On Wednesday 28th April 2021, the Cambridge Library Trainees from St John’s, Trinity, Queens’, Pembroke, and Newnham Colleges were excited to speak to the CLG about their experiences over the course of this year. It was a great evening to be a part of, and all of us thoroughly enjoyed sharing what we have been up to in our libraries. Below is a summary of what we discussed.
What is a Library Trainee?
The graduate library traineeship is a year-long appointment which aims to give a recent graduate student (paid!) experience of working in a library before they undertake a professional qualification in librarianship; this extended experience being a prerequisite for many Master’s courses. Although most trainees do proceed to the Master’s, there is no expectation that they will do so: the focus is on introducing the trainee to a working library environment and allowing them to decide whether the career is right for them.
Although all trainees present at the talk worked at constituent colleges of the University of Cambridge, there are trainees in all varieties of libraries across the UK – including school, law, and specialist libraries.
The daily routines of trainees vary between colleges, but can include activities such as reshelving; classifying, cataloguing, processing, and withdrawing books; creating displays, and managing social media. Training and workshops form a key part of the traineeship, which are given both within and outside the college, on topics such as cataloguing, creating exhibitions, and decolonising through critical librarianship. Usually trips to other libraries would be a key part of this training; however, since this has not been possible this year, we have had other insights such as virtual tours and group discussions.
The trainees have been involved in several collaborative projects together, which can be found here:
Website: catalog.group.cam.ac.uk (with information about traineeships, excellent for anyone applying)
Recent collaborative blog post on Decolonising through critical librarianship: https://decolonisingthroughcriticallibrarianship.wordpress.com/2021/03/15/decolonising-through-critical-librarianship-workshop/
A central part of this year’s traineeships has been helping to adapt library services to COVID restrictions. While COVID has obviously been a disruption to the trainees experiencing normal library services, it has meant that there are certain aspects of librarianship that they have been able to experience more of.
A large part of all the trainees’ jobs has been helping with services that enable students to use resources which COVID restrictions are preventing them from accessing. These services include: Click and Collect, Scan and Deliver and posting books to students who are not in Cambridge. Alongside these services, they have been helping point students towards the right form for book acquisitions, both e-books and physical books, and helping organise inter-college loans. As well as helping provide access to academic resources, the libraries have been acquiring resources for students’ enjoyment when they have been stuck in their rooms over lockdown. All the trainees’ libraries have been expanding their collections of light reading books/General interest books, DVDs, welfare-related books, and a couple of the libraries have been loaning puzzles (which has meant counting all the pieces to make sure that they are there on return!). These welfare adaptations have been a great chance to see that libraries contribute to more than just the academic side of users’ lives.
Not having students in the library has meant the trainees have not been able to interact with them as they usually would. This has meant getting more creative with the ways in which the library and students interact, such as posting a ‘Resource of the Day’ on Facebook, Pinterest book browsing displays, organising virtual study spaces, and virtual study skills sessions. These uses of virtual spaces to continue to provide services to students when they are unable to access the physical space of the library has shown the trainees that libraries are much more than just the physical space, and physical collections.
While this year’s traineeships have not been what the trainees originally expected there are many ways that this has been a beneficial experience. Stepping into these roles during COVID has encouraged the trainees to think about libraries beyond just the physical collections. Seeing the variety of other ways libraries are important to users’ lives will be great knowledge to take forward into a career in libraries.
For his part of the presentation, Harry spoke about our cataloguing training, using his experience of rare book cataloguing in the Queens’ Old Library as a focus point. He did have some experience working in a library with a large 19th-century collection before starting his traineeship, and so was drawn to the work with even older books that he would experience at Queens’. Although the breakout of the pandemic and the following lockdown meant that he could not start work in the library at the time originally planned, he shared with the CLG how he still received great remote training and how he could still participate in the Old Library cataloguing project without even stepping foot in Cambridge. Colleagues sent him books to read about book history, and he went through a remote crash-course of rare book cataloguing with the Rare Books Curator. Using various online resources, he was still able to contribute to the project, and the lockdown actually helped to divide his training into stages, as he could wait a few months before learning about putting binding and provenance information into his records. This experience was great preparation for the cataloguing training sessions all the trainees attended, where we learned RDA cataloguing for new acquisitions.
For all of us starting in 2020, having so few readers about last summer really allowed us to get to know our libraries before term started in October. More than previous trainees, we had the time to get to know our collections and really think about how we could make the library serve college members best. A lot of housekeeping could be done, and a lot of thought could go into how we arrange and classify our material. A lot of our librarians seem to have had the same idea, and several of us have been involved in reclassification projects and book moves. Jimmy (Pembroke) has probably had the biggest task here, helping to change his library’s classification system from numeric to alpha-numeric, and reclassifying books into more suitable sections in the process.
Vicky (Trinity) spoke about what she has learnt from other libraries and training workshops when classifying material. For example, the library at Trinity has acquired a lot of Hebrew and Arabic novels that are on a reading list for the English tripos, either in translation or originally written in English. Our workshop on decolonising library spaces (see link to our blog post above) flagged up the importance of classification systems in establishing hierarchies of information and making value judgements about different contributions to a field. One of the examples used in this workshop was the English faculty library, where a lot of the postcolonial literature has now been integrated into the main class scheme, so that it is recognised as an important aspect of English literature rather than just a marginal offshoot. Vicky had to think through these same questions when figuring out where new Hebrew and Arabic novels fit within Trinity’s own library scheme, in a way that doesn’t marginalise them within the English section, but also doesn’t relegate them all to Asian and Middle Eastern Studies either. It’s been a challenge to balance the need to classify information in a way that’s accurate and doesn’t marginalise underrepresented voices and perspectives with the need to cater to our users when they come with their reading lists that might compartmentalise things differently.
Getting to know our college libraries’ classification schemes was made easier by the peace and quiet brought about by COVID, but the pandemic has made it a lot harder to figure out how our circulation systems work. Our libraries have had to be much more flexible with our loan rules, either because users were unable to return to college or felt uncomfortable with coming into the library regularly. The main challenge has been to do with posting books out to students during Lent Term, when most of them were studying remotely. Where Trinity hasn’t already had a copy, Vicky and her colleagues have been posting out books directly from the suppliers to the students without processing them in the library first, so that students could get hold of these books well in advance of essay deadlines. Each book was given a temporary item record and classmark. As students are slowly returning, these books are starting to trickle back in, so the librarians can check them in manually and process them properly, making sure all the right records are attached to each other or deleted where appropriate. As trainees we can hardly claim credit for masterminding these changes to our circulation systems, but we have definitely benefitted from having to think more about why our normal workflows for processing and circulating books are the way they are, and how they can be adapted to meet users’ needs.
Working on projects which are linked to the heritage of the College is one of the less prominent aspects of a trainee’s role, but is nonetheless one that features in all the Cambridge traineeships as it provides an important opportunity for training and development. As with almost every other aspect of our roles, each trainee’s individual approach to this theme is completely dependent on the particular college they are at. This year all five of us have had a variety of different projects to work on, which have been thoroughly enjoyable.
Katie (St John’s) has worked closely with the Biographical Librarian at St John’s, helping to deal with enquiries from the general public which has included undertaking research using the College resources. She has also helped to input data and update the files of John’s alumni following degree ceremonies, as well as doing quick information checks for the Biographical Librarian using resources which are physically in the Library. In addition to this, Katie has also been working on a more long-term cataloguing project for the Special Collections in the Old Library, following the donation of several boxes of personal papers of a prominent early 20th-century geologist. This has been a slow-moving project as a result of the pandemic, however it has been an invaluable experience in learning how to sort and catalogue collections like this from scratch.
Jimmy (Pembroke) and Katherine (Newnham) have also had the chance to work on similar projects in their respective libraries. Following the death of a Fellow, Jimmy accompanied the Pembroke Archivist to the Fellow’s house to help look through the substantial rare books collection that had been bequeathed to the College. This was a great experience in getting to see how decisions about what to keep are made by libraries, as unfortunately college libraries (as with all libraries!) only have limited space, and cannot keep absolutely everything. Katherine has also been working her way through the personal library of a prominent Newnham alum. This project has involved listing the items contained in the collection, and determining what should be kept and what should be sold on.
The final two trainees, Vicky (Trinity) and Harry (Queens’) have had a very different, but equally as interesting, type of involvement with College heritage. Vicky has overseen the signing of the Matriculation book in the Wren Library, which is an important annual tradition at Trinity. She has also written several blog posts on recent acquisitions, as well as short articles for the alumni magazine on highlights from the collections, in order to help showcase the exciting things the College holds in addition to their beautiful manuscripts. Harry has been busy creating a bibliography of books published by Queens’ members in the 18th century with an aim of helping research within the College, and has also participated in the College’s slavery investigation. He also plays a crucial role in the library by helping students to find and access resources to facilitate their research.
Our College Heritage projects this year have potentially been somewhat overshadowed by Covid-19, however we have still all managed to gain important experience in this area. It is perhaps something which is unique to the Cambridge traineeships, since it is something which is unique to the Cambridge colleges. It has been a pleasure to be involved in these projects, and all of us are looking forward to further developing the skills we have learned.
We really enjoyed participating in this event, and would like to thank the CLG for inviting us to speak and for asking us some great questions during the Q&A – who says you have to be quiet to work in a Library!