Last week, we had the first of our visits to one of our own trainees’ libraries – Newnham College. Newnham is a women’s College founded in 1871, with the Library being first constructed in 1897. The Library was a gift from Henry and Elizabeth Yates Thompson who had close connections to the College and its founders, including the architect Basil Champneys. The 2004 modern extension is named the Horner Markwick Library after two previous Librarians of the College, who both generously donated funds towards expanding the Library.
Our tour started in the Archive, where the Archivist had laid out a selection of photographs and other items of note from the College’s history for us to view. Of particular note was a letter written by Rosalind Franklin, whose later work would contribute hugely to our understanding of DNA structure. At the time of the letter, Franklin was a first-year undergraduate student, and wrote to her parents of the exciting news of the first female professor elected in either Oxford or Cambridge (this was Dorothy Garrod), who had been elected from Newnham. Franklin also noted that there was still a question over whether, as a woman, she would be given full membership of the University.
Our visit to the Archive also elicited a fascinating discussion about archiving personal histories of people who have been marginalised throughout history. Collection of personal letters and photographs allows us to now reveal and understand some aspects of women’s lives that would have been ignored, deliberately hidden, or suppressed in previous centuries and decades, for example LGBTQ+ identities and relationships.
Our Newnham trainee then took us on a tour of the Library reading rooms, explaining the layout and their classification scheme. The size of the collection was particularly impressive, and is one of the best-stocked undergraduate college libraries in Cambridge. For a College with around 400 undergraduates, a collection of over 100,000 volumes gave a much larger ratio of book-to-student numbers compared to other College libraries such as my own, Pembroke. I was then reminded that for a long time, women were not permitted to enter the University or faculty libraries, and thus the College needed to stock anything its women could potentially need for their studies, explaining the large collection.
The Library building itself was beautiful to see. We first explored the modern extension of the library, where the majority of reader spaces and the main Library office now lie. It is bright and spacious, and though very modern in appearance, its layout and vaulted ceiling bring with it a continuity of style into the old library. The similarly vaulted ceiling in the old Yates Thompson library features beautiful panels displaying printers’ marks from European printers that Henry Yates Thompson, himself a collector of manuscripts and early printed books, highly regarded.
Throughout the library were several displays. Some of these were created by students themselves, while others had been put together by Library staff. Highlights were the ‘Roger’s Collection’ of late 19th century children’s literature and folk stories from around the world, on display in the old library, and the display about women obtaining the right to education in Cambridge, on display in the lift corridor. The latter of these featured shocking photos of riots that ensued when the question of women obtaining degrees was put to the (all-male) University members, and in particular of the vandalism Newnham College was subjected to by opponents of women seeking the right to receive a degree.
Next, we were shown the Katharine Stephens Rare Books Library, named for the Librarian who presided over the creation of the Yates Thompson Library. The Assistant Librarian gave us a tour of one of their current rare book exhibitions they’ve put together for students, about the history of Sociology and Anthropology. She explained that the Library begun to put together collections of rare books related to each Tripos subject studied at Newnham, which they would then invite students to look at during their subject formal halls. This not only enabled the students to become aware of and engage with relevant texts and resources in the Library, but also allowed the Library staff to continue to get to know their large collection of rare books by challenging them to find books relating to particular subjects.
The overall impression of Newnham College Library was one of a welcoming and friendly study space, with a large and diverse collection of books and materials for its students. It is a great example of a library whose space and collections have been truly shaped by its history and users. Having been one of the only spaces for women studying in Cambridge for so many years, it appears to have fostered an incredibly supportive and close-knit environment, leading to its alumnae and members giving generously to maintain and expand the Library and its collections.
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.
“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!”
“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!”
“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!”
“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.
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.”
“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!
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.
Another month, and another tour, to Queen’s College old library. Its claim-to-fame being the oldest library in Cambridge. Emma, our grad trainee, and the library staff at Queens College gave us a tour with a hands-on historical workshop. We looked through texts that varied between the 1500s and 1700s. Have a hankering for library tour posts? Check out Lauren, Jess & D’s experiences of The UL Tour. Or Lucy’s Cambridge Central Library post. I promise you won’t regret.
One thing I love about the college libraries is that each college has its own distinctive characteristics. Katie’s post on Newnham College library tour will give you a flavour. Queens College is certainly distinctive. Across the mathematical bridge (remove the screws and the bridge would remain) span beautiful buildings and lush gardens. The architecture was a mix of “old country town” and “modern build”. But the nicest thing was, every person I saw was smiling. Queens is one of the smaller colleges in Cambridge, built of just over 1000 undergraduates, graduates and academics. Nonetheless, the college is utterly charming and quirky. I felt a lovely sense of community, even just walking through!
The main library is fairly modern and bright.. and busy! It was the end of term. And we heard nothing but ferocious keyboard clicking from students getting essays in. Because Queens caters for first year undergraduates of all subjects, it has few books that cater for other years. As a grad trainee working in departmental libraries, this is a major difference between our collections. As our collections are tripos-based, we cater from undergraduate to fellow. Our collections are based soley around one tripos.
Bliss Classification scheme
Queens use the bliss classification system. Bliss builds classmarks through a combination of letters and numbers. The alternative is a numerical-based system like Dewy. We call the former a faceted scheme whilst the latter an enumerative scheme. Whilst it’s possible to have a system that is in-part enumerative and faceted. Bliss is fully faceted. Faceted schemes allow for in-depth subject analysis, aswell as freedom and flexibility for the classifier. This is because they build their classmarks rather than pick from a list. Therefore it’s easier to show links between subjects, accommodate new subjects. With enumerative schemes, subject headings are already
As libraries strive to be more inclusive and accommodating, faceting elements can prove to be desirable in schemes. This is because of the hospitable element, made possible by the classmarking system. It helps to endorse and embraces new subjects that sprout, and ones that arise from existing subjects.
The old library
The trainees were taken through to Queens College old library, which was like stepping through an architectural time capsule. It featured the most aesthetic walls, ceilings and furniture from across different time periods. Queens College old library is the “Elmer the elephant” of old libraries. From 12th century windows, to a 17th century wooden safe, it was a beautiful mesh of time periods. The top half of the shelves were from a different century to the medieval bottom half of the shelves! And there were modern spinny desk chairs dotted around too. The mismatched museum of vintage library furniture made Queens College old library more charming.
Towering above us were shelves of old books. They were beautiful and unique. Meanwhile Emma talked us through how she catalogues these books. Broadly speaking, this involves; subject analysis, publishing information, a physical description and classification. If you’re after an idea of cataloguing, Lucy’s blogpost on cataloguing training is a great start.
The history of the printing press
The trainees were then given a 101 on the history of the printing press. I’ll keep this brief – I’ve left a further reading list at the end of this post. But, the compositor would have to manually select the type from his case. Then, set this onto the composing stick. And as you can see in the image below, the composition stick is composed letter-by-letter. And, the individual characters would have to slot onto a stick corresponding to a line of text. Each stick (line) would then accumulate to create a page of writing.
Once the page was complete, the ability to rewrite or edit a sentence became impossible. This is unlike modern times, where the touch of the button can easily rewrite words and sentences.
We also learnt about imposition. Now, imposition (in terms of books) is the way the pages are laid out. When folded, the pages appear in the correct order. The below image is an example of imposition. After printing the page, people would have to fold the sheet in the correct order.
Old book workshop
We were handed books ranging from 15-17th century. For me, a French book from the 15th Century on the French revolution. The book contained three forms of handwritten notes and, suggested it had been rebound at least once in its lifetime. One of the handwritings seemed scrawny, child-like in nature. We thought that a child aged 7-10 could be behind these notes. We concluded that the book was used for school. It was fascinating to see children’s notes from centuries ago. Handwriting is personal to the individual, and these have been frozen in time.
Finally, a bit of show-and-tell. The grads got to grips with miniature books from the 18th century. Roughly 3cm by 4cm, these dinky books were usually ye old testaments. And whilst they were not practical, they were very cute!
Thank you Queens!
Overall, it was a fascinating visit and I certainly thouroughly enjoyed it. The tour of Queens I want to say a big thank you to the Library staff at Queens for making the visit possible. And, for taking time out of the day to provide us with this workshop. A special thanks to Emma for giving us an informative tour of the college grounds and library.
General Book History
Robert Darnton, ‘What is the History of the book?’ Daedalus, 111 (1982), 65-83 David Pearson, Books as history. The importance of books behong their texts (Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll; and London: British Library 2008) Sarah Werner, Studying early printed books, 1450-1800: a practical Guide (Hooken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2019)
Phillip Gaskell, A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1972) Joesph Mocon, Mechanick exercises; or, THe docterine of handy-workd. Applied to the art of printing (London: Joesphy Moxon, 1683)
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
In this blog post, the trainee at Trinity College (Lucy) and the trainee at Anglia Ruskin University (Ellen) reflect on the first library visit of 2021.
On Tuesday 21st September, the new Library Graduate Trainees went on their first visit of the year – a tour of Newnham College Library. We were greeted by the Newnham trainee, who took us on an initial walk-through of the Library. I was struck right away by how welcoming the Library felt; you could tell that the space is fully focused on serving the needs of Newnham’s students. It was not a surprise to hear that the Library is one of the best-stocked undergraduate college libraries in Cambridge, and is kept as relevant and up-to-date as possible to enhance user experience.
Newnham Library has two sections: the original Victorian Yates Thompson Library (designed by Basil Champneys), and the Horner Markwick extension (opened in 2004). In the latter, our Newnham trainee guide pointed out the different subject sections, and explained the in-house classification system. Spread across three floors and with large windows to let in plenty of light, the modern extension of the Library felt like a wonderful place to study.
Next we moved to the Yates Thompson Library, a Grade II* listed building. All of the trainees were impressed by the blue barrel vault and ornamented ceiling, which is decorated with 13 early European printers’ marks (chosen by Henry Yates Thompson). A highlight was seeing a collection of first edition works by Virginia Woolf, which contained early examples of Hogarth Press printing. The dust jackets on a number of the books were particularly beautiful, including those for ‘Between the Acts’ and ‘A Writer’s Diary’ (both designed by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister).
Over on the other side of the Library, we saw the small Glossographia exhibition, which displayed treasures from Newnham’s rare books and special collections. It was fascinating to see the first English translation of Don Quixote, as well as some unique reference aids, such as Thomas Blount’s ‘Dictionary of Hard Words’. A quick detour took us via the closed stacks in the basement, which house works from Newnham alumnae as well as materials that are not suitable for the open shelves. These included several boxes containing fake human bones, which are given to medical students at the beginning of each academic year – a somewhat unexpected and incongruous sight!
One of the exciting features of our inaugural library visit was that it also included our inaugural archive visit! After the tour of the main library, we were split into two groups: one to look at the rare books collection with the Librarian, and the other to look at the archives with the College Archivist. For the Archives visit, we were led into a set of small offices, where the Archivist had selected and displayed some notable pieces for us. Laid out around the room were a number of books, posters, newspaper articles, and more.
The Archivist began by explaining that this year marked Newnham’s 150th anniversary as a women’s college, and the 100th anniversary of a rather unsavoury event in its history. In 1921, the University was voting on allowing women full membership of the University or ‘titles of degrees’ upon completion of their courses, where up until this point they would only have received a certificate acknowledging that they had taken and passed the exams. Some of Cambridge’s male students did not take kindly to this idea, and effectively stormed Newnham in protest. College property was vandalised, most notably the ornate bronze Clough Gates (commemorating Anne Jemima Clough, the first principal of Newnham) which were battered by a handcart.
As such, many of the pieces on display were about this event and the resilience of Newnham’s students that shone through because of it. One of the most memorable and amusing pieces was a letter of apology written by one of the men who took part in an earlier 1897 protest. In it, he professed his embarrassment at being there at all, and his shame at having accidentally broken a window in the process. He made an offer to pay for the damages and again apologised profusely, but at the end of the letter shattered this saintly image that he had painted of himself by asking, since he was Danish himself, if the college had any Scandinavian ladies studying there, and if so, that he be put in contact with them.
One of the more sobering pieces was a small poster from the 1897 protest, which in large letters simply said, “NO WOMEN”. It was a strikingly tangible reminder that attitudes like this were still prevalent only a hundred years ago, and that I sometimes take that for granted. I studied at Royal Holloway, which was very similar to Newnham – it was purpose-built as a women’s college in 1886 and educated suffragettes such as Emily Wilding Davison, but to my knowledge never had quite so much opposition. Seeing the dissonance between that experience and that of Newnham’s students was quite jarring!
We then moved on to the next room to view the stacks, where the archive materials are stored. The room was surprisingly small for a place with such a rich history, but I suppose that speaks to the meticulous curation and efficient organisation of the archivists more than anything. Truthfully, I could have spent the rest of the day in there quite happily, exploring all the different items on the shelves.
I was struck by the excitement in the room while looking at and talking about these materials. On a personal level, I had never given archive work a great deal of thought until this moment – I’d always thought it might be interesting to work in an archive, but I’d never really understood what that meant. Archivists are the caretakers of physical pieces of history. As well as exploring fascinating areas of the past, they get to decide what materials will be held from our time for the historians of the future. It sounds like an exciting and challenging responsibility, and I am certainly going to give it greater consideration going forward in my career.
Our visit to the Rare Books room was led by Newnham’s current Librarian. Established in 1982 and built, stylistically speaking, in line with the rest of the Library’s architecture, the space was named in honour of Katharine Stephen. Stephen was appointed as the College’s first Librarian in 1888 and later became its Principal. She also happened to be the cousin of Virginia Woolf.
The College Librarian told us about Newham’s special collections, which contain approximately 6,000 rare books and manuscripts (ranging from the 15th to the 20th centuries) and result from donations to the College. This includes 16th century Chaucer editions, as well as both the Rogers and the Renouf collections. Many of the books are beautifully bound, with intricate patterns and gilding adorning their spines. The room was noticeably colder than the rest of the Library – the temperature signalling the priority that is given to the historic materials housed in the room over the librarians working within it!
We were also shown a small glass case, which housed a ring with the braided hair of Charlotte Brontë coiled inside. Just as we were leaving, the Librarian pointed out a recent donation given to the College – a first edition of an Aphra Behn play. On a personal note, this was wonderful to see, having briefly studied her work during the final year of my undergraduate degree.
After we had viewed the rare books, and the other group had viewed the archives, we joined together once again and were led out to the college gardens. The Librarian was very patient as we collectively listed off the most complicated drinks order known to man, and before long we were all sitting together on the grass sipping our teas, coffees, hot chocolates, and chai lattes in the final rays of the summer sun.
Our conversation topics ranged from decolonisation workshops to films and musicals inspired by Greek mythology, and everything in between. I was interested to learn from the Assistant Librarian that there is in fact a library allotment somewhere in the 17 acres of Newnham’s beautiful gardens, and that they are growing blueberries there! I had never heard of such a thing, so it was a very pleasant surprise. Initiatives like that can make for a very enjoyable workplace and can do wonders for staff wellbeing. It made me wonder what other workplace initiatives might be possible for library and university staff more generally.
After we had finished our drinks, we got up and explored the college gardens and marvelled at the gorgeous Victorian architecture of many of Newnham’s buildings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the library allotment, but we did see lots of lovely growing things, including tomatoes, pumpkins, and more than a few sunflowers. I hadn’t done any research on the gardens before our visit, so I was surprised to learn just how large and diverse they were, with innumerable varieties of trees, flowers, and other greenery.
One of our last stops was at the sunken rose garden. Down a set of stone steps were four large beds of roses, with a pool in the centre dedicated to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham’s co-founder. The flower beds were abuzz with activity, with a wonderfully large number of bees flying around. Honeybees were reintroduced to the Newnham gardens in 2016, for the first time since WWII. These are Buckfast bees, which are bred for their productivity, gentleness, and resistance to disease. The gentleness certainly came across, as they seemed to have no issue with us joining them to admire the roses.
Lastly, before heading off, we stopped at the bronze gate that had been damaged during the protest in 1921. It had, of course, been repaired since then but even so, seeing it in person added a huge weight of tangibility to that event. As well as a fascinating insight into rare books librarianship and archival work, this visit to Newnham gave me a renewed gratitude for the academic and professional opportunities I have as a woman in 2021, and I am doubly grateful for the generations of women who came before me to make that possible.
All of us graduate trainees are immensely grateful to the library team at Newnham for taking the time and effort to provide us with such a wonderful visit – thank you! It was the perfect way to start off our programme of library visits, and has set the standard very high.