On 29th January the graduate trainees visited the 4th floor of Senate House to learn about the library’s special collections and archives.
We were met by Jonathan, who works with the printed special collections. Jonathan began his talk by showing us the new Senate House website. It can be viewed here; you will find it vastly more informative than I am able to be. Note the prominent position of the Historical Collections on the home page J An important part of the librarians’ work here is to promote the collections, which they do via the internet (website, blogs, twitter and facebook), exhibitions, books (such as Senate House Library, University of London by Christopher Pressler), and by liaising with tutors.
There are eight in Jonathan’s department to catalogue the ¼ million items. This is a larger job than usual because the cataloguing of rare books includes extra details, including the book’s binding, its history, its donor, and any inscription or significant notations. Further to this, collections held since the 1830s/40s are catalogued on cards and need updating.
One problem for special collections librarians is the condition of rare texts, many of which are fragile and in danger of disintegrating. The first step is to box them up, but then the librarians must decide whether to attempt to digitise and/or rebind the books. Cost and risk of damage must be considered. The library has scanning facilities but not a cradle – which would reduce wear and tear during the digitisation process. On the other hand, digitised resources are 100x better used so it is worth doing where possible.
As examples of the collections we were shown a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle and a pirated copy of Lady Chatterley printed in Egypt complete with arabic seals. Library members can use the catalogue to search for and request rare books. Staff will then make them available in the reading room. In order to protect the books, the reading rooms are always supervised by an invigilator. Readers may not eat or drink, and no pens are allowed, but gloves are considered more of a danger than bare fingers because gloves desensitise the hands.
Richard is one of two archivists at Senate House and he talked to us about his experiences. He described the difference between archives and libraries as a matter of “uniqueness”. At Senate House an archive is a collection that is unpublished and unique. An archivist’s aim is to make life easy for researchers. Currently it is not possible to cross-search books and archives so an important part of the job is to make archive records searchable beyond the catalogue. Senate House takes on archives that will complement their book collections, but archivists avoid splitting a collection wherever possible – for example, Senate House would not collect trade union archives because Warwick is the centre for this material. This arrangement makes the resources most accessible to researchers.
Apparently being an archivist is a cloistered existence; whereas a records manager is always on the phone, an archivist is more academic. Archivists have to be ruthless and selective when choosing and preserving archives – known as “appraisal” – as due to cost and space limitations it is not possible to preserve everything. This is the most challenging part of the job. There are better and worse methodologies but no right or wrong answer.
A large part of the job for both archivists and librarians is getting grant money to put towards collections, cataloguing, preservation, digitisation… We were asked to consider whether it is truly an efficient use of time, considering the rate of rejection? There is definite skill in pricing the project and presenting your case. It affects your reputation to get it right.
As an example of Senate House’s archives we were shown one of 66 volumes of lists of students and University of London graduates from 1836-1932, which are also available in digitised form. The publication of this information is a data protection issue. Archivists whose records include personal information have a responsibility to protect the privacy of those involved. It was decided that an 80 year embargo was appropriate, and patrons must sign a form to use the archives.
Richard also talked briefly about his earlier career when he worked as an archivist in the Gambia. There he was tasked with appraising government records and writing a guide to the national records. This raised the question: why prioritise archiving when the funds could be put to good use elsewhere, for example public health? Richard argued that aside from the historical value of the archives it was critically important to have properly administrated documents in order to run the country successfully.
Our thanks go to Richard and Jonathan for two informative and engaging talks.