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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5 Responses to A new professional’s perspective

  1. Hi Pol,

    I don’t think that Oxbridge is the only place that can do special collections outreach. Have you seen the work being done at Bradford Uni Special Collections, for example? There’s 100 Objects Bradford (http://100objectsbradford.wordpress.com/), and also other online things here – http://www.brad.ac.uk/library/special/exhibitions.php. The collections at Bradford are quite different to typical Oxbridge special collections: more (but not wholly) focussed on modern archival and ephemera collections, and there’s lots of interesting work to be done in bring them to the attention to a range of audiences.

    And within an academic setting there’s a lot of outreach to do within the institution to (admittedly, this is less glamorous than getting school children in). Lots of special collections departments and archives devote time and energy to introducing their undergrad and postgrad students to primary-source collections to support their study and research. I know, for example, that this is something that Anna McNally (https://twitter.com/#!/annamcnally) at the Uni of Westminster Archives does.


    • rarelysited says:

      Well typed! I don’t think that outreach within an institution is less glamorous that getting school children in! It’s sometimes a more intuitive use of an institution’s special collections. There is so much unexploited potential in special collections as teaching materials at undergrad and postgrad level. I’d like to read more about the work that is already done in this area. Any other suggestions of blogs, books, articles…?

    • Polly Harper says:

      Thanks so much Katie! I hadn’t seen the Bradford Special Collections – it’s great to see there are lots of things/ opportunities out there. I think I’m interested in all sorts of outreach, school children or students themselves, so I am happy to hear there are different possibilities- anything which actively engages with people/ brings them in. I will have a look at the links further- thanks again so much.

  2. Thanks! Nothing springs immediately to mind. In fact, I think it’s on my ‘to find’ list…

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