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: Newnham College

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.