Visit: Christ’s and Pembroke Colleges

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

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.

Visit: Schlumberger Gould Research Centre and Churchill Archives Centre

Schlumberger Draft” by Nigel Cooke is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The first of two visits in March was a joint adventure to the Schlumberger Gould Research Centre (SGR) and then to the Churchill Archives Centre.

SGR is housed in what can only be described as a ‘unique’ building in West Cambridge (see above!). We were welcomed to the visit by Rachel, the SGR librarian, and Miruna, their Graduate Trainee. (I mentioned Miruna’s own blog in my last post, but if you would like to read more, it can be found here). They also employ two other members of staff who are mainly responsible for SGR’s online library – very important for a company whose staff members work in more than 85 countries around the world.

Schlumberger is ‘the world’s leading provider of technology for reservoir characterization, drilling, production, and processing to the oil and gas industry’. This lends their library some distinct characteristics. Firstly, it serves professional workers, rather than students. This means that physically it is quite small, but it’s  a very welcoming and sociable space. It was designed with its own specific type of user in mind, so it features a multitude of magazines and newspapers (both on a digital reader and physical copies), comfortable sofas, and, most importantly, the best coffee machine on the site, which we got to sample later in the visit. The library also holds social events for the staff, including film nights. Secondly, its stock is very specialist, due to the technical nature of the work going on. Many items are purchased by the staff member themselves, and they are reimbursed later by their departments. In fact, until recently, the library didn’t actually have a book-buying budget, which seems totally alien to me!

After our library tour, Gary Oddie, a very enthusiastic gentleman from the Fluid Mechanics department, showed us around their playground… I mean research laboratory. I wasn’t very good at A-Level Chemistry when I was doing it five years ago, and my scientific knowledge has diminished further still since. However, Gary made lots of allowances for the gaps in our knowledge, and his enthusiasm was infectious. It’s always fun to see somewhere totally different to where I work, and SGR is definitely that.

This was followed by a chance to sit down and have a chat over coffee and cake with Rachel and Miruna. Rachel gave us a quick introduction to Schlumberger as a company and then Miruna spoke to us about what her job entails. For me, one of the most interesting things was to see the videos Miruna has been making about how to use the online library, using free Adobe Spark software. I thought this was definitely something that I could take into my current workplace, or any I am lucky enough to get in the future. Her videos looked really professional and we’re always looking for new ways to engage people with the information we’re trying to give them, so I’ve stored it in the back of my mind for the right time.

It was really interesting to see a commercial library for the first time as a GT. I’m attending an open day at CILIP HQ in April on commercial, legal and scientific libraries, so the SGR visit was definitely well-timed! I really enjoyed the visit and am looking forward to spending the day thinking about the different ways libraries can respond to their users and how they can design both a physical and an online presence which responds to their unique needs.

There aren’t any Creative Commons shots of the Archives Centre on Flickr so have a nice shot of the college itself instead. “Churchill College” by John Lord is licensed under CC BY 2.0

After we’d had our coffee and cake, it was time to get in our taxi and head over the Churchill Archives Centre. We started our visit with a brief visit to the permanent Churchill – Founder and Foundation exhibition in the Wolfson Hall Foyer. What I managed to catch in our short visit was really interesting, and I would love to go back and finish it properly.

Next on the itinerary was to head up the stairs into the Archive Centre. The Centre was purpose built in 1973, thirteen years after the College itself was founded, to house Churchill’s papers – about 3000 boxes worth! He’s not the only person with extensive documentation housed there: there are also collections of papers from politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, as well as famous scientists such as Rosalind Franklin and Lise Meitner.

Our tour guides for the visit were three lovely archive assistants – Julia, Natasha and Heidi. All three were really chatty and enthusiastic; it was clear how much they love their jobs, which is always good to see. They showed us into one of the reading rooms, where they had laid out some of the archive’s treasures for us to peruse. These included Churchill’s school reports (he was never very well-behaved – including eating too much at mealtimes!) and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, which she donated to the Archives. The ladies also told us a little about the history of Churchill College and some recent exhibits which they had organised, including one about women in science to coincide with International Women’s Day. I have absolutely no experience with archives, so I enjoyed hearing about what they do with the collection and how they try to engage with people who might otherwise never set foot in the Centre. It would an absolute crying shame for these fascinating and important historical documents to be hidden away – I applaud the efforts of the Centre’s staff to share them as much as possible.

After we’d had a suitable gander at our own mini exhibition, we were taken for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour. The most striking thing about the strong rooms where the collections are housed is just how big they are! I think I mostly (wrongly) assume that archives are quite small, cramped places, but these are definitely not. Whilst we were behind the scenes, we got the opportunity to have a chat about the operation of archives and all the problems that come with them – everything from controlling the temperature to trying to catalogue photographs of people you’ve never seen before. A really interesting subject that came up was about what are called ‘born-digital‘ archives. The Archives Centre is going to be receiving Gordon Brown’s archive soon, but not in paper form – all his documents were created on computers and will be delivered on memory sticks. This raises all sorts of challenging questions about preservation and copyright, amongst others. I hadn’t encountered anything like this before, but I definitely plan to learn more about these issues and how they can be overcome.

The last part of the visit was also the most delightful – we got to have a glimpse at Stanley the Black Cat, aka Margaret Thatcher’s cat-shaped doorstop from Number 10. It was such an odd but totally charming thing to ask the Archives Centre to preserve, and it really did entertain us all. The perfect ending to a really lovely day.

As a final aside – one thing we learnt that did make me smile was that we were told that Churchill had wanted the College to be built in the neo-gothic style, but it ended up brutalist instead – oops!

Visit: Cambridge Trainees Come to ARU


It felt right to include this post for posterity reasons; it’s an important part of my trainee year to host everyone else and show them the kind of things I get up to on a daily basis. However, I think that it’s probably more interesting to read about the visit from the perspective of someone who doesn’t spend 37 hours a week in this building. Therefore, if you would like to, you can find the lovely Beth’s blog post on the Cambridge trainees’ blog here and the equally lovely Miruna’s post here. Back to me though now (it’s short, I promise!).

On 23rd February, the other Graduate Trainees from the Cambridge area came to visit ARU for the morning. It was really enjoyable to see everyone again and to show them around my workplace. It’s definitely made me more excited to see where everyone else is based and how different it is to what I’m used to. (On that note, a blog post about my trip to Schlumberger and the Churchill Archive Centre is coming soon!)

I started the visit with a tour of the first three floors of the library (the top floor is silent, and the students do not like it when we tour a big group round it). The ground floor is designated for group work, which means it is the noisiest. It also contains the help desk, all of the self-service machines, the majority of the printers and, most importantly, the main office. It’s therefore where I spend most of my time. The first floor houses CDs, DVDs and music scores; the second, book stock from 000 to 699; and the third, book stock from 700-999. We also have 8 study rooms and 4 study pods, plus a training room, a video conferencing room, a consultation room… It’s no wonder the tour took a while!

After the tour, we all sat down with hot drinks and biscuits to have a good chat. We were joined by one of our Customer Service Supervisors, the Customer Services Manager and the Academic Services Manager, which gave the other trainees the opportunity to ask questions about a broad range of library-related things: everything from acquiring books to the various ways we communicate with our students. There was a lot of nostalgia too, as for most of us trainees, the library at ARU is much more familiar from our own university experiences than the Cambridge colleges. ARU does a lot of things differently to the college libraries, so I hope it was interesting for the other trainees to get an insight into a bigger, more modern academic library.