At Pembroke, I work as part of a small team: just three full time Library staff, plus our Rare Books Cataloguer, and Archivist. Because of this, my days are hugely varied, and I end up getting to do a little bit of everything. Outside of the daily jobs, I have the freedom to choose what I work on and when, so most days I do not do everything I’ve mentioned, but I usually get to it all throughout a week.
9:00-9:30 – Morning routine & daily jobs
The morning routine is the most regular part of my day. The building is opened at 8:00 before Library staff arrive, but there are sometimes lights to turn on, doors to open, and we do a check to make sure the catalogue PC and the borrowing machine are running. After checking if we have any recalls to collect and separate for the hold shelf, I organise the returns. We divide up the shelving by floor, and use the walk around to tidy the reading rooms, take a headcount during term time, and open the windows when it’s not winter. There are often already a few people working away diligently by the time we arrive in the morning. We also take note of any furniture or building repairs that need reporting to maintenance.
I follow up the shelving with a few other maintenance tasks – emptying the water cooler drip bucket, checking there is enough printer paper, and taking out the office recycling. Either before or after this morning routine, we’ll usually have a team catch-up in the main office to check in on the day’s schedule and any meetings, events, or external visitors that will occupy part of our day.
From my desk in the Library office near the entrance, I am the first point of contact for student enquiries, so throughout the day I have to be ready to pause whatever I’m doing and aid any students or Members asking for help. Often these questions are about finding books, borrowing, or printing, but we also receive a variety of other enquiries about donations, use of library spaces for non-library activities, and much more. I also answer phone enquiries, help monitor the shared email inbox, and keep an eye on general activity to ensure people are following Library rules, such as not bringing in food or hot drinks. Sometimes the Librarian will ask me for help with other, miscellaneous tasks, like moving rare books off high shelves or delivering a donation to another library.
9:30-10:30 – Processing & cataloguing acquisitions
I like to continue my morning with processing new books (which involves putting labels, barcodes, tags, and covers on books; all the cutting and sticking is like an arts and crafts session and can be very therapeutic!), repairing any damaged books that we’ve picked up, or creating and updating signs. Before adding shelf labels, I classify the books according to our in-house system, which can sometimes require a team discussion for books that cover various or interdisciplinary topics. After processing, the books are ready for cataloguing, which I can now work on independently after an introductory course from Cambridge University Libraries (CUL) and one-to-one training and supervision from my own team.
While working I make sure to keep an eye on my emails for any newsletters, announcements, or notices from the CUL network. As a college library we are independently governed, but still share some systems and resources with the University libraries, such as our library database, so our cataloguing process follows a Cambridge-specific workflow to ensure consistency in the records. Remaining aware of joint ventures or new developments elsewhere in the University also helps us to provide the most up-to-date information for our students.
10:30-11:00 – Tea break
We pop out of the office (to a reachable place for emergencies/enquiries) twice a day for a cup of tea, as we don’t keep anything other than water at our desks – staff also have to follow the Library rules!
11:00-12:30 – Collection management & Library communications
After tea, I’ll pick up any of my on-going library projects, such as checking reading lists. I am responsible for only a few lists out of all the taught subjects at Pembroke, but many of them can be quite long and we spread out checking reading lists through the year, so it’s a constantly on-going process. As I have a background in Medieval Norse Studies, my manager was excited to take advantage of my subject knowledge, so I’m also helping to reorganise the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic section of the Library, to ensure that it is as up-to-date and useful as it can be to ASNC students or any of our Members who are interested in the field. Larger reclassification projects and updates to big sections of the Library are often on-going but are not a routine part of our work; we make small steps towards them when we can during term, and then dedicate more time to them in the vacation period.
At noon one day a week I have a meeting with Communications reps from other departments – this keeps the Library and Archive connected and up-to-date with the wider goings-on of the College, so we can promote them and keep up Pembroke’s community spirit. I ensure the rest of our colleagues know what we’re up to and what we’re sharing on social media or in our various display cases around College. I’m also partly responsible for creating said social media posts, helping design and put together the displays, and creating posters – this is a great chance to flex my creative muscles, and I spend a couple of hours on these sorts of jobs every few weeks.
Because lunch is often a busy period in the Library, we stagger our breaks to ensure one of us is always in the office during term. My usual time is half 12, when one of the wonderful perks of College life is getting a free hot meal to enjoy in Hall. I also have the choice of using my free meal at the Pembroke Café during term time, which I frequently visit as it’s a great spot to cosy up with a book and a hot drink.
13:00/30-15:30 – Special collections project
Between lunch and afternoon tea is a good time to get stuck into my independent project. One of my favourite things about working here has been the opportunity to research an early printed book from Pembroke’s special collections. I chose a 17th century book about the design of heraldic arms, with a wealth of hand-coloured illustrations that still look incredibly bright and vibrant today. It also contains many annotations. I’m learning to catalogue it while also researching its provenance, which involves using online bibliographic databases as well as close physical examination of the book itself. It has been a fantastic way to learn about rare book special collections, which I had no experience with before. Towards the end of the year, I will get to create a display about the book to showcase my research.
15:30-16:00 Tea break
If we have researchers looking at special collections material, we require an invigilator to always be present. We thus stagger our tea breaks in these situations so that the readers remain supervised. Invigilating in the Archive reading room means I’m away from my desk and my usual work, but gives me half an hour or so to help out with smaller, more unusual tasks, such as transcribing some 19th century palaeography from a letter in the Archive collections, or just to keep up my professional knowledge by reading through the latest CILIP publications for the newest developments in the field.
16:00-17:00 – Archive biographies project
To finish the day, I often like to work on my project for the Archive. At Pembroke, the Library and Archive are a joint department, and work in the same building. This means I get to learn a lot about the archival side of the information profession and even engage with some Archive work myself. My main contribution has been researching old Pembroke Members for whom we have collections of ephemeral material. This ‘Pembrochiana’ collection has already been catalogued on our online Archive database, but I have been expanding the records by adding biographical information for each person. This has been a fantastic chance to learn about the almost 700-year history of Pembroke, as well as such a variety of people: from early modern religious leaders, to 19th century science pioneers, to the achievements of those still living today and many more in between.
Working at a college library is a wonderfully unique experience, full of lots of Cambridge quirks but also providing a thorough introduction to academic libraries for a trainee. There is never a dull moment and plenty of surprise jobs and opportunities to attend to along the way.