Senate House Library Visit - 10th December 2015

We started our visit to Senate House Library with an introduction to the building’s history and architecture from Dr Jordan Landes, history subject librarian. In the war years, Senate House served as the Ministry of Information, and George Orwell’s wife worked there – and so, it is said, came the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was also in this building that the Welfare State was born, when, in 1942, William Beveridge presented the report which was eventually to lead to the establishment of the NHS. Above the entrance to the Macmillan Hall, and its twin, the Beveridge Hall, the ceiling of the ground floor of the south block is decorated with A-Zs, reflecting the fact that this was the first university that did not require students to have a classical education.

We then made our way up to the 4th floor, which was originally the only floor open to readers, and where you would have received your item requests at your desk from a teenage boy in white gloves! Today things have changed somewhat, and all floors 4-7 are open access to readers, while the rest of the 19 floors hold the rest of the collection in closed stacks. The stacks themselves are load bearing and enable the tower to stay upright.

On the 4th floor is the opulently designed Goldsmith’s reading room – donated by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to house their donation to SHL of the Library of Economic Literature, and which now holds the music collection. We also saw the cataloguing hall, whose irregular shape has had to be adapted to the purposes of a modern digital library. The first OPAC was introduced in the late 1980s, so from then on, all the acquisitions appear in the online catalogue. Before then though, the online record is a little patchy!

Dr Landes then took us through to the exhibition space. She explained that as subject librarian, a portion of her role is promotion of the collection – and one of the ways to do this is through exhibitions. As part of her librarianship degree, she actually took a module in museum studies, and so regularly finds herself employing the skills she learned there still, in her current role.

We next saw the history reading room, furnished with rows of beautiful Chesterfield sofas for the purpose of group study, but which has now become one of the quietest spaces in the library!

Dr Landes then told us more about subject librarianship. Her role encompasses collection development, which for Senate House, as the central Library of the University of London and the School of Advanced Study, is collection led, but in other libraries, particularly in HE libraries with their own students, is led by reader tastes and needs, as well as academic reading lists. This has implications for the cohesiveness of a collection, but has the benefit of being very user-focused. She also spends a lot of time in inductions and training, speaking to about 1,000 students every autumn. The last part of her job is subject promotion, which she does through a variety of activities like the exhibitions we saw earlier, as well as events like conferences and History Day.

Other libraries have changed their staffing models in recent years, and for some, the role of subject librarian no longer exists. King’s College for example no longer have subject librarians and rely instead on a liaison librarian for the whole faculty.

Although she is now a history subject librarian, Dr Landes has worked as subject librarian for fields as diverse as computer science and contemporary dance, and stressed that the role doesn’t necessitate an academic background in the discipline, as there is plenty of opportunity for professional development and training within a job. She also stressed the flexibility of librarianship as a whole and the opportunities for moving between positions themselves, particularly as a role as subject librarian might still encompass skills like cataloguing, digital media or user education. Furthermore, she completed her studies in the US, and found her degree was transferable and recognised in the UK.

We had all our questions answered and Dr Landes encouraged us to email her should we have anything else we’d like to know. She also mentioned that she’d be happy to offer anyone a day of shadowing should they wish to learn more about SHL and subject librarianship. A big thanks to her for the time she took to help us get to know a fascinating collection and a London icon, as well as getting some valuable insight into one of the career paths we might well later find ourselves on! 

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