An Open Library

I missed the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference last week but I did something else that refired my enthusiasm for public engagement with special collections.

Christ’s College Library, where I am currently Assistant Librarian, took part in a local festival, Open Cambridge. This is organised annually by Cambridge University’s Office of External Affairs and Communications and aims to let the local public see private bits of the University in the middle of their town.

Open Cambridge poster

Photograph by Sir Cam

It was a relatively hassle free way for the Library to share its current exhibition and beautiful building. Open Cambridge organisers did the publicity, including producing online and print listings of events; reminded us to have a risk assessment and public liability insurance in place; provided generic signage; gave support and guidance; and helped us to evaluate afterwards. In Christ’s case, the Office of External Affairs and Communications brought extra, extra publicity to the exhibition: it featured on the University’s website, in the local newspaper, local BBC radio, and in the Guardian

All we had to do was send a risk assessment and check our public liability insurance; brief our security staff; produce some customised signage; and staff the Library (with a mixture of staff and volunteers). We also produced an exhibition guide (sold at cost price), counted visitors and took their comments for evaluation purposes.

Spending four hours on Friday and on Saturday watching visitors interact with our current exhibition (Christ’s at War: the College and its members during WWI) was a great experience. I talked to a boy from the Perse School who had brought his family to see letters on display written from the front line by men who studied at the Perse over a hundred years ago. Another visitor asked me about book conservation and in return told me about a library in Portugal where resident bats are seen as an insect control. Another man wondered if they had fountain pens in the early 1900s – how could the letters from the front be so neat otherwise? Our collections obviously sparked all kinds of interest in all kinds of people. (The event was ‘made’ by the exhibition and for that I must congratulate my colleague, Charlotte Byrne, who curated it.)

One couple asked me what was the benefit for the Library and for the College in opening to the public. It’s a hard one to answer because the benefits are not straightforward (or at least straightforwardly monetary). Allowing the public to gain something from the presence of the College strengthens public relations. In the long run having public support, especially local public support, is important for the College. For example, if the College wants to build a new building a sympathetic local public that feels it has some stake in the College is much better than an uncomprehending, possibly hostile, one.   

From a library perspective, the public enthusiasm for the Library has boosted staff morale and interest in our own collections. People’s comments gave us new angles on old objects. One of my colleagues made a perceptive comment along the lines of it being those outside the College that showed real interest in the special collections, and perhaps this is because they do not have access to them and collections like them everyday.  

Open Cambridge set me wondering whether other universities or towns have other similar festivals. I’m aware of Open House London this coming weekend. Does anyone know of any others?

Talking about how to make the most of collections is important but there is nothing like actually feeling you are doing it. I can look forward to reading about the Conference in the next Rare Books group newsletter. The best of both!

Posted in Case Studies, College Libraries, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A chocolate apology

What do industrial quantities of chocolate cake, two bridesmaids’ dresses, and a swimming pool full of tomato soup have in common? Well, for a start they are all mRingsentioned here by way of an apology for the lack of activity there has been on this blog in the past few weeks (and indeed will be until the beginning of August). They are also all things I have made towards my wedding this coming Saturday. And I’m sure there are many other connections that could be figured out by enterprising librarians. (Did I miss the librarian team on ‘Only Connect’ or has there really not been one?).

I will be back in August and looking forward to hearing more about the RLUK/OCLC Special Collections Survey for the UK, particularly any community engagement related data being gathered (See Alison Cullingford’s post on the subject for more information about the survey).  

I also still have hopes of my other two guest bloggers promised for June making an appearance in August. The delay is probably symptomatic of librarians’ lack of time to record their good work. I believe the reason I got even one guest blogger to submit on time is that I’m marrying him, but you can only offer that incentive once.

Posted in Rarely Sited, Rarely Sited blog, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Teaching old books new tricks

When I started writing this post, I had just returned from the CILIP Career Development Group’s New Professionals Conference in Manchester, where Katie Birkwood, my beautiful co-presenter, and I stood on a stage and encouraged some of the bright, young things of libraries to get involved with special collections outreach. Our presentation went down surprisingly well for something comparatively niche.  Perhaps because it mixes practical case studies with simple advice about how to create an outreach offer, much of that advice is transferable to engagement of new audiences generally, and we had plenty of pictures and an impromptu joke about balls. (The advice may be useful to anyone considering undertaking some special collections outreach so here it is, with brief thoughts on the conference below it.)

I was impressed by the variety and quality of speakers and subjects at the conference. My personal favourite was ‘For your eyes only?’  by Megan Wiley, who talked about the importance of telling your non-librarian’s colleagues what you are actually doing and some methods for getting that information across.

Despite a marked emphasis on Twitter throughout the conference, the presentations that got the audience vote were those that put emphasis on engaging people face to face or building a network outside of your usual ‘followers’.

Posted in Case Studies, Rarely Sited, Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Price of Everything

A schools liaison session with the historic collections in the Library at St John’s College, Oxford – Stewart Tiley

Making contact

I was chatting to our Schools Liaison Officer a few months ago, and she mentioned that she organized parties of sixth formers to come in to introduce them to the Oxford system and encourage them to think of applying here. As part of their day they were usually involved in a hands-on activity, often at one of the excellent museums in which Oxford abounds. As an additional string to her bow, I suggested she might want to make use of the Library as an alternative resource right on the doorstep and that I’d be happy to try and think of an appropriate activity. She agreed and then, a month down the line, got in touch and told me that she needed a forty-five minute session for around ten seventeen year olds, studying a variety of disciplines, the basic remit of which was to stimulate their curiosity and involve them in  intellectual exploration in some way.

From hand-coloured titlepage of Astronomicum Caesareum by Peter Apian (Ingolstatd: 1540)

From hand-coloured titlepage of Astronomicum Caesareum by Peter Apian (Ingolstatd: 1540). Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

The idea

The idea I came up with was to basically nick the format (as I hazily recalled it from one or two viewings) of the BBC games show Antiques Master hosted by Sandi Toksvig. In my version, this was essentially a series of guessing games focussed on eight objects from our historical collections.

Seventeenth-century Gujurati sailor's map of the Gulf of Khambat (or Cambay)

Seventeenth-century Gujurati sailor's map of the Gulf of Khambat (or Cambay). Copyright C. Phillips. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

After dividing the group into four teams, they were given a set of appropriately identified and graded counters, and told to rank the objects in terms of age, by placing the appropriate counters next to the item. The second activity allotted two objects to each team and they were given five minutes to prepare a presentation to the rest of the group describing what they thought the item was, what it was about, what language it was in, where it was made, and whether it was manuscript or printed. The final activity was similar to the first, except that the ranking this time was to be done by monetary value.



An Elephant in a fourteenth-century Bestiary from York.

An Elephant in a fourteenth-century manuscript Bestiary from York. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

The session proved successful, and prompted a repeat performance a couple of months later. Teachers said:

It was a wonderful insight for the pupils to see inside the colleges and I know they loved the library activities.

I think its appeal rested on three factors: 

  • It was a very simple concept, and easily explainable in a matter of a minute or two.
  • It immediately engaged the students in interaction with objects, rather than having these explained to them.
  • Our collections here do boast some very intriguing and/or visually appealing items that invite comment.

A further factor might also be the setting – although the actual event took place in a nearby seminar room, they were led through the sixteenth century library, and its front door with multiple, ancient and fairly noisy bolts. This latter certainly made an impact on both occasions.


Although I mention the simplicity of the activity, in order for the session to run smoothly, it did require a fair degree of planning. Museums may have handling collections for hands-on interaction, but old books and manuscripts can be quite fragile, so this session was rather paradoxically designed as an interactive hands-off activity. In order to present the students with interesting, attractive and, in some cases, quite valuable items, a strict no-touching policy had to be enforced. Exploration had to occur using the page opening on display or through the provision of photographed surrogates in the form of handouts. Thought also had to be given to the layout of the room, with enough space to allow the circulation of bodies around the items with minimal trip hazards, and some way of focusing the deposition of ranking counters. To make all of these precautions work ground rules had to be laid out explicitly at the beginning of the session. Scoring and feedback were used to maintain engagement and keep attention focussed on the activities.

Nineteenth-century Ethiopic Gospel with wooden covers

The Ethiopic Gospel out of its tanned hide bag. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College.

Probably the most difficult point of the planning was which selection of items to use. As I say St John’s is fortunate in the range and nature of its collections, but even so finding a viable mix of visual appeal, variety of languages and scripts, range of ages, and variety of material form and function was a challenge. The items had to have some point of immediate comment (even if it was only the tanned hide bag that a Ge’ez manuscript came in) whilst not revealing all their secrets at a single glance. Those that worked best contained a mixture of wrong-footing and clues, for instance a book printed in an exotic-looking (to 21stcentury English schoolchildren you understand) language in seventeenth-century ‘Cambridge’. This was, of course, actually Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the language that of the local tribes people.

Bible in Massachusetts Indian

First edition of the Bible in Massachusetts Indian. Also the first Bible printed in America. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

Final thought

From the library’s point of view it was of course a pleasure to see young people engaging with objects in our care with such enthusiasm. The relatively smooth running of a fairly simply organized, and repeatable session, with minimal costs beyond staff time (some colour photocopying was the material outlay), certainly encouraged us to think about what else we might be able to offer to external groups.

-Stewart Tiley is Librarian at St John’s College, Oxford-

The images on this post show items Stewart used in his session. They are all reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford.

Posted in Case Studies, College Libraries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cases in point: June guest posts

One thing that makes starting community engagement projects in special collections challenging is the lack of accessible written examples of good practice. 

To improve the situation I have asked some librarians who are doing successful outreach to blog about their work – to provide ideas and encouragement for others who want to do something similar.

The first three guest blogs will be posted throughout June.

The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, CambridgeSuzanne Paul, Parker Sub-Librarian at The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge will tell us about her collaboration with the city’s Blue Badge Guides.

Globe in the Library, St John's College, OxfordStewart Tiley, Librarian at St John’s College, Oxford will write about providing visits to school groups through the College’s Schools Liaison Officer.

The Old Library, St John's College, CambridgeRyan Cronin, Librarian’s Assistant at St John’s College, Cambridge will write about taking part in a story sacks project with Cambridgeshire schools and museums.

Although the methods are varied, you may notice there is an Oxbridge college library bias here. Hopefully a lot that they write will be transferable and I hope other engaging librarians will volunteer. Please email me if you’d like to guest blog!

Posted in Case Studies, College Libraries, Rarely Sited blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Newsflash: RBSCG Conference open for booking

New exhibition space at Palace Green Library

The new exhibition space at the Palace Green Library in Durham where the conference will be held. From the RBSCG website.

The Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference 2011, ‘If you’ve got, it flaunt it’,  is open for booking. This year it’s all about how to promote your collections to a variety of audiences.

More details and an application form are available on the CILIP website.

Posted in Events, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collaboration in the Parker Library

Parker LibrarySuzanne Paul at the Parker Library in Cambridge has posted an extra super version of her talk at the Cambridge-Oxford College Librarians conference on 28th March. She summarises her experiences of collaboration in special collections libraries with a series of small case studies. These include the Open Libraries initiative and collaborative exhibition work – well worth a read!

Suzanne’s final case study looks to the future, describing the Special Collections Gateway which Cambridge College Libraries are currently collaborating to create. We hope that this gateway will allow us to aggregate all the information that visitors to our special collections need, in one easy to access (and update) location. As well as making life easier for users who are often trying to visit more that one collection in a single trip, it will allow us to share the work of publicising our collections and keeping information about them current. Suzanne explains more. She also calls for suggestions and advice from colleagues. I second that -Suzanne and I would love to hear from you!

Posted in Case Studies, College Libraries | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment