Visit: Newnham College

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It’s just ludicrously pretty, isn’t it? “Newnham College” by Steve Cadman is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

All the way back in 2016, all the trainees from Cambridge were invited to spend a couple of hours in the library at Newnham College. I was unable to attend then, so instead I got in touch with Newnham’s lovely GT, Frankie, and organised a trip for the Easter vacation. I was lucky enough to be able to bring four of my colleagues with me, so it was a proper ARU family affair!

The first thing that struck me about Newnham College was the relatively large size for a college library, both in terms of the building itself and the collection. The building was built in two halves: the Yates Thompson Library dates from 1897, whilst the Horner Markwick building was added in 2004. Both are really airy and light – the glass roof really does let the most beautiful natural light in. The collection is also one of the largest for a college library; there are roughly 90,000 volumes alongside 6,000 rare books. There is a simple historical reason behind this relatively large size: Newnham was the second college to admit women (and still does exclusively), and women were not permitted to use the University Library. This meant that Newnham had to provide everything that its students would require, and it keeps that tradition up to this day: the collection encompasses all subjects and about 1000 new volumes are added every year.

We were given a quick tour around the library, the IT room, and the group study room. One thing I really liked was that current periodicals and modern fiction were kept in a cosy little nook, complete with comfy chairs and beanbags. It made for a really welcoming sight and I was relieved when Frankie told us that it was a popular spot. There’s an ongoing academic debate about the suitability of recreational reading materials in academic libraries, but personally I am definitely in favour. After the tour, we were given the chance to see some of the library’s collection of children’s fairytales and folk stories, which were on display as an exhibit on ‘Writing for Children’ had been held by the College in February. This was particularly interesting to us as ARU has a fantastic MA in Children’s Book Illustration, and we get to see lots of children’s books every day, but rarely any as vintage as these.

On our way to the rare books room we got to have a peek at another display of children’s writing, this time books written by alumnae of the college, which was interesting and a tad weird because I actually own one of them. (‘Girl, 15, Flirting for England’ by Sue Limb, in case you were wondering.) Above the glass display cabinet was a wall display about Newnham’s first 70 years, which were somewhat turbulent (to put it mildly). Cambridge took a circuitous route to awarding degrees to women – for example, in 1921 a vote to grant degrees with substance to women was refused, and instead it was decided that degrees ‘in title only’ were to be awarded. Male undergraduates celebrated this victory by destroying Newnham’s bronze gates. Degrees with substance were not awarded to women until 1948 – 76 years after Newnham was founded.

After we had been suitably shocked by these facts, we proceeded into the rare books room. It is climate-controlled, so library staff tend to take the rare books out to the main library to be read by patrons, rather than make them sit in the cold air. Debbie, the College Librarian, told us that the majority of the collection were donations, which makes it rather eclectic; for example, there’s a strong holding of German romantic poetry! Again, Newnham’s rare books collection is relatively large for a college, which shows that people really believe in the mission of the college and want to support it – always a good sign.

Our next treat was a visit to the College Archives. The Library employs an archivist, Anne, who very kindly showed us some of the treats from the collection. Two highlights were a student’s chunky scrapbook, which was absolutely full of theatre and sports match tickets, and a rather heavy tennis dress (with an ankle length skirt and long sleeves!) from the 19th century, complete with a sepia photo of students from the College in similar dresses. I really enjoy seeing objects in archives, as for me they are more immediately evocative of their era than more traditional paper documents.

Our penultimate activity was that librarian classic: a good chat over a cup of tea and some biscuits. We talked a lot about the differences between our libraries, particularly the size of our student bases – Newnham has about 700 students, compared to the 11,000 at the ARU Cambridge campus! We still had lots of the same problems, though, especially policing food, which definitely made me feel better.

The very last thing we did was have a quick tour of the College gardens, kindly led for us by Debbie. Newnham really is very beautiful, and it will be even more so when the roses in the rose garden start to bloom. It’s definitely a hidden gem, and one I would definitely recommend visiting if you ever get the chance.

Open Day: BIALL/CLSIG/SLA Europe Graduate Open Day

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The New Reading Room” by Peter Alfred Hess is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

There’s a Facebook group for current Graduate Trainees, which was set up earlier this year by Grace, one of the GTs from the University of Essex. A little while ago, someone posted a link in the group to this event on the CILIP website, and I was immediately intrigued. My entire experience in libraries so far has been in academic and public libraries, so the prospect of getting the chance to learn about lots of different kinds of ‘non-traditional’ libraries was really exciting. Chloe, the lovely trainee from St John’s College, also signed up to the day, which I really appreciated – networking does not come naturally to me, so having someone there who I already know is always comforting.

Before I start, here’s a quick rundown of all the acronyms mentioned in the post:

  • BIALL: British and Irish Association of Law Librarians
  • CILIP: Chartered Institute of Legal and Information Professionals
  • CLSIG: Commercial, Legal and Scientific Interest Group (a Special Interest Group within CILIP)
  • SLA Europe: the European chapter of the Special Libraries Association 

The event was held at CILIP HQ in London, about 25 minutes away from King’s Cross – handy, because the day started at 09:30 and my train didn’t get in until 09:05. The day properly started with coffee and mingling, but geography and trains conspired so that I missed that. For me, therefore, the day started with two speakers: Catherine Johnson from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Jon Beaumont from Shearman & Sterling LLP. It was really interesting to have these two speakers one after the other, because they have very different career histories: Catherine has worked in several different countries and worked in many kinds of libraries, whereas Jon has only had about four jobs total and all of his library experience is in the legal sector. It’s always reassuring to see that it is possible to end up where you want to be, even if you have to take a long-winded route! They both finished their talks by providing us with some good advice for when we’re hunting for our first professional jobs. Catherine emphasised being adventurous and making the most even of terrible jobs; Jon focused on the importance of genuine enthusiasm and interest in what you’re doing.

The third talk of the day was given by Neil Currams and Victoria Sculfor from Sue Hill Recruitment, whose subject was ‘How to Succeed at Interviews’. Interviews are not my strong suit, so I wrote a lot of notes on this talk. What they emphasised most was the importance of preparation – even down to the small details like ensuring you have a good handshake. They also mentioned the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique for answering interview questions, which is practical advice I definitely think I will use in the future. Although a lot of their advice seemed like common sense, I still found listening to the talk really helpful, especially now that I have lots of notes all in the same place to refer back to in the future.

The last presentation before our library visit was from Richard Nelsson of The Guardian’s library (they have their own Twitter – you can check them out here). He was perhaps the most pessimistic of the day’s speakers, although this is perhaps not surprising as newspaper libraries are a shadow of what they once were. He did still have some good advice to share: the two things he emphasised most were the importance of tailoring how you supply your information to your specific users – journalists have different needs to students who have different needs to lawyers etc. – and the surprising usefulness of ‘non-traditional’ library skills, such as SEO/keyword usage, web analytics and sourcing photographs. Given how many university libraries are involved in social media, blogging and the like, I think all of these could also easily be put to use in an academic workplace.

After we’d sat still and attentive for so long, it was time for us to stretch our legs and head off on our library visits. Half the group was destined for the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, which is attached to the University of London. However, at this point I’m pretty much allergic to anything with ‘Legal Studies’ in the title, so Chloe and I set off instead for the Wiener Library in Russell Square. I hadn’t heard of the Wiener Library before I signed up for this day, but it turned out to be absolutely fascinating. It is named after Dr Alfred Wiener, a Jewish man from Germany who worked against anti-semitism and who eventually was forced to flee to Amsterdam. There, he set up the Jewish Central Information Office, which archived materials pertaining to the Nazi regime. After the November Pogrom of 1938, Dr Wiener relocated the archive to London and helped the British government with the war effort. After the end of the war, the Library helped lawyers at the Nuremberg trials and also assisted in establishing Holocaust Studies as an academic discipline. Whilst the main bulk of the collection is related to the Holocaust, the library now also houses information on subsequent genocides, such as Rwanda in the 1990s. The history and politics of the 20th century has always been a huge interest of mine, so it was really interesting just to browse the shelves and see the variety of material they have. It also helps that the library building itself is really beautiful (see the photo at the top of this post).

Probably the most interesting and important, but also most heart-breaking, aspects of the library is its access to the International Tracing Service Digital Archive. The Wiener Library website explains it better than I could:

In December 2011, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office deposited the UK’s digital copy of the International Tracing Service Archive at The Wiener Library. This unique archive contains over 100 million pages of Holocaust-era documents relating to the fates of over 17.5 million people who were subject to incarceration, forced labour and displacement during and after World War II. The archive is now available at the Library to those who wish to examine documents related to their own fate or to that of family members during World War II. The digital copy is also available for consultation in the Reading Room for those interested in conducting historical research within the collections. 

After we had finished at the Wiener Library, it was back to CILIP HQ for lunch. This lasted for an hour, which I was a bit worried would be too long, but it actually passed quite quickly. Chloe and I spoke to a variety of people, including a GT from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and several students from the University of the West of England. It was probably the first real opportunity I’ve had since the Sheffield Open Day to meet other library enthusiasts who aren’t currently in East Anglia, so it was really interesting to compare postgraduate options and swap stories about our current positions. All nerds are big fans of talking about what they love with other people who love that thing, and I am no exception.

Once lunch was over, we trooped back upstairs and settled down for four more presentations. The first was from Susie Kay, of the Professionalism Group. Susie had a big personality and an engaging presentation style, so she was a good choice to do the dreaded post-lunch slot, when everyone is sleepy. Her advice was applicable to a wide range of careers, not just librarianship: always be empathetic, honest and authentic; make sure to think about your legacy; and remember that continuing professional development is key.

Next up was Binni Brynolf from Chatham House (also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs). Binni was probably the coolest person I have ever seen – they are certainly the first librarian I have met with purple hair, but hopefully not the last! They first worked in academic libraries, both in Sweden and then in the UK, before moving into more specialist libraries. They gave us a quick overview of the main differences between academic and specialist libraries, which was helpful for thinking about what kind of environment I would like to work in after my MA.

The last two presentations were unfortunately the ones I have the fewest notes on. The penultimate talk was from Karen Crouch of the University of Law, who spoke to us about her job. Her most memorable piece of advice was, when interviewing, to specifically demonstrate your capabilities – do not think you can get away with vague statements! Lastly, Tracey South and Jayne Winch from CB Resourcing gave us a talk on job hunting and the particular importance of social media – there’s a lot of jobs being advertised on Twitter nowadays. They gave away goodie bags at the end of the day, the contents of which included their presentation on a USB stick, so I have that to peruse whenever I need some job hunting advice.

The very last part of the day was a panel Q&A with some of the day’s speakers. They reminded us that libraries can be found in many sectors: further and higher education, the legal sector, corporate firms, the third sector, even the government. To this end, we need to think laterally and be curious about all the opportunities which are out there. Finally, we must always network network network!

After everything was packed up, there was a general invitation to go with the speakers to the pub, but Chloe and I decided against it and headed back to King’s Cross. We were very tired, but overall it was a really informative and enjoyable day. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to future GTs!

Visit: Christ’s and Pembroke Colleges

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This is the entrance to Christ’s College. I hope it gives some clue as to why I had such trouble with it. “Christ’s” by Sean Hickin is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Our last visit of March was yet another joint visit: this time to Christ’s and Pembroke. This was a really nice visit because it was the first time I got to see another trainee’s workplace. (The other trainees got to visit Newnham back at the beginning of the academic year, but unfortunately I missed it.) Our visit to Christ’s was first up on the agenda, and it got off to a bad start (as it so often does with me): I turned right one turn too early and soon found myself wandering over on the other side of Cambridge, rather than standing inside Christ’s College. My bad.

Roughly 40 minutes later (no, I don’t know how I managed it either) I was finally at Christ’s. Beth, their GT, led us through the College to the library. It comes in two parts: the Working Library, which is open 24/7 365, and the Old Library, which keeps more limited hours. The Old Library houses around 50,000 rare books and manuscripts and holds two exhibitions a year – on this visit we got the opportunity to visit what was on at the time: ‘The Theater of Plants: herbs, honey and horticulture across five centuries‘, which Beth had had a hand in curating.

We also had the opportunity to look at some of the Christ’s more treasured items, including a book from the library of Lady Margaret Beaufort, who founded the college, and the first book to be printed and bound in Antarctica, more detail about which can be found here.

One of the more memorable things for me was how small Christ’s felt – its student body is only about 600ish students, whereas ARU serves 11,000 in Cambridge alone. It made for a different kind of atmosphere; a lot quieter, if nothing else. Further, a relatively unusual feature of Christ’s (at least for the college libraries of the University of Cambridge) is the presence of a music hire library. We have quite a lot of sheet music at ARU so this didn’t seem particularly out of place to me, but the other GTs seemed quite impressed and enthused by the collection. The last memorable thing was the skeleton! It’s kept in a locked cupboard on Floor 3 and definitely makes for a rib-tickling conversation starter (… I know, I know, I’ll see myself out).

After we had a quick chow down on some of Beth’s homemade triple chocolate cookies (so good I had two), we headed over to Pembroke. Whereas Christ’s is relatively chilled as far as Cambridge College libraries go – the students are permitted hot drinks, for example – Pembroke is extremely strict. It’s totally silent, and no food or drink (except bottle water) allowed. It makes up for this by being truly, almost unfairly beautiful: it’s all shiny wood, high ceilings and stained glass windows. (You can see a virtual tour here.) We were given the briefest tour (it’s honestly not that big, and it’s pretty difficult to tour properly with the noise restrictions) and then led up to the Yamada Room. Here, we were given an introduction to Law Libraries and the types of resources one might come across there. This session was led by Natalie, the Assistant Librarian, who did her Trainee year in one of the Inns of Court and went on to work in the legal sector for a few years before entering academic libraries. All the resources were already familiar to me (that undergraduate Law degree wasn’t for nothing) but it was really interesting to hear about life in the legal sector and how it’s different to working in universities. I found out afterwards that one of my supervisors was actually Natalie’s predecessor as the GT at Lincoln’s Inn, which just goes to show how small the library world is! The legal talk was also well-timed, as I attended this event on non-academic libraries a few weeks later.

We ended the visit with some sneaky biscuits and fizzy drinks and a good ol’ chat. Overall, this was another really enjoyable visit, particularly because I got to have a peek at what other GTs get to do on a day-to-day basis.

Visit: Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium and Whipple Library

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It is not easy to find Creative Commons images of either the Whipple or the CCCC, so have one of a bit further down Free School Lane instead. ‘Free School Lane, Cavendish Laboratory‘ by David Incoll is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

March’s second and final visit was another joint venture: this time to the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium (CCCC) and the Whipple Library (who actually have their own blog here). It was a gloriously sunny day, perfect for a stroll around the delights of Cambridge… although, of course, we ended up spending most of it inside. However, the lovely and unusual things which we were able to see more than made up for it.

I had never heard of the CCCC before this visit was arranged, and when we arrived they told us that they liked it that way! It was quite a difficult building to find, and I definitely wouldn’t have managed it alone. Once we had all successfully arrived, we were whisked upstairs into the beautifully naturally lit conservation studio for an insight into what being a conservator is like.

Firstly, we were introduced to three of the CCCC’s staff: manager Bridget, and conservators Françoise and Claude. Bridget gave us a quick overview of how the Consortium runs and who it serves (it has 11 Colleges as permanent members, plus four annual associate memberships, which rotate between Colleges). An organisation like this is really important to a university like Cambridge, because every College’s collection will include at least some precious and fragile items: rare books, manuscripts, archives, etc.

Each of the conservators showed us a project they were working on. Claude was first: he had some land deeds from Christ College, which were in quite a poor state. He was working on flattening them out and repairing some of the damaged parts, and then preparing them to be packaged away again in boxes so that they could be stored in the College. Claude told us that ideally such documents would be kept flat, as this is the most effective way to preserve them, but these needed to be boxed due to space constraints. A detail that has stayed with me about these deeds was seeing the holes in the paper where the iron in the ink had rusted and eaten its way through – you never really think that ink could cause damage like that.

Françoise then showed us her project – Chinese books from (I think) St John’s College. They were unusual because their binding was different from standard Western binding, which meant that they required extra special conservation to make sure that they do not lose their unique character. In contrast, Bridget showed us some examples of poor Western bookbinding – extremely tightly compressed books, with binding which did not allow the pages to be read properly. We were all quite shocked at the obvious problems with the binding, but Bridget explained that the fact that the College had bothered to foot the cost for sending them out for binding repairs showed that they really did value the book – definitely a point I hadn’t thought of.

Overall, I did enjoy seeing the CCCC because of the stark difference between our jobs. However, whilst I can appreciate the historical and aesthetic qualities of rare books and manuscripts, they are not where my heart lies, so for me the visit to the Whipple was the more interesting and valuable visit of the day.

The Whipple Library is, surprise surprise, next door to the Whipple Museum on Free School Lane. It’s the department library for History and Philosophy of Science, which means that I would find 100% of the books fascinating, but probably only about 10% of them understandable. Its head librarian is Anna Jones, who to be honest was the real highlight of the visit – she was funny, knowledgeable and extremely welcoming. She started the visit by telling us all about the history of the Library. Both it and the Museum came about as the result of a bequest by a Mr Robert Whipple, who for thirty years was Managing Director of the Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company. He collected scientific instruments, books and models, and in 1944 gave a large donation of books and instruments to the University in order to further teaching and learning. The library is now one of the largest libraries in the UK for the history and philosophy of science. Whipple was also an obsessive notekeeper, so the library also has his ledger, listing when and how much for he bought the items which started the library.

I was really taken with the building itself: it has two distinct halves, creatively named the Old Library and the New Library. The New Library is new to being a library, but the building itself is definitely not new – it dates from the late 19th century and used to be a lecture theatre for the Department of Material Science. Both halves are really light and airy – very important for a good study atmosphere, I think – and seem very comfortable. There are some scientific instruments in and around the bookshelves, which adds a nice touch to the space.

Once we had seen the building, Anna spoke to us for quite a while about some of the more important or unique books in the collection. These include a first edition of Newton’s Principia and a book by a somewhat controversial German physicist called Carl Freidrich von Weizsäcker – the book was printed in Paris during Nazi occupation, and somehow avoided being systemically destroyed after the war as most other such books were. The most entertaining item was probably a first edition of John Wilkins’ An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language from 1668. Amongst other things, Wilkins proposes a design for how all the animals could have fit onto Noah’s Ark. He was especially mindful of what the carnivores would eat whilst they floated on the seas, and to this end he filled the entire middle deck with sheep. I’m still not 100% sure how this fits into the book’s purpose (to develop a universal language) but it definitely made us all smile – a charming end to two really enjoyable visits.