Newton, miniature books, and a rubber chicken: our trip to the Whipple Library

The Whipple library occupies part of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and is the specialist library for this faculty. It is located on Free School Lane in the centre of Cambridge (a landmark I always use to find it is Jack’s Gelato!). The street is highly Cambridge-dark-academia-esc, and we were treated to lovely views of the rooves of the city and cobble stone paths through various windows as we wandered round the library.

Passing under the ornate ‘Laboratory of Physical Chemistry’ sign, with a light beginning to cast a faint glow in the dusk, we began our visit to the Whipple Library. As the Librarian explained to us as we entered, this sign is actually a residual architectural element from their predecessors. The building now contains the library, their partner museum (The Whipple Museum), and the History of Philosophy of Science department. Both the library and museum share a benefactor – a Mr Robert Stewart Whipple. As well as being the Managing Director of the Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company from 1905, Whipple was a collector of instruments, models and books, and his donation of c. 1000 instruments and c. 1200 early printed books to the university was made with the intention to further research and teaching in the subject in the University. It is his bequeathment which the museum and library are founded upon, and which was expanded in the 1970’s with the establishment of a modern collection to compliment the historic bequest and to serve the students and researchers in the department. All of this was explained to us by the Librarian as he gave us a tour of the library. We saw how close this relationship is between the museum and library during the tour, as several museum items are housed between the books, raising questions about curation, both in terms of library space and the interaction between books and objects in exhibitions more specifically.

This was the first departmental library we have visited as a trainee group, but the Librarian was keen to stress the ways that the Whipple is a-typical as a departmental library. This a-typicality largely arises out of the quirks of the department, particularly in that you cannot apply to Cambridge to do an undergraduate course in History and Philosophy of Science, rather you take a route into the discipline while already a student here in later years of your degree, or at the point of postgraduate study. The librarian explained how this creates unique demands on particular resources from the library, and he explained how they respond to these challenges, for example they acknowledge and aim to help with the difficulties of transferring from a STEM subject to an essay/ critical-analysis based course and so have created an extensive collection of past dissertations and essays which students consult to develop an understanding of how to write essays effectively. The Librarian also showed us how classification has to adapt to the contents of the collection by highlighting some particularly odd and unique classifications, such as ‘Witchcraft & demonology’, which claims its space between ‘History of Chemistry’ and ‘History of Life Sciences’. There is also a Ladybird edition of Charles Darwin, which the Librarian explained is half a joke, but which he has seen students consult before! This playful energy is held throughout the library, and created a warm and friendly environment, including their “good old-fashioned” science fiction collection, which showed that Departmental libraries can stay true to their purpose and department, while also offering things that seem more unexpected. There is space for creativity when running such libraries. Oh, and, how could I forget the rubber chicken in the ‘party essentials’ box?!

The uniqueness of the departmental make-up also influences the way that rare collections are utilised in the library. We were shown an exhibition designed by a current postgraduate student in the department, entitled ‘Discovering Past Readers’, which looks at annotations and markings of various kinds in the Whipple Rare Books collection, which also has a partnering podcast.

The exhibition ranges from markings we would typically expect, such as provenance inscriptions and notes left by readers as they work their way through the texts, but also more playful and surprising instances, like the edition of blood and a phallis in red ink to woodcuts in an astrological work [Clarissimi viri lginij Poetican astronomicon opus vtilissimu[m] foeliciter incipt], and the pressing of botanical specimens, preserved between the pages of Outlines of botony  nestled alongside drawings ranging from boats to napping dogs. While looking at this exhibition we also learnt about the phenomenal Grace Young (1868-1944), who studied mathematics at Girton College, as well as unofficially sitting the Oxford mathematics exams in 1892 for which she gained the highest mark in the entire cohort. In 1895 she completed her doctoral thesis in Germany and in doing so became the first woman to ever earn a doctorate from a German University. We learnt about this incredible intellectual powerhouse of a woman while looking at her work The Theory of Sets of Points, the first textbook in English on the subject of set theory, and which contains many annotations and revisions in her hand, alongside pasted-in photos from her life – a work which was acquired through the Whipple Fund.

This lead to us being shown (with a fantastic amount of energy and excitement) a selection of the rare books held by the Whipple, as well as an explanation of how their rare-book collection is also unique in that they continue to acquire works relevant to the discipline, to the developments of science, or books that it is considered Whipple would have bought himself – it is a continuously growing collection. This involved the unveiling of items whih similarly had importance provenance associated with women, such as Gerard’s Herbal, with the Whipple edition previously owned and annotated by Anna Price: ‘Anna Price Her yerbal Book’. This book was a particular favourite of one of the trainees who has a particulalr interest in Renaissance gardens. We began, however, with some gems of the collection: a first edition of Galileo’s Dialogue on the two world systems, which is particularly interesting given its nature as being unbound, held in its original paper wrappers bearing a bookseller’s warehouse stock number, with its leaves uncut; works by and associated with Newton, including a direct edition of his Principa and a presentation copy of Boyle’s Tracts signed by Newton, and which also contains a secondary letter of ownership by Gilbert Regraves which shows anxiety over inscribing his name “on the page hallowed by the immortal name of Newton”. The absolute highlight was an absolutely miniscule edition of Galileo’s letter to Cristina Di Lorena, which is no bigger than a thumbnail, and which features an impressively tiny frontispiece portrait. At this point, the Librarian was getting slightly more used to being a hand model.

We finished off the trip with the Librarian explaining his own journey into librarianship, and his own time as a graduate trainee, which helpfully gave us suggestions as to how our own journey’s in librarianship might play out. He also explained how the library and museum participate in outreach, both through the Cambridge Festivals but also in school visits. This story was particularly moving to me as it directly echoed my own first visit to Cambridge, which instilled me with the confidence to apply here; it was a pertinent reminder of the power that libraries have in people’s lives.

We are very grateful to the Whipple Librarian for taking the time to show us around the library, to indulge our interest in the treasures of their collections, and for his kindness in offering help in our paths into librarianship.

CILIP East of England ‘Applying to Library School’ Event

On a cold, November afternoon, the Graduate Trainees left the comfort of our libraries and navigated various bus routes in order to make our way to Homerton College for the CILIP East of England ‘Applying to Library School’ event. After an orienteering challenge which involved disappearing arrows and a TARDIS as a landmark, we found the designated room and settled in for an afternoon of talks to help us decide if Library School is for us and, if so, whereabouts we may want to go.

We started with a general overview about Library and Information Studies courses from Dr Leo Appleton from the University of Sheffield. He explained the differences between the various postgraduate courses on offer, such as if they are ‘general’ programmes, like Librarianship, or more specialist, like those which focus on archives or book history. Additionally, some courses are accredited by CILIP whilst others aren’t and they may vary in terms of modes of assessment or whether they offer placements or internships. He also introduced us to the different modes of study. It was reassuring to know that there are options for full-time, part-time, and distance learning! This overview was rounded off with some useful advice on applying for funding and what kinds of things we should put in our personal statements when applying for courses.

We were next given brief talks from Course Directors at four different universities: Aberystwyth, Manchester, UCL, and Sheffield. All offered similar core modules in their general courses but there were some features unique to each university. Aberystwyth offers an MA/PGDip in Archives and Records Management as well as their Library and Information Studies course. There was also an emphasis on the wide range of topics available for dissertations, and the pictures of the Welsh seaside were an additional selling point! Manchester’s Library and Archive Studies course is only in its first year but already establishing itself with particular focuses on Artificial Intelligence and decolonisation. Additionally, current students have been able to take up placements in a wide variety of roles such as a Digital Content Developer, Music Archives Assistant, or Engagement Assistant. Conversely, UCL has been practising Library and Information education for over 100 years! The presentation highlighted the programme’s (extremely reassuring) 100% employability record and revealed that in the future, it may be eligible for ALA accreditation. We were also given some useful advice on the UCL application process. Finally, Sheffield offers MSc courses in Data Science, Information Management, and Information Systems alongside their MA/PGDip/PGCert courses in Librarianship and Library and Information Services Management. There was a strong focus on employability and the fact that their distance-learning option is adapted in order to gear it more towards people in work.

After some much-needed tea and biscuits and a chance to chat with the Course Directors and other attendees, we reconvened for a talk from two current Library School students about their experiences. Luckily, both were full of praise for their respective courses and highlighted the breadth of opportunities available to them, both within their degrees and in the jobs market as a result of their experience. It was also remarkable to hear how their interests have changed during their courses!

Overall, this was an extremely useful and thought-provoking event which helped us gain a better understanding of what our next steps may look like. We are incredibly grateful to Dr Leo Appleton, Dr Anoush Simon, Dr Benjamin Wiggins, and Dr Charlie Inskip for their talks on their various universities, to Alberto Garcia Jr and Ellen Woolf for sharing their student experience, and to Katherine Burchell and CILIP East of England for organising the event.

Visit to the University Library (Part One)

Tour & History of the University Library

In mid-November we attended a jam-packed day-visit to the University Library. For many of us, this was our first voyage into the soaring entity that is the University Library. For myself, I was a student at Clare College, and spent the last three years in Memorial Court of Clare, literally stationed across the road; the University tower was a permanent fixture of my skyline and my life. Yet, for us all, this trip was eye-opening, not just about the University Library themselves and their unique collections, the intricacies of the space and the work taking place within it, but also to the plethora of careers and people that go into running a library on this scale, and which are pathways available to us in our future careers. This peak behind the scenes was enriching and exciting, especially as so many departments kindly opened their doors to us.

We later learnt, in our tour with one of the Library Assistants that kicked off the day, that the sky-scraper effect of the design is an intentional part of the architecture at the request of the donor (The Rockefeller association), and that the UL shares an architect (Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) with the Tate Modern in London; we got to appreciate the souring effect of the tower at the conclusion of the day (but I will leave that to Zia to explain in part two!). A fun fact we learnt while in the basement, exploring the underground storage system and the processes of book collection and return in the request element of library use, was that this architect also designed the phone box, and motifs of this design can be spotted all around the university library, most notably in the use of one as a drop-box, but also in the structure of glass in the doors, in the shape of plant pots, and more. Keeping your eye out for these motifs is a fun way to explore the library that I highly recommend. Liam kindly, and very helpfully, also organised our movement throughout the day between the many departments we got to visit.

While leading us around the building, our guide intertwined the history of the library with the actualities of their current use, such as in the catalogue room, where he explained how the physical catalogue was central to library use, as well as explaining the cut-and-stick approach to their creation, which he placed on a timeline with modern digital cataloguing practices, while still stressing the importance of a physical catalogue to library users and staff alike today. This highlighted to us how our role in libraries, and the way these institutions are run, will echo throughout the future of these collections and the way they are used; take Henry Bradshaw, the librarian from 1867-1886, who established many procedures and structures that remain in today’s practice.

Two major moments in the history of the University Library were explained to us as we walked along a staff corridor in the basement, with photographs of the construction and development of the library running alongside us: the introduction of the Copyright Act in 1710, which saw the University Library anointed as one of the nine privileged libraries of copyright deposit which makes them entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK; and the completion of the creation and move to the new Library in 1934, with the aim of transforming the library into a space that facilitated and cultivated scholarship. Our guide highlighted an image of a cart containing books, being drawn by a horse, and embellished how over 600 trips were required using the horse and cart method to move the library collection to the new building in the 1930’s (thankfully there were only two book fatalities in this process! Sadly, these books were claimed by the river – oops!).

The Map Room

Our first departmental stop was the Map Room, where the Maps Librarian had laid out a selection of maps held in the collection, ranging from a medieval map of Constantinople, marked with red crosses to show the location of templars, to the continuous scale map projects of the 1850’s/60’s, to ground intelligence soviet maps. Being able to see these objects and see first-hand the wide range of material that comes under maps, as well as the way maps morph to fit purpose was fascinating. The Librarian explained how map curation techniques develop in relation to printing techniques by showing us examples of lithography, tooling, hand-painting, and more. He also explained that maps develop in response to intention/requirement; this raised our awareness of a critical understanding of maps, as holding a tension between the perceived empirical truth of them and the purpose of them. To highlight this, we looked at two maps in comparison; a medieval map of the sea, awash with mythical beasts that pose threat to seamen, next to a modern nautical map, which focused on empirically mapping the depth of the sea.

A particular highlight was the fantasy maps which the Librarian got out at my request. He kindly took the time to explain how he pursued online fantasy map designers who created these maps as a hobby in order to curate a collection of them to be held by the library for prosperity. These maps indicate a great amount of modern interest, knowledge, artistry and work that continues to thrive in map making. He also asked us (and in turn I now ask you) to donate any fantasy maps we have from video/board games and such to further enrich this area of the collection.

Here we also considered, and saw, how library practices respond to different types of collections and the items they contain. The first challenge is that of form and format; when the object is not a typical book it requires flexibility of storage, such as tubes and large drawers to preserve them. Another element is how cataloguing is modified to cover the data that users need to know about these objects; in this case, there are specific unique fields in Alma for cataloguing, but Ian highlighted how much of a key role card cataloguing retains in this type of collection by showing us their catalogue drawers. We also heard how special collections like these are responding to, and utilising, modern developing technologies, as with the open-source project with the British Library which aims to create a digitally stitched map of the world. In this way, we saw how librarianship practices are responsive, how they must, and can, be flexible to special collections, and how they continue to be malleable with the introduction of new technologies.

Manuscripts & Archives

After a tea break in the library café, we arrived at potentially our most highly anticipated stop of the trip; the manuscript reading room. As an undergraduate student at Cambridge, I had personally been given access to this room in my final year to use a manuscript from the collection for my dissertation, but even that couldn’t have prepared me for the wealth of treasures the Archivist had prepared to show us. In his selected array, the Archivist took us simultaneously through the history of the development of the manuscript and archives collection in the library, as well as the very history of books themselves. He began by unveiling from an unsuspecting box a glass case, containing the earliest item from the collection: fragments from the Oxyrhyncus  papyrus collection, dated to 300 AD. We were then shown a Buddhist illuminated manuscript, which had a format which none of us had seen before, and which we were fascinated by as he carefully removed each strip of palm to reveal the next in the Poti format sequence; it demonstrated the wide array of forms that books have taken over centuries, and geographies. Dated to c.1000, this manuscript of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight-Thousand Stanzas is a jewel of the library, as it is one of the oldest illuminated manuscripts from India in Sanskrit.

Next was a beautifully sumptuous medieval Book of Hours, dated to the 14th-century, gilded with gold, and rich in colour, with many playful marginalia scampering around its pages, and a provenance of Alice de Raydor. He explained how the manuscript reveals the history of its creation, as with the tools depicted in the marginalia placing its creation in East-Anglia, and its story of preservation, highlighting the marks left from Victorian attempts at conservation on one of the pages, where a cleaning fluid has permanently stained the text beneath an illumination. In this way, we learnt how conservation practices, special collections, and the thought that runs them, have morphed across time, and how we might play a roll in their future. These books may only be in our care for a short while of their lifetime, but it is a Rare Books Curator’s role to care of them, and to facilitate scholar’s access to them both now and for posterity.

In this display we were also shown a remarkedly broad selection of the type of records archived in the University Library: from Isaac Newton’s student notebooks, marking his experiments on his own eyes with a bodkin that were not for the squeamish; to ship logs; to Charles Darwin’s prose and cons list of marrying, which included as a pro “better than a dog anyhow” and concluded with the decision to “marry, marry, marry Q.E.D”. We began with the Ely diocese records, which were highlighted as a key resource to social historians, as the records go back to c.1200 and track the complex changes of the concept of justice through the court records. Specifically, we were shown a selection of records from the 1640’s that related to witchcraft, including the Archivist transcribing a section of a spell to us which involved a man taking eucharist bread “in his hand”, feeding it to a frog or toad, and “pissing[ing] against a church wall” in order to perform magic. Weaving a path through the vast collections, we were introduced to a collection held by the library relating to The Goligher Circle, and their paranormal investigations in the 1920’s. This featured photographs that claim to evidence ‘exuding ectoplasm’, which the library also has a sample of, floating in a bottle. 

Graduate Trainees for 2021-22 Signing Off!

The 2021-22 Graduate Traineeships are drawing to a close here in Cambridge, and what a year it’s been! From visits and talks to workshops and conferences, the Graduate Trainees have certainly been very busy. We have all learned so much about library work, both in our own academic libraries and countless other kinds of libraries – some of which we never knew existed before.

We feel very lucky to be the first cohort of Cambridge trainees to get the full Graduate Trainee experience since the COVID-19 pandemic began – although the virus did keep some of us from attending visits at various points throughout the year! But overall, we’ve managed to pack a lot in and have a more traditional Graduate Trainee experience with lots of in-person visits and training sessions. Have a look at our thread on Twitter for a round-up of the year’s activities!

Although we’ve done a lot as a group, we’ve also each had a very unique experience of being a Graduate Trainee. As such, we’ve decided to put together some personal highlights from the year, along with some information about what we’re doing next! As well as being a nice way to reflect on the year we’ve had, we hope this will give future Graduate Trainees an idea of what they can expect during their year, and the opportunities available to them after it finishes.


Ellen

“All of the visits and training opportunities have been amazing, but my personal highlight of the Graduate Traineeship has to be the connections I have made. As well as building up a really strong professional network, I have also made some friends for life here. I have a part-time job in an academic library lined up for when the traineeship ends, which offers the perfect opportunity to gain more practical experience while I study for my library Masters starting in September. I am also on the committee of a soon-to-launch network for early-career library and information professionals, which I am really excited about. I’ll be studying part-time over two years, so I should hopefully be able to maintain some level of work-life balance!”


Jess

“One of my (many) highlights has been the time I have spent with special collections, whether that be my chats with experts in the library or while curating my small exhibition on early modern astronomy. There’s nothing like reading about an old book for ages and then getting to actually hold an original copy in your hands!

The biggest highlight of all, though, has been the people. I could not have asked for more of anything – be it support, expertise, or general brilliance – from the people I’ve met this year. They’re absolute stars and are a enormous part of what made my traineeship so wonderful.

Now that my traineeship has finished, I’m going on to work as a library assistant at another college. Alongside, I will also be doing some volunteer book cleaning of some sadly mouldy special collections. So I still get to touch old books – even if it’s through some lovely latex gloves!”


Katherine

“I have had an excellent time on my traineeship! I’ve really enjoyed involving the library in Outreach efforts, and my best achievement was putting together an archive exhibition for my college’s 150th anniversary on its Working Women’s Summer Schools. Weirdest moment was definitely finding lots of tiny plastic babies on the shelves (apparently it’s some kind of TikTok trend?). I’m pleased to say I’ll be continuing in college librarianship (though hopping across to a different library!) – lots of time still to explore interdisciplinary books and chat to students!”


Lucy

“A personal highlight has been working in the historic Wren Library every day, having close contact with the incredible and diverse special collections housed within its walls. Halfway through the year, I was given the opportunity to write an article for Trinity’s Alumni magazine about a ‘Trinity Treasure’. I chose a colourful costume book (‘Trachtenbuch’) from 16th century Nuremburg. It was a wonderful way to explore in more detail a book within the collection, learning about the context and history of its production. You can read the article here on pages 22-23.

‘Trinity Treasures’ article by one of the Graduate Trainees published in ‘The Fountain’ alumni magazine
‘Trinity Treasures’ article published in ‘The Fountain’ alumni magazine

I also feel I should give a shout-out to one particularly weird and wonderful task I undertook – checking back in the skeleton models that are given to medical students at the start of the year. Sitting at my desk surrounded by fibulas, ulnas, clavicles, and sternums was a particularly bizarre experience. I am now far more well acquainted with the medical terms for human body parts – something that I wasn’t necessarily anticipating pre-starting at Trinity! The fact that each skeleton also has a name was a source of amusement – Cressida, Samson, Eve, and Gaspar are now safely back in their boxes waiting for October 2022 to come around.

In terms of next steps, the plan now is to move back to London – I am starting a new job at the Natural History Museum (as a Library and Archives Assistant) and will begin a two-year part-time Masters course in Library and Information Studies at University College London. I am incredibly sad to be leaving Trinity, and will really miss my work here, but am also excited to see what the future holds in store.”


William

“I have really enjoyed my time as a Graduate Trainee Librarian. The opportunity to visit a wide variety of libraries and library-adjacent enterprises has broadened my understanding of what a librarian can do. I particularly enjoyed visiting the British Library and their enormous basements and amazing conveyor belt system for moving books around. (It felt like I was behind the scenes at Monsters, Inc!) However, my favourite aspect has been the camaraderie between the trainees, and I enjoyed meeting up with them both in and out of work.”


We would like to say thank you to all the amazing library staff who have supported us this year, and welcome to the new cohort of Graduate Trainees for 2022-23. We hope you get as much out of it as we did!

Visit to Judge Business School Library

In April we were able to visit the library at the Judge Business School, which is housed in the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital building on Trumpington Street. It is a striking building, remodelled in the 1990s in a colourful, post-modernist style. We were met in the lobby by the Deputy Information and Library Services Manager, who gave us our first sneak peek of the library as we went to collect the User Experience Librarian, before leading us up one of the building’s “floating” staircases to the Business School’s café. They very kindly treated us to our choice of hot drinks, and we all sat down in the café to get an overview of how they run their library and how it fits into life and work at the Judge Business School. 

They have a relatively small physical collection of approximately 10,000 volumes, but have a huge digital offering of resources like e-books and databases. This means that their students can access library resources from anywhere in the building – and anywhere in the world, which is very important as they have a large number of international students who are studying remotely. These students are very rarely – if ever – in Cambridge to visit the physical library space, so it is crucial that they are able to access the relevant materials online. They always aim to get a digital copy alongside every print copy of a book they order. 

The Judge library offers an incredibly user-focused service (where many older libraries with lots of rare books might be more collections-focused), and this comes across in their customer service and user experience initiatives as well as their collections management. For example, due to the high number of remote international students, they manage an incredibly active chat service. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many academic libraries to start offering services like academic sessions and inductions over Zoom, the Judge library was already offering such services via Skype well before this. 

It was quite interesting to note that none of the library staff came from a business background, despite working in a specialist business library. As we’ve seen from speaking to other specialist librarians, this appears to be quite common – in many cases, having the skills to run a library is the most important thing, and specialist knowledge can be picked up along the way. This is really reassuring and good to know, as new professionals like us might otherwise be put off applying to roles in specialist libraries because they don’t have specialist knowledge of that field. 

Once we got into the library, it quickly became evident that they really do understand and cater to the needs of their users (both academically and generally) and it comes across in every facet of how they run their library. Their “Boost” collection offers a number of non-academic titles to supplement readers alongside their study needs – from graphic novels and pleasure reads to wellbeing titles and recipe books.

Just across from this is the “Weird Ideas” collection, which highlights books that introduce new, innovative, and disruptive ideas to the world of business and economics. Interestingly, as some of these ideas inevitably make it into the mainstream (cryptocurrency being one such example), the book is no longer a ‘weird’ idea and gets moved to the main collection. This is therefore a very interesting and dynamic part of the library, and a concept that works uniquely well for a subject like business. 

They also showed us Bloomberg, a database that provides live stock market information, the same as anyone on Wall Street would have in their office (the “Buy” button is understandably deactivated on the library version). There’s a lot of interesting information that can be found on Bloomberg but one of the highlights that they showed us was Posh, an internal marketplace for the ultra-rich. Think eBay or Craigslist but for yachts, small islands, city centre apartments, and Fabergé eggs. For us librarians it was a lot of fun to poke around and explore Bloomberg, but for the students and staff at Judge Business School, I imagine it must be an invaluable resource of live information. 

The space offers blankets and bean bags so students can have a comfortable experience in the library and even squeeze in a power nap if they need to. Past these and up the stairs, alongside some student desks, is a paper “graffiti wall” where students can provide feedback about different features of the library – and the library staff write back! This allows students to report things that they might not bother to write an email about or find a member of staff for – for example if a door hinge squeaks. 

As well as all the interesting and varied practical library services and UX initiatives, there were also a lot of fun extras. As Star Wars Day was approaching (May 4th), they had a lot of Star Wars paraphernalia in the office ready to set up for it, including a full-sized Baby Yoda/Grogu. There was also a “dinky door” in the back of the library, board games that students can play, and a secret false book hidden on one of the shelves, with chocolate inside for anyone who finds it. All of these extra touches ensure that students (and library staff, I have no doubt) can have a lot of fun when visiting the library, as well as finding the resources they need. 

We are very grateful to the team at JBS for hosting us and making us feel so welcome. 

Library Graduate Trainee Application Top Tips

It’s the start of a New Year, and with it the start of a new Library Graduate Trainee application cycle. Most of the traineeship listings for 2022 will start to appear between now and the spring. It can be a very busy and complicated time for prospective new trainees, with application deadlines looming and the struggle of putting together a winning personal statement for each one. Since we know exactly what it’s like, having been in the same position this time last year, we thought you might like to hear some advice from the current trainees on how to make your application stand out and (hopefully!) get you the job.

These top tips are brought to you by Katherine (Newnham), Emma (Queens’), Ellen (ARU), Lauren (English, Divinity, and Philosophy Faculty Libraries), and Lucy (Trinity).

Do your research

Katherine: Research the library you’re applying to and be interested in what makes it unique. If it’s in person, you’ll usually get a tour of the library beforehand. Do your research, ask questions, and most of all be interested!

Make sure you also research the type of library you’re applying to – law libraries have a very different focus to academic libraries, for example, and may use very different software. College and faculty/university libraries will be different, and some will be lending and some will not. (School libraries also have very different priorities, such as considering safeguarding of children, which are very important and which you could read up on beforehand.) Don’t be put off of applying to a library if it’s outside your experience – you’re there to learn and you could learn something really interesting! – but it’s good to have an idea of how they differ to show you’re interested in librarianship as a profession and not just as a library user.

Cast a wide net

Ellen: My best piece of advice for a successful Library Graduate Trainee application is to submit a lot of them. Each library that offers a trainee position gets a huge number of applications, so you may find yourself facing a lot of rejections. Don’t be disheartened by this. Personally, I applied to eight different graduate traineeships (as well as other library jobs) and was only invited to interview for two of them. It goes without saying that the more traineeships you apply to, the higher your chances are of securing one.

Katherine: Don’t worry if you don’t get interviews for all of your trainee positions. It’s quite common to be rejected by some and accepted for others. Traineeships are slightly different from library to library so keep applying – you might have the perfect skills for a place you didn’t even realise existed!

Tailor your application

Lucy & Emma: Try to tailor parts of your application to the specific library that you’re applying to. For example, have a look at the library’s special collections, or the responsibilities included within the job description that are unique to the library you’re applying to, and think about why they particularly appeal to you. This can be difficult and time-consuming if you’re applying to lots of different traineeships, but try and make sure that your applications are specific.

Say yes

Ellen: If you are offered an informal chat or a tour of the library, take them up on that offer. This has a double benefit of showing that you are really interested, and it will make you more memorable than other candidates. There is lots of great advice online about how to get the most out of an informal chat, so do your research and then pick up the phone.

It’s not just about books

Lauren: My manager said that this year, a lot of people fell down the trap of just talking about books. Being in an academic library environment means your readers are students and academics. As well as taking care of those books, you are likely to provide teaching, converse with lecturers about scans and reading lists, and communicate with students and senior members over library services. Make sure in your interview to really demonstrate your communication skills, providing examples of teaching, customer service, even retail! Your job really is all about the students, not the books.   

Keep an eye on the listings

Ellen: Virtually every Graduate Trainee post in the UK gets listed on Information Professional Jobs. I remember checking it almost daily last year, and ultimately that’s how I found the traineeship that I am in now. Checking it regularly will enable you to find new openings as soon as they get advertised, giving you plenty of time to put an application together before the closing date.

Reflect on your experiences in libraries

Emma: Try and think of any specific interactions that you’ve had with librarians. What was it about them that was helpful or not helpful? For example, explaining cataloguing systems, being welcoming, or helping you to locate items.

Highlight your relevant experience

Emma: Draw on any experiences of working with books that you have. This might include volunteering in second-hand bookshops or public libraries, working in bookshops, or anything else book-related.

Lucy: It’s also important to bring attention to any other relevant skills you might have. Demonstrate your cross-transferable skills! Whilst not all your experience to date may be in a library setting, you can still use previous experience to evidence good communication and interpersonal skills, as well as an ability to work as part of a team.

Katherine: Bring out any other experience you’ve had! A lot of librarianship is focused on customer service skills, for example – or any time you’ve done a lot of work with spreadsheets, or creating displays. It’s not just all about a love of books!

Think ahead

Ellen: Employers will want to know what you are planning to do once your traineeship is over. One of the main reasons Graduate Trainee positions exist is to give trainees the skills and experience they need for library school. If you want to go on to gain a postgraduate qualification in Libraries & Information, make sure you let them know that! Of course, plans can change, but having some idea of where you want your career to go is a huge advantage.


We hope these tips help you put together a truly stand-out Library Graduate Trainee application. To find out more about current vacancies, you can check out our Twitter thread of library traineeships that opened for applications this month (many of which are closing soon, so be quick!), or keep checking Information Professional Jobs throughout the next few months.

Racial Bias in Reader Services – Sally Hamer talk summary

This post is a summary of a conference talk by Sally Hamer which the writer viewed at the the Decolonising Implications in Reader Services workshops hosted by the Decolonising through Critical Librarianship group. Please view the talk here. For a summary of the subsequent discussions at the workshops, please view the DtCL blog post here.

The study had taken place across 24 academic libraries in different geographical parts of England. 6 fictional identities were created, each with a name representing one of the 6 largest ethnic groups from the 2011 census – Arab, Black African, white British, white other, South Asian and East Asian. All of the names were traditionally female and it was ensured that the first and family names could be differentiated by a simple Google search. 1 email was sent a week from each of these fictional identities to 24 institutions for a total of 144 queries. The questions which were asked were completely identical aside from the email signature at the end. 

The responses to the emails were analysed against a set of five criteria derived from the IFLA and RUSA guidelines for how libraries should respond to user enquiries: 

1. Service Provision

2. Clarity

3. Courtesy

4. Approachability

5. Information Literacy

It should be noted that in the subsequent DCL workshop discussions, it transpired that very few librarians had heard of these guidelines; this raises questions as to how well publicised these guidelines are, and whether further promotion in the Cambridge librarian network would be beneficial. 

Although Hamer noted that the sample size was small, there were some clear broad main trends which emerged. 

Firstly, there was generally some unequal treatment which occurred across the board. Some users experienced particularly low quality of service; the user with the Nigerian name was least likely to receive a response from the librarians, least likely to have her question answered when she did receive a response, and there was a notable difference in the level of courtesy she received. (Elements of courtesy here might involve a greeting, a thank you for enquiring, an apology, or a suggestion of where to approach next.) Conversely, the user with the Chinese name had the highest quality of response, with a response to 100% of her enquiries and sometimes several follow-up messages; there were consistently high levels of service provision and courtesy, and she didn’t get passed to other people as she was always having her enquiry answered directly. Hamer noted that the two unequal approaches to customer service provision had an impact on the user’s feeling of belonging within the library; a lower level of service contributes to the feeling of otherness and discrimination, making them less likely to interact with librarians in the future. 

However, a second trend which was observed – this of name-based microagressions – was seen to disproportionately affect the user with the Chinese name. This user was addressed incorrectly more often than correctly; 11% of responses referred to her only by her family name Zhao (which is only a family name and so should not be confused for a personal name), while no other user was referred to only by their family name. This user was also 3-10 times more likely than any other user to have her entire name used; this also happened disproportionately to the user with the Nigerian name. The user with the white British name was the only user never to be addressed by her full name; this suggests a trend in which users with non-British names were referred to more impersonally, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the family and personal names involved. Microaggressions were more generally linked to trends of low self-esteem, internalised racism, and other mental and physical health impacts; it had also been shown in other studies that Asian students living in the UK had been shown to do noticeably better academically when they adopted a Western name, having a better relationship with their tutors and peers, demonstrating the impact a name can have on one’s sense of belonging. As such, it was shown to be incredibly important to address all users correctly and courteously – it is worth noting that in this study, all family names could be distinguished from personal names by a simple Google search. 

The third and final trend which was noted was the lack of adherence to the established guidelines for customer service across the board. Some elements of the guidelines were widely adhered to – for example, response rate (librarians responded to over 90% of queries, providing answers to around 40%), response time (70% of responses were given within three hours and over 90% in one day), and some elements of clarity and courtesy (greeting and closing phrases, thanks, and signatures all being included). However, other elements of courtesy were sometimes lacking – including apologising if a question couldn’t be answered, inviting the user to follow up, and offering concluding remarks. Hamer noted that promoting information literacy, providing contact details, and so on both help the user in their enquiry and help them feel encouraged to ask questions in the future. Elements of clarity were also lacking. 

Hamer concluded that, since so much of this behaviour is necessarily unconscious (few of us would consciously consider ourselves to be making racist judgements!) it can be difficult for service providers to recognise elements of bias in their interactions and adapt their own behaviour consistently. As such, a good solution would be to adhere to best practice guidelines, such as those proposed by IFLA and RUSA, which propose a checklist of elements for every interaction (such as addressing someone by name, and service provision, increasing awareness of other follow-up options, and so on). However, this comes with the very large caveat that best practice guidelines themselves don’t always refer to ethnic and racial bias explicitly – including those proposed by IFLA and RUSA. Racial bias should be explicitly mentioned for guidelines to be truly anti-racist.

– Katherine Knight

Cataloguing training – the basics

During the first few weeks of our traineeships, the Cambridge graduate trainees received some initial cataloguing training. The sessions were delivered by the Head of English Cataloguing at the University Library, and provided a preliminary grounding for the cataloguing work which the trainees undertake throughout the year.

In our first session, it was explained that cataloguing is the process by which the bibliographic data of a library’s collection is recorded. MARC, or ‘Machine Readable Cataloguing’, allows bibliographic data to be stored using codes and numbers, so that it can be retrieved by a library management system. Essentially, MARC is the ‘language’ that a computer uses to understand and process the bibliographic information about library material. We were signposted to the MARC standards webpage, and were told that we would be consulting it frequently as our cataloguing careers progressed!

The Head of Cataloguing also explained that we would follow the RDA (Resource Description and Access) cataloguing standard – guidelines and rules which stipulate what bibliographic information you need to provide within a cataloguing record.

Our session coordinator had put together some activity sheets which we were able to work through in break out rooms on Microsoft Teams. For those of us without cataloguing experience, seeing the MARC coding and numbers for the first time (with its various fields, subfield tags, indicators, and punctuation) felt pretty complicated! Luckily, the Head of Cataloguing reassured us that we would become increasingly familiar with the terminology and rules over time.

During the practical parts of the sessions, we began learning how to transcribe information on authors, titles, and publication, as well as how to record pagination and descriptive details. The Head of Cataloguing also spoke about the importance of authority control, which ensures consistency across records and makes library catalogues more user-friendly for researchers.

It was great to have these cataloguing training sessions scheduled so early on in our traineeships. Over the coming months, all of the trainees will work to get to grips with the ins and outs of cataloguing, and are looking forward to helping add more resources to our libraries’ collections in the process. What became clear during the sessions was that proficient cataloguing is key to guaranteeing accessibility of collections, which is one of the most important goals of any library. It makes the prospect of undertaking cataloguing work particularly exciting to all of the trainees!

Law Librarianship Talk

One of the best things about our Cambridge traineeships is that we’re given the opportunity to explore several different areas of librarianship. This is great for career development and knowledge of the field.

Cambridge University libraries and librarians communicate and collaborate with one another to comprise a network that goes beyond individual institutions, and trainees are encouraged to join multiple action groups to stay aware of issues that libraries can face and developments that they can undertake in response. This means that, as trainees, we have access to many different types of academic library, such as individual college libraries, main university libraries, faculty libraries, specialist research libraries and special collections libraries. However, the traineeship scheme also encourages us to be aware of other kinds of libraries, such as public libraries, and, in this case, law libraries.

Cambridge is rich in talented and dedicated librarians and on this occasion, we met the Assistant Librarian from Pembroke College. She now works in academic librarianship, but begun her career at Lincoln’s Inn library and went on to work for the Inner Temple library, and she was kind enough to spend her time sharing a presentation with us about her experiences and the field in general. She started by describing what law librarianship was like on a day-to-day basis, highlighting the difference in pace between a law library and some other kinds of library. She also mentioned the different kinds of law libraries that exist, such as the libraries for Inns of Court and libraries for law firms. She briefly sketched out the shape and order of the legal profession before going into more detail on the importance of information and knowledge services within law, and the immediate impact that a law librarian can have on people’s lives. We looked at some different examples of law library buildings and finished with a Q and A.

The session as a whole was really informative and well-put together and I’m sure encouraged lots of us to think in more depth about the possibility of a career in legal librarianship.

Decolonising Through Critical Librarianship – Practical Approaches to Decolonising Library Classification

On the 1st July 2021, the Decolonising Through Critical Librarianship group hosted a workshop on practical approaches to reclassification. This roundtable discussion arrived in good time for the summer period, in which academic libraries are usually quieter and librarians are more easily able to access the shelves for large-scale classification projects. 

Several libraries had already undertaken their own reclassification projects, and gave brief overviews of these talks as an introduction to the discussion. 

African Studies Library 

The African Studies Library had moved from the UDC to Library of Congress – previously, books had been classified by country first and subject second, which meant that there was an overwhelming wealth of first-level subsections, with similar subjects being distanced from one another. The new classification scheme means that writers across a certain diaspora (e.g. Anglophone, Francophone) are now within borrowing distance of one another, which improves the user browsing experience and is simpler to explain to new users; more scope is allowed for comparative literatures, and there is no longer a backlog of cataloguing due to difficulties in deciding classifications. 

The African Studies librarian noted that this reclassification process might not work in the same way elsewhere due to the focused scope of the library; while these books would be siloed into specific geographic sections in more general libraries, in the African Studies library ‘African literature’ is just literature, ‘African economics’ just economics, and so on. This was a useful demonstration of the way in which suitable classification schemes will depend on the collection of a library and its primary user base. 

Divinity Library

The Divinity Library reclassification project had started in 2015. Of particular concern was a so-called ‘section 11’ for ‘non-Judeo-Christian religions’ – this contained not only religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism but philosophical and comparative texts on a variety of other miscellaneous subjects.  Due to the scale of the project, a split-approach to classification was taken after the new librarian joined in 2015. Books which had arrived before March 2016 remained in the old Section 11, while books which arrived after were classified according to the new classification system, which distinguished non-Judeo-Christian religions in more detail: section 11 became Islam, section 15 Buddhism, 16 Hinduism, 17 Other Religions or religious movements (e.g. Greco-Roman pagan, Zoroastrianism), and 18 Comparative or Inter-Faith texts. At the current rate of staffing the project was expected to take 15 years; the length of time taken to fit in reclassification around daily activities was shown to be a recurrent concern throughout all the discussions. 

Squire Law Library 

The Squire Law Library had – enabled by the lockdowns of the past 18 months – had time to identify areas to be reclassified throughout the library. The library itself was structured on an in-house classification system written in the 70s loosely based on Moyes (a legal classification system), which is kept on paper and is not regularly updated. This classification system organises books according to the country to which the legal system applies; this itself poses problems, as countries have changed over time and are sometimes contested. However, there are also higher-level organisational problems: these countries themselves are organised into two sections depending on the origin of their legal system, which has its roots deeply embedded in colonial history (that is to say, often dependent on who the country was occupied by in the past). This also means that countries are not represented in geographical order; neighbouring countries may be on opposite sides of the library. This distinction is notable enough to have been queried by some students and was said to be both complicated and embarrassing to explain; this was noted as an example of reclassification being motivated by reader-stimulated input. 

Pembroke Library 

Pembroke Library had recently undertaken an extensive overhaul of their history section, reclassifying around 8,000 books. The in-house classification system, which was theoretically based on Dewey but more accurately reflected teaching practices, started with two specific classmarks which heavily centred colonial empires: the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and the Expansion of Europe (this being the other colonial powers and their commonwealths). The new classification system maintained the geographical subdivisions in history, but divided by continent and subsequently by period, which allowed for all continents to be placed on an equal standing in their own right rather than being seen through a Eurocentric lens. This also allowed gaps to be identified and supplanted in the collection, often ahead of the curriculum – for example, expanding the section for Oceania – and for buying patterns to be critically analysed in the future. 

Alma and Primo (iDiscover) support team 

A representative from the technical support team explained how issues of classification applied to Alma and iDiscover. A particularly high-profile case which had occurred recently had been the changing of the subject heading ‘Illegal Aliens’ to ‘Undocumented Immigrants’ and associated terms (such as ‘children of’). This change had occurred at the local level in Cambridge Libraries following the blocking of the intended terminology change at the top level by Congress. It was explained that this subject heading had only been changed at the display level rather than at the back-end for a number of reasons: Alma records get exported so there is a need to stick to the agreed rules; the searchability for the original subject heading should be maintained for external users – and, most crucially, as subject headings were usually decided centrally by the Library of Congress, a display-name change allowed the subject headings to be changed automatically rather than manually in the future should a change occur at the top level. This was a useful insight into the technological background of reclassification and the practical problems which could arise. 

Roundtable Discussion 

Some practical advice was offered more generally by those who had already done reclassification – Pembroke suggested a pre-arranged workflow with books being sorted and done a bay at a time to limit the ‘switching’ from decision-making to updating Alma. Newnham suggested a similarly systematic approach, noting that available space should be considered and that the area to be reclassified should work around stockcheck (or vice versa) to avoid books getting lost. Parts of the reclassification project – such as comparing old and new shelf lists – could also be done at home. Pembroke also noted that books on loan have to be considered – Newnham suggested that this could be resolved by adding fulfilment notes, but that this was quite a laborious way of approaching the process. 

In addition to some unexpected budgetary concerns – the stationary spend for one library was massively extended from the cost of book labels and tape alone! – it was widely acknowledged that reclassification projects were rarely given extra funding; however, much of the time, a larger budget would not have helped, the pace of the project decided by other limiting factors such as library space and time available around daily tasks. The skillset of the involved librarians was also important, and many teams were limited by the number of cataloguers they had. 

There were some concerns raised regarding specific classification systems – people argued that Dewey Decimal Classification poorly managed the distinction between history and history of a topic. This meant that ‘lenses’ on history – such as women’s history, LGBTQ+ history, and Black history – were placed in the early 300s and effectively siloed away from the ‘mainstream’ historical canon. In addition to the problem of the implicit theoretical hierarchy which this entailed, on a practical level this also meant that library users were less likely to encounter these ‘lenses’ on history while browsing the ‘mainstream’ canon on the shelves. 

Some participants enquired what they could do to indicate to users the inadequacies in the current classification system if they did not have the resources to undertake a full-scale reclassification project. Multiple librarians recommended putting up signs indicating where other relevant material might be found. One noted that it was appropriate to train staff so they could answer any enquiries on the subject appropriately. The Scott Polar Research Institute Library had had some success hosting workshops with users on the classification scheme; while primarily an information literacy event, it also increased familiarity with the collection and the way it was structured. 

Reflection 

As a trainee relatively new to the field of classification, the discussion was incredibly eye-opening and helped me think about classification more broadly at both the practical level – considering how classification could impact browsability – and theoretical level – how existing classification schemes reinforced or subverted existing power structures. Such a workshop made me think more carefully about how I personally approached classification, reminding me that what often seems like the ‘easiest’ or most obvious classification for an item might not necessarily be the most appropriate: for example, rather than siloing an item on LGBTQ+ history into a general LGBTQ+ section, we might consider where it might fit into the core history collection to increase its general browsability. This sometimes might involve reclassifying whole groups of items which could be better placed rather than adding new acquisitions to them just for the sake of consistency – classifcation should be an ongoing, considered, and fluid process, rather than a strict and immovable system which should be adhered to. 

As a final note, I was particularly enthused by how many libraries noted their classification systems had been remarked upon by users: this surely demonstrates that reclassification is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but is noticed and appreciated (and sometimes initiated!) by users who, as one librarian put it, ‘appreciate that something is being done in the library for them’.

– Katherine Knight, Newnham College