Exhibiting the Written Word

T. H. Harrison. "Letter to Oxford". Oxford : 1933.

A text that I am currently thinking of displaying online to undergraduate readers. T. H. Harrison accuses the Oxford students of the 1930s of having no backbone:
“It is unthinkable that these vile boys in Univ. should beat up Stephen Spender…But I am for intolerance. I am for beat ups. I am for good red hate. Put the miserable little man in the river. Put everyone in the river.”
Should be entertaining to exhibit.

Exhibiting the Written Word, a report about displaying texts from the National Library of Scotland, raises lots of thought-provoking points and provides interesting case studies with pictures.  I came across it through Helen Vincent’s IFLA conference presentation on “The library and the display of text”.

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IFLA conference: Marketing of rare and special collections in a digital age

Papers from the recent IFLA conference are now available online for those of us who didn’t make it to Helsinki. An interesting bunch of papers made up session 87 on “Marketing of rare and special collections in a digital age”. This include lots about marketing to new audiences particularly, but not exclusively, through digital technologies.

They’re all worth a read, as is Daryl Green’s post from the session. The paper that has got me thinking (and wanting to act) most is Helen Vincent’s on “The library and the display of text”. I found it almost revelatory to be reminded that books are texts for reading as well as being artifacts, having spent a lot of time demonstrating the reverse. Her four principles for thinking about displaying texts seem practical as well as inspirational and have already filled me with ideas for how I could put them into practice. They are as follows (but must be read in context of the rest of the paper):

  • An exhibition of texts should always want to promote engagement with the texts displayed.
  • The interpretation around a text-based exhibition should try to do some of the work of reading.
  • The planning of exhibitions of text should always consider providing orientation into and out of the texts on display.
  • An exhibition in a library site should consider how to use that context to relate back to the library itself.

I found the papers that tackled online modes of promotion and access more problematic. I would not dispute that social networks, online exhibitions etc. are useful for attracting new audiences and should be fully experimented with, but I would like to read a more nuanced discussion of this mode of interaction which is based on priviledged access to hardware and a good internet connection. Does that not limit the type of new audience that can get access to special collections this way?

Another issue, from my own experience, is that groups who are totally unfamiliar with historic libraries and their physical collections do not fully appreciate their potential until they have experienced them physically. Example: primary school teachers were politely interested when shown pictures and descriptions of a seventeenth-century library. Once they had stood in the space, looked at it, smelled it, seen some of the books, they were enthused and full of ideas about how it was relevant to their students and teaching. So can online networks really attract audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be interested? Some real life examples would be useful.

These are just my sketchy first impressions. I recommend reading the papers.

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Two conferences to watch…

Marketing and advocacy for special collections is up for discussion this year. Two big conferences will include talk of outreach and access for varied audiences.

CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group annual conference, Speaking Truth to Power: making special collections work in times of recession, includes a session on “Renaissance Books: Schools outreach at the Museum of the History of Science” as well as other talks that are sure to touch on the subject.

The IFLA conference has a session devoted to Marketing of rare and special collections in a digital age. Whilst there is not much information about the content of the individual talks on the webpage, the titles promise a wide-ranging discussion. I’m hoping to find out all about it from someone who can make it to Helsinki!

Is anyone reading planning to go to either conference?

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A new professional’s perspective

A new professional finds out about working in special collections outreach – Polly Harper

Naomi very kindly invited me to write a guest blog post from the perspective of someone very interested in, and wanting to explore further, the area  of outreach library work. One of the major elements of my Graduate Traineeship this year at Newnham College Library, Cambridge, has been the chance to visit different libraries and sample various aspects of library work to consider what it is I really enjoy doing within the field.

From my previous experience working within public libraries I knew that it was very much, as clichéd as it sounds, the ‘working with people’ aspect of the job I most loved and thrived off. In a public library there seemed, more overtly at least, to be much greater scope for working with ‘the public’ directly (obviously!). Every week I partook in story time, reading aloud and playing guitar (Old Macdonald and The Wheels on the Bus will never be the same for me again…) I also loved helping with different holiday activities such as arts and crafts afternoons.

Moving towards working in academic libraries, however, I wasn’t really sure how this aspect of work could transfer across. Certainly, I enjoy working with students- it is the interaction with them which I most enjoy, affirming the point of the job itself. Giving induction tours, also, I have found I really enjoy, as I suppose it is the one real moment you have a personal contact with so many students at once, that one major chance that can make or break the student-library staff relationship. Hopefully, it is always ‘made’. Yet, aside from this, I confess I wasn’t sure how much opportunity there was within academic libraries for working, perhaps with young people (younger than university age I mean) or indeed the general public.

However, as I visited a very busy Christ’s library open exhibition during Open Cambridge, I realised (foolishly late I see now…) the many opportunities an institution such as Cambridge, with libraries holding a plethora of treasures, provides. Everywhere there seem to be natural hoards of goods just waiting to be unveiled, which would appeal, and should be accessible to, the public.

I then decided to investigate this further, and heard about all Naomi’s outreach work at St John’s College, working particularly with young people.  I contacted Ryan Cronin, who currently leads the outreach work at St John’s and spoke to him about perhaps visiting and seeing the sort of things that are involved with this line of work. Fortunately, he was able to show me the old library, and I could see how, even purely the space itself holds a great appeal for visitors. The amount of resources was impressive, which I could see had been built up over time with much hard work. Ryan explained to me a number of different activities he had arranged. Although on the surface it may not seem that precious artefacts and rare books lend themselves easily to children’s activities, I found there to be a lot of creativity involved. Ryan explained how looking at, for example,  their slavery –related collection, children were able to act out an enslavement boat scenario across the Cam, approaching St John’s, before being brought to auction at the library, thus bringing the whole event to life! It revealed to me all is takes is a small amount of thinking outside the box, beyond simply the books or objects on show themselves,  and you have yourself an engaging event.

On the back of this visit, I really wanted to actually experience an outreach event, and hopefully lend a helpful hand at the same time! Rebecca Watts at St John’s library is currently working on the Samuel Butler Project, a gathering together, sorting and promotion of a collection left to the library from the polymath Samuel Butler. Part of this programme’s status is promoting its wealth of interest and working with schools and young people. I was invited to help at an event, working  with a group of 14-17 year olds. The task they were asked to do was to be a curator for the day. This involved examining a collection of various objects and papers Rebecca had presented within the old library, a number of which shared a theme, e.g. Butler’s s interest in music. With little information given to them, the group had to work out what they were looking at, make notes, and see what was of interest. Eventually they were to decide on artefacts they would choose for their own hypothetical museum exhibition, choosing a title and an over-riding theme for the whole affair. I wasn’t sure how the event would flow, having never experienced one before, but it was so wonderful to see how interested the majority were, and the interesting conversations I was able to have with them. Many questions were asked, keen to learn more. Some were eager, even, to take away the artefacts for an actual exhibition, although sadly we had to deter them from this…

All in all the majority of the students seemed to enjoy it, wowed by the wonderful setting of Cambridge, but also genuinely excited to learn more and realise the wealth of treasures that may lurk within libraries. For me, it was equally enlightening. I truly enjoyed helping out and I can tell this is exactly the sort of thing I would love to do, making the job really feel alive. I am well aware I have not had to be involved in the large amount of preparations for this, so I was only part of the fun bit, but I think that is something I would enjoy too. I am also aware a job solely doing outreach doesn’t exist within libraries, but I hope it is something I can work my way towards.

I do have my worries and questions, still, however. Outside more obviously famous institutes such as Cambridge, is there much chance within academic library work generally for outreach? Is having a special collection the only real way to attract visitors? Are public/school libraries an area more suited to my interest really? Though I may have many questions, in beginning this exploration of outreach work, I have at least answered and affirmed questions I had within myself. This is certainly something I want to do.

– Polly Harper is currently Graduate Trainee at Newnham College, Cambridge –

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Tours 2

Back in January, I visited Merton College Library (“the oldest continuously functioning library for university academics and students in the world”). I was impressed by the access that members of the public have to this historic Library through a scheme of tours. Merton’s tours work on a different model from the scheme at the Parker Library in Cambridge, hopefully leading this post to be anything but a dull remake of that first post about tours.

Merton's historic library

©The Warden and Fellows of Merton College Oxford

The most exciting thing about Merton’s tours (apart from the beautiful Library itself) is that they are written and delivered by students at the College, with guidance and support from Library staff.  The students are given training, including attending other guided tours around the city, and receiving a college history bibliography. They are also paid for their time. The Librarian told me that the students really throw themselves into it. Some do extra research about College history or add things from their own areas of interest. The Librarian gave the example of an Archaeology student who researched the archaeological history of the College to find stories for her tour.

Each year one of the experienced tour guides acts as tour coordinator managing the rotas and time-sheets of the guides, answering tour enquiries and requests, and keeping records.

This seems to be a great way to involve members of a college in the historical collections and buildings. It also seems like brilliant work experience for the students, and a networking opportunity for those interested in working in education in places of historic interest; the Librarian told me that one of her past guides went on to work in education in Oxford Museums and comes back to train new guides.

The tours are popular with the public: in the 2010-11 academic year 3030 people attended them. They run regularly during July – September, every afternoon at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. They cost £4 for visitors from outside the University, last 45 – 50 minutes, and take in the Library and the Chapel. Individuals can just turn up for a tour, or they can book. Groups can also visit as long as they have booked in advance.

The money raised from the tours is split between the Library and the Chapel. However, it strikes me that the rewards of this scheme are wider than the purely monetary ones.

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What makes a good online exhibition?

This post finds me in a new post. I’m working in another library with good special collections but here we don’t have the benefit of any exhibition space to display them.  So, I’m turning to the online exhibition. In search of good practice I explored the libraries listed on the Historic Libraries Forum’s new online map.

Here are a few of the examples I found and the thoughts and questions I came up with. I’m afraid this is a picture light post but if you follow the links you will find an abundance. Please do comment with any thoughts or examples you have too.

How are they mounted?

There are more different formats for an online exhibition than I first imagined. Choice of format has implications for presentation and accessibility.

My favourite online exhibitions used straightforward linked html webpages, such as this wizard exhibiton (quite literally) from the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, or a blog such as the Christ’s at War blog exhibition blog from Christ’s College, Cambridge.

There were also some good examples of mounting a PDF to be download from a website. The University of Liverpool have used this technique in their highlights gallery. This can have the advantage of directly reusing a hard-copy exhibition catalogue as St John’s College, Oxford demonstrates with its current exhibition: Something rich and strange.

Other alternatives seems to impinge a bit on accessibility. I couldn’t make an exhibition using flash at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh work for me, and having to download other software to view turning the pages at the Newcastle Collection put me off browsing. (I’ll talk more about the use of multi-media in a minute).

What about the content?

Just as the format varied enormously between exhibitions so did the actual content and its presentation. Clearly, some of this depends on the target audience.

The ratio of pictures/exhibits to explanatory text was one area of difference. Some libraries went with a selection of images to tantalize bookworms’ tastebuds, seasoned with a minimal amount of text. Manchester Public Libraries has some real gems in its special collections but left me wanting more and not sure how to get it, short of taking a trip to Manchester. Perhaps this is aimed at a more local audience who can visit.

The University of Liverpool special collections goes to the other extreme and mounts the exhibition text only leaving you to imagine the exhibits. ( Although see my comments about their PDFs of highlights above for some images from their collections). This might be good for the academically minded but pictures tend to be more immediately engaging.

My favourite exhibitions go for a mixture of text and pictures. As well as the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives exhibition pages above, these include The Crawford Collection at The Royal Observatory Edinburgh which simply has four pictures from the collection with text. The good thing is you can click through to a bigger version of the image. For teachers, the higher quality the image the better (for use on interactive whiteboards). The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh’s 150 years of membership exhibition does big images really well.

For a mix of images and text, I also liked Saffron Waldon Town Library’s online exhibitions. (Although I’d like to look at some of the images more closely).

I said I’d get onto use of multimedia. This is where online exhibitions come into their own: with the delivery of audio files, videos, podcasts

Watch this video of a woodblock in use from the Bewick Collection in Newcastle Public Libraries. Or, of particular interest to fans of Time Team’s Phil Harding, the introduction to library collections from Wiltshire Heritage.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh offers recordings of lectures, some accompanied by slide shows, based on their collections, delivered by academics from a variety of institutions. And Chawton House offers podcasts of lectures held in and about the Library.

And the layout?

I saw some good ideas for layout (although I can’t knock a traditional linearly linked collection of exhibits):

The highlights tour at Leeds Brotherton Library (especially the ‘And more…’ section at the end of each article. Providing the next step whether it be a link or a reference to further reading is helpful).

Similarly, the timeline of highlights at St John’s College, Cambridge.

The seasonally apt advent calendar at the University of Liverpool.

The alternative overview/navigation by pictures in the Fred Hoyle Exhibition also at St John’s College, Cambridge.

And visitor interaction?

I didn’t find too much of this but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough or didn’t look at the right websites. I’m sure there must be more scope to allow the audiences of an online exhibition to participate in it more fully. Though I’m not sure how much more  participation most visitors would want after reading the text, looking closely at the images, and watching or listening to the multimedia (particularly that involving Phil Harding).

The Bodleian’s new Treasures website, accompanying a current exhibition, does well many of the things mentioned above. It also allows visitors to comment and vote for their favourite exhibit.

How can the exhibition be found?

Where the exhibition is placed within the library and the wider institutions websites seems key for access. I did end up wondering who actually manages to find some of these wonderful exhibitions and how?

Connected to that, I ended up unsure how to identify an online exhibition. How is it different from, say, a digitised resource with lots of explanatory notes?

Exhibitions that were easy to find from their institutions home page included:

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, Trinity St Davids

Exhibitions that were a bit hidden on their institutions website but were easy to identify once you hit the special collections library included the wonderful University of Bradford exhibition blogs. Some were just hard to identify as online exhibitions.

And some more questions to ask when making an (online) exhibition…

Who is the audience? Who will design/write it? Who will keep it up to date (mend broken links etc.)? How can it be made as accessible as possible (e.g. will screen reading software be able to access the format)?

I promise to stop with one final, heartening observation…

The institutions that had made good online exhibitions were of all different sizes. It appears you don’t need mega-resources to create one that is within your scope.

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Tour de Force

Working with local tour guides in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge – Suzanne Paul

I promised Naomi way back in June that I would write a guest post for her blog and it’s now mid-October. By way of mitigation, can I plead that, unlike most academic librarians, October is when things start to calm down for me; summer is my busiest time.

Parker Library exterior

The Parker Library

Staffing matters

I work in the Parker Library, a library full of rare books and manuscripts in Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The College has another library for its students so the start of term makes very little impact on my daily workload. Summer, though, is our prime season for academic readers coming from all over the world to consult the rare books and manuscripts here, even though they’ve all been digitised, and for tourist visits.

The Parker Library interior

The Parker Library inside

The Parker Library has traditionally been a difficult library for visitors to access. Mostly this was a simple matter of logistics; up until fairly recently, there was one librarian who was expected to cover both the undergraduate library and the special collections with only a part-time assistant’s help. Staffing is a little more generous now – there are 1.5 of us (2 job-sharing librarians and 1 part-time assistant) dedicated to the Parker alone but needing to cover both an upstairs exhibition space and a new downstairs reading room.

Importantly, the current Fellow Librarian, Dr Christopher de Hamel, is not only passionate about opening up the library to new audiences, but is also prepared to play his part in the practicalities of making the collection accessible.

Blue badge guides

Augustine Gospels (MS 286)

Augustine Gospels (MS 286)

What we needed was a way of managing the numerous requests for visits that we receive – and if there was a way of generating some income to cover the costs of opening, that would keep the College Bursar happy too. Dr de Hamel had the inspired idea of collaborating with the Cambridge Tourist Information Centre (TIC). The TIC administers the blue badge guide scheme within Cambridge, providing qualified guides who lead historical and cultural walking tours around the city.

For the past year, we’ve been running public tours of the library on Thursday afternoons at 2pm led by blue badge guides. The tours last about between

an hour  and an hour and half (depending on how unwilling visitors are to leave the library) and cost £8.00 per person; visitors are also able to buy the library guidebook for £4.00 instead of £5.00. Visitors are able to book places on the tour either online or at the TIC in person or by phone. The tours start from the TIC and begin with a walk around the College, during which the guide describes its architecture and history. The visitors then come up to the library where the guide gives them some general background about the history of the library and shows them around the exhibition, pointing out highlights of the collection.

How well does it work?

From our point of view, the tours work really well. They involve minimal effort on our part. The time-consuming processes of dealing with bookings and payments are all handled by the TIC. Proceeds are split between the guides and the library. A member of library staff is always present while groups are in the library to supervise the visitors, to deal with any questions that the guides are unable to answer and to receive feedback. It’s really helpful to have a fixed time for tours, enabling us to timetable other activities around it. The blue badge guides have been delightful to work with – they are just as enthusiastic about the library and collection as we are. Before starting, they all attended a seminar by Dr de Hamel covering the history of the library and the key items in the collection and most of them have done additional reading and study to personalise their tours.

Visitors to the Parker Library

Visitors on the tour of the Parker Library

Although the tours are not producing a vast income for the library – the maximum number of places is 12 and some weeks there are as few as 4 or 5, we think it’s worthwhile in many ways. It’s a good way to raise the profile of the College and the library and it’s satisfying to be able to offer public access. Although it is a challenge to maintain cover for the tours during staff holidays, it’s great to be around to see and hear people’s reactions to the collection. The collaboration with the TIC has also led to other opportunities, including additional private group tours and filming requests. Regular public opening is not possible for every special collections library – there are so many obstacles – but I’m really glad that we’ve found a way that works for us.

Peterborough Psalter (MS 53)

Peterborough Psalter (MS 53)

– Suzanne Paul is Sub-Librarian at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge –

The images on this post are reproduced by permission of the Parker Library.

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