal introduction to the Wellcome from library assistant Ed Bishop. Henry Wellcome was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur extraordinaire with a keen interest in collecting books and objects relating to medicine. He made an awful lot of money in his lifetime: his company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, was one of the four which merged to make GlaxoSmithKline. When he died in 1936, he left his money in trust to be spent on improving human and animal health. The Wellcome Trust is now one of the largest biomedical charities in the world. The Wellcome Collection was opened in June 2007 and features some of the 125,000 medical artefacts Henry managed to collect in his lifetime. The Wellcome Library is housed along with the Collection at 183 Euston Road and is tasked with fostering the study of medical history.

The Wellcome Library has a varied audience: students and academics rub shoulders with family historians and the interested public. Some of their physical items are available on open shelves, but the majority is housed in closed stacks. You don’t have to visit in person to enjoy their collections, however: Ed spent lots of time showing us the library’s website, which contains thousands of truly fascinating digital items – everything from Arabic manuscripts to Sexology can be found on there.

We followed up our introduction to the digital with an introduction to the physical space. I actually haven’t found myself thinking ‘I could really study in here’ that often on these visits, but I definitely did on this occasion. The space is brightly lit, well-organised and generally very Wellcome-ing (#sorrynotsorry). The collection of printed items is beautifully bizarre, with a classification scheme I could make neither head nor tail of. The Library is open to everyone, though a library card is required if you wish to request material from the closed stacks, and they do have to turn people away in the busy university exam season.

However, the real gem of the Wellcome (at least in my eyes) is the Reading Room. Formerly Henry Wellcome’s statue room, it is now designated as a ‘bridging’ space between the library and the exhibitions. It is such a gorgeous room – again, very brightly naturally lit, extremely comfortable and designed to encourage interaction with the books and displays in the room. Among the highlights are an excellent collection of scientific, historical and medical literature, interactive displays (you can see one example in Miruna’s blog here) and even a replica of Freud’s couch.

Once we had had our fill of the Wellcome, it was time to grab lunch and head over to the British Library. We were met at the entrance by Amelie Roper, who had coordinated the visit in conjunction with Christ’s College library staff. Heavy time constraints meant that this visit was really a highlights reel of what goes on in the BL, but they were all fascinating nonetheless.

First up was Kevin Mehmet. He gave us a quick walking tour of the library, finishing with a peek down into one of the reading rooms from a small balcony above. He then bamboozled us with some statistics, including that the British Library receives roughly 7000 visitors and 8000 new items every day. This is because the BL is a legal deposit library, like the Cambridge UL, but unlike the other legal deposit libraries, it isn’t allowed to turn items down. No wonder they need to add 12km of new shelving every year! Further, the collection doesn’t just include books: there are also maps, music scores, magazines, patents, and even stamps.* As touched upon in the first paragraph, the collection is spread over two sites: the building we were in, at St Pancras in London, and the Boston Spa site in West Yorkshire.

Next up on the list was Amelie showing us some of the treasures of the Music collection. These were beautifully eccentric and included Beethoven’s tuning fork (apparently a tone higher than it should be) and hair cut from a famous composer’s head after death (I don’t remember exactly who the composer was, but I did find a catalogue entry for a lock of Beethoven’s hair, so it could have been him again). This was a nice reminder that library collections can be about so much more than just books – I love archived objects and artefacts because they can really bring the past alive.

Third on our agenda was Alia Carter from the Two Centuries of Indian Print project. Even though the project is in its pilot stage, it is still a huge undertaking: the digitisation of 4000 early printed Bengali books – that’s over 800,000 pages! Many of these books are unique to the British Library, and so it would be a huge boon to researchers to have these books available in a digitised format. Further, the BL is forming links with academics in India and using the opportunity to promote digital literacy in the country, benefiting the research community in another way. It would also really aid in conserving these books to reduce how much they are physically handled. One interesting point is that Bengali is written in its own alphabet, and so automatically transcribing it with Optical Character Recognition is impossible. A competition is being run at the moment to find the optimal way to make automatic transcription a reality, so if you think you know how you could do it, you can find more information here.

The penultimate session was Jason Webber and his introduction to web archiving. Before 2013, the BL selectively chose which websites they wished to archive. This meant they focused on what they felt would be important and interesting historically, such as materials relating to general elections. However, in 2013 the government introduced the Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print Works) Regulations 2013, which applies to all online work connected to the UK. This means that now the BL uses an annual domain ‘crawl’ to collect online information which is not login-protected without needing permission from the site owner. This ‘crawl’ gathers about 80TB of data a year. Jason then went on to show us the UK Web Archive’s SHINE which is a sort of historical search engine – the material covers 1996-2013. It can also show you how words trended over that period. We did a few example trend searches, such as ‘dog’ vs ‘cat’ and ‘Cambridge’ vs ‘Oxford’; unfortunately cat and Oxford both won, but nonetheless it was interesting to see!

Our final session of the day was again with the lovely Amelie. She is a Digital Music Curator, and so this time she spoke to us about non-print legal deposit – that is, sound recordings, digital sheet music, videos and the like. There is a raging debate in the information world about the relative merits and drawbacks of electronic deposit, and we got into our own mini-version of it right there and then. Humans have been collecting, conserving and archiving print for hundreds of years now, and generally we’ve gotten pretty good at it. However, given the sheer number of items coming into the BL, electronic deposit seems like a more attractive option – less shelf space needed, for one thing. However, Amelie gave us a few examples of where this becomes problematic: for example, lots of digital sheet music requires special software to open it. What happens when this software is no longer supported? What if the file becomes corrupted? What if technology moves on and leaves this file type behind? There’s an awful lot still to be figured out in the world of digital preservation, and the arguments don’t seem like they’ll be dying out any time soon.

All in all, I had a really enjoyable day out in London. The only downside was our limited time in the BL; when asked for feedback on the day a few weeks later, I suggested that the BL trip is made into a full day event. It was clear that the staff there were trying their best but were frustrated with how little time they had available to them. However, I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend both visits to any future GTs or library nerds!

*These figures come from Frankie’s blog post here on the Cambridge Trainees blog (she was smart enough to take notes in the BL; I wasn’t) and from the BL’s ‘Facts and Figures’ page here.