Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Schoolchildren meet special collections

Today was a first for me - I gave a tour of Special Collections and Archives to a group of schoolchildren aged between 12-15. The tour was organised by SHARE with Schools, SHARE being Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion. The idea was to introduce them to the idea of studying history at University, through some taster lectures, and visits to sites such as Special Collections and Archives.

Recalling how chronically unimpressed I had been with everything the world had to offer at that age, this was something I considered with more than a little trepidation. My usual approach of pointing at Kelmscott Press books and illuminated incunabula and saying 'look, pretty!' wasn't going to wash here.

I turned to Twitter for guidance, asking 'anyone have any advice on engaging schoolchildren with special collections?' It was unanimously suggested that I introduce them to objects which have a good story behind them, and ideally that story should be macabre, gory, salacious, involve illegal activity... you get the picture. So this gave me a jumping off point to start from. We try to feature items with good background stories on our blog, so this was a good place to start looking for key pieces.

I needed a context in which to ground these items, however. Displaying a bunch of weird stuff and pointing at it is much the same approach as displaying pretty stuff and pointing at it - I needed to show why it mattered. This is something I have never really had to convince anyone of before, my usual audience for tours and presentations being PhD students and academics - preaching to the converted.

How could I explain the difference between our special collections section, and the rest of the University library? It struck me that the key division was between primary and secondary sources. This concept was always hammered home by the national curriculum - I can still recall the photocopied, typed extracts from Samuel Pepys' diary. Imagine if I'd been able to see Samuel Pepys' actual diary? I think I would have been a lot more excited about history.

As I didn't have Pepys' diary handy, I decided to start out with one of our strongest pieces - a bloodstained letter found on the body of the war poet Edward Thomas, when he was killed in the trenches. It was the last letter from his wife Helen, writing how much she missed him and promising him that soon the war would be over... powerful stuff. It had the desired effect of getting their attention straight off. I then held up a copy of a recent award-winning biography of Edward Thomas, and told them how the author had spent hours, sitting where they were now, reading Edward's letters, and this got us into the value of primary sources.

At their age I was only aware of libraries as a repository for secondary sources: rows and rows of intimidating books full of other people's ideas, telling me - this is how it was, don't argue. I wanted to get across one thing - primary sources allow you to argue, to rewrite history, and that's why we have them in a University. I asked them why they think people still keep writing history books - and pointed out that because of libraries and archives, new information is always coming to light, and changing what we think we know. I showed them what will probably be my life's work - a room full of uncatalogued, unlabelled cardboard boxes, waiting to be opened, and their previously unknown contents interpreted and described. Part of the reason I love working with young people - they are all convinced they can change the world. They talked about the possibility that they might find something ground-breaking in those boxes, write a best-selling book and become famous! I pointed out that if they did, we would probably want their papers for our archive, which caused much excitement!

From here, we talked about unreliable sources, where I pulled in some examples such as the book purportedly written by 'Belzebub', and the zoology textbook featuring bizarre illustrations of entirely fictional sea creatures. Finally, I showed them a Victorian copy of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, and compared it with this month's Cosmopolitan. I wanted to emphasise that although we had looked at a lot of old books in the session, not all primary sources are old. I told them there was no difference between the two magazines except their age - they both told us what the women of that time wore, what interested them, their place in society, which products were marketed to them. People in the future would read the issue of Cosmopolitan to find out more about what it was like to be a woman in 2012. We also talked about how this was problematic - did Cosmopolitan represent all women? We know that they use airbrushing, for instance - in the same way, can we trust the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine to be representative of all Victorian women? Which sections of society might have been ignored and why?

We could have talked a lot longer, but before I knew it the time was up. I was surprised to found I had enjoyed myself, and they had too. All thanked me when they left, without prompting (!), and one boy came right up and said 'that was amazing, thanks miss!' High praise indeed!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

New beginnings

It's 2012, and time to breathe some life back into this blog! With the end of CPD23, and my increasing involvement with an 'official' work blog, I've been wondering how best to continue with Notes from the Basement, if at all. CPD23 no longer prompts and timetables my posts, and noteable events at work tend to be written up for the Special Collections and Archives blog, which I co-author.

I did think it would be nice to continue writing - in my own voice and in a more informal capacity - about life as an archivist working with rare books, and the kind of work and issues that crop up. Things which may perhaps be too insubstantial for the work blog, but nevertheless may interest others, and aid my own reflective practice. So if you've ever been curious about exactly what I get up to here in the basement, read on!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

And finally...

The final thing!

For this we have been asked to put together a personal development plan - to identify gaps in experience and what we want to do next in our careers.

We create PDPs as part of an appraisal process at work, so this is really a summary of that.

The first priority for me is to complete the Archives and Records Association's Registration Scheme, as I think I may now have enough in my portfolio to attempt this (especially now I can include CPD23). It's something I have put off for too long, pleading a lack of time. But it's more due to a failure to allocate time - there's no deadline, so it naturally keeps dropping to the bottom of the priority list. If I had spent as much time on it as I have on CPD23, it would be done by now, with time left over! So my plan is to break what needs to be done down into chunks and schedule some deadlines into my diary, just like CPD23.

My second priority is to try and get more experience of working with our rare book collections. Right now I'm lucky to be able to do a little of everything, simply due to our small number of staff. If this were to change in the future, I wouldn't want to end up in a role which limits me to working solely with archives simply due to my official job title. I've been concerned about this for a while now, even to the point of wondering if I should take a second PGDip, this time in Library Studies. Aside from the fact that I can't really afford to do this, it also seemed pretty pointless when a lot of the basics of working with 'information' were covered on my archives course, and what I have is a very specific requirement to learn about non-circulating rare book collections. When Aberystwyth University announced the release of two Rare Books Librarianship modules which could be taken on a stand alone basis by distance learning, I jumped at the chance to enrol. So far I am really enjoying the modules and I think they will stand me in good stead for the future. I want to make sure that what I learn on them is applied in a practical way in the workplace, and I need to spend some time thinking about how I can make that happen.

And that brings CPD23 to an end! I've really enjoyed the experience and have been recommending it to anyone who will listen. I've taken away a great deal of useful information and tips which I'll continue to put to good use. Thank you to all involved in organising, structuring, contributing to and supporting CPD23, you are all marvellous.

Monday, 21 November 2011


Thing 22 looks at volunteering. In the days when I hoped to be a teacher, I spent many hours volunteering in primary schools, but I have never volunteered in the library sector. Unless you count being my school's 'lunchtime librarian' when I was 13 : )

I have been fortunate enough that volunteering was never a route I needed to consider, though it's one I would certainly have taken should it have been necessary. At Special Collections and Archives, I'm on the other side of the equation, dealing with requests for volunteering, and training and supervising volunteers we take on.

We take on very few volunteers, and this is not due to a lack of offers - quite the contrary. I always find it very hard to turn away offers of help, since it is always needed, but we lack spare workstations and sufficient staff available to train and supervise volunteers on a regular basis. The problem with offering work which requires less training is that the volunteer gains little from the experience. We believe that placements should be mutually beneficial, and with this comes the need for time and effort from both sides. My experience of working with volunteers has been very positive - all have been tremendously motivated, talented and quick to pick up new skills - so we hope one day to be in a position to offer more voluntary opportunities.