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.


Visit: The King’s School, Ely, and Ely Public Library

So we didn’t actually go inside Ely Cathedral, just walk past it, but isn’t it just stunning? “The West Front, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, England” by Spencer Means is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

On a sunny Wednesday at the end of April, I accepted an invitation from Rosie, the GT at the King’s School in Ely, to come and have a nose at her workplace for the afternoon. I am definitely a nosy person so visiting the libraries of the other GTs is always exciting – I like to compare and contrast how we do things at ARU with the place I’m visiting, and see if they’re doing anything fun or different or innovative that I might want to incorporate into my own workplace one day.

I cut it a bit fine with my choice of train, so I started the visit with an uncomfortably sweaty dash up the hill from the train station to the school (I’m always unpleasantly surprised when I encounter an incline in Cambridgeshire). Rosie and Jack were already waiting for me in our pre-arranged meeting place. Due to scheduling clashes, Rosie arranged two visits, this being the second and smaller – just Jack and myself. First stop on our route was the school’s reception, to pick up our deeply flattering visitor badges, then it was a stroll across the road to the library. On the way, Rosie told us a little about the school: King’s is an independent co-educational boarding school which has around 1000 pupils aged 1-18. It was originally founded over 1000 years ago to educate the boy choristers of Ely, and has some impressive alumni – including King Edward the Confessor!

The library Rosie works in is the Senior School library, which is located in the Porta, a beautiful stone building dating from medieval times and previously used as the Bishop’s prison. You get to the library via a narrow spiral staircase, which definitely sets the scene for what is to come. The library itself is unexpectedly lovely: huge windows meant that it was very light and airy (yes, yes, I know, I say that about everywhere), with lots of comfortable chairs and little nooks for curling up with a good book.

First, we were given a quick tour of lower of the two floors, the highlight of which was Rosie’s carefully curated book displays (including one of LGBT-themed books and one of Penguin classics). I was really impressed by the range of books available – I would quite happily have taken home a lot of them! After we’d completed the tour, we just had to have a nice cuppa and a chat about what it’s like to work at King’s. Rosie’s boss, Dr Inga Jones, was also there to answer our questions. She is not just the school librarian, but also leads the school’s EPQ program, which I thought was an interesting feature of her job – and who better than a librarian to teach research skills! I was also really impressed by how hard Inga and Rosie work to encourage reading amongst the pupils: for example, their latest innovation is sending books out of the library and into the form rooms to try and make reading more accessible. (You can see some example book boxes here on the library’s Twitter feed.) They also showed us their homemade booklets of themed reading lists; the one I picked up was books which were becoming films or TV shows in 2017. I thought these were such a good idea that I took one home with me!

After we had had our fill of school library shenanigans, we headed over towards the Ely public library. It was a really beautiful day, so strolling past Ely Cathedral and through the town centre was a lovely break, particularly as I had never been to Ely before. This was the second Cambridgeshire public library we have visited; the first was Cambridge Central, my post on which can be found here.

When we arrived, we were introduced to some of the library’s lovely staff, and then we started our tour. First stop was the children’s section, a real highlight. Lots of public libraries have book trains in their children’s sections, but in homage to Ely’s position in the Fens, they have a gorgeous book boat instead! Our guide told us that children’s book loans have the best numbers of all the loanable items – although it’s worrying to hear that some sections are suffering, it is good that so many local parents and carers are engaging with the library. Ely also do Storytimes and Rhymetimes for the children, which are apparently really popular. Hearing this took me right back to my volunteering experience – I really miss working with the younger kids!

It’s not only young children who are catered for, however. There are weekly ‘Tea and Tablets’ sessions for older people, to help them get to grips with new technologies. School-age children are encouraged through Reading Challenges to become enthusiastic about reading. ‘Shelf Help’ is a scheme to provide helpful books and leaflets on mental health issues – there are separate sections for teenagers and adults so the help provided is always age-appropriate. Lastly, there is an Adult Learning Centre based in the library. This offers tutor-supported learning, training on how to get online, and careers information and advice, amongst other things. I think public libraries are amazing places just because of the sheer variety of services which they provide – and all of them are so important.

A really nice thing to see was a number of boxes for book groups; there were so many that they are clearly thriving in Ely. Another nice touch was the Ely Cathedral and local history collections, which were absolutely chock-full of great information about the history and geography of the area. We were particularly taken by a book of Cambridgeshire slang – Rosie is a local girl and could attest to the enduring existence of some of the phrases recorded!

Overall, I was very enthused by the excellent work both King’s and Ely Public Library are putting in to making their library a comfortable, accessible and enjoyable place to spend time. It was interesting to contrast King’s with the public library; there is a definite and noticeable difference in the value placed on the library as an institution between the privately funded school and the publicly funded library. It might have been interesting to have also visited a state school on the day, to more clearly compare and contrast the differences between the two and see how state school library provision is faring in this age of austerity.

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.

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

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!