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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One Response to Tour de Force

  1. Pingback: Tours 2 | Rarely Sited

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