So, as most of you are probably aware, in September I started a year-long post as a graduate trainee librarian at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The aim of the role is that I get to learn the ins and outs of academic librarianship, gain experience across all the varied requirements of the role, and work out if I want to go on to library school (and if so, what kind of a focus I’d like to take with that).
The trainees have a blog, CaTaLOG (Cambridge Trainee Librarian’s Online Group), and a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my experiences of returning to an institution I knew as a student. I thought now that it’s been up there a while, I’d cross-post it here, so that those of you who have been wondering what I’m up to can read it too.
(Although of course, feel free to go and follow the trainee blog too.)
From Student to Trainee
(originally posted on CaTaLOG on 13th November 2019)
I was a student at Cambridge before I was a trainee — I studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNaC) at Newnham College (my focus was very much on the Celtic; I specialised in medieval Irish). It’s been an interesting experience to return to a university I already know well, and experience it from a different angle: a different role, a different college, an entirely different experience.
Now and again I find myself retracing my steps and visiting familiar haunts like the UL or Newnham, but as a trainee, I see an entirely different side of them. Part of that is the opportunity to go behind the scenes — the UL seems intimidatingly huge as a student, but through a door or up a different set of stairs it’s like an entirely different building contained within it, a labyrinth of staff-only corridors and rooms. Part of it, though, is realising how much is available to students that I didn’t take advantage of as an undergraduate, and with that realisation comes a pang of regret for all the opportunities I feel like I wasted.
Our first visit of the year was to the UL. Due to a prior commitment I was only able to come for half of the trip, so I missed the opportunity to see Rare Books and Digital Services. I did, however, manage to join the group for the visit to the Manuscripts Room.
Now, as a medievalist, I tend to get overly excited about manuscripts anyway, but to have them up close in front of me was… something else. There, in front of me, was a Book of Hours, liberally decorated with gold leaf. There, in front of me, was a little marginal drawing of the sort I might have retweeted on Twitter from one of the many medievalist accounts I follow. Right there. Not behind a glass case, not in an exhibition, but inches away from me.
And what really struck me was that it had never occurred to me, in my four years as a student, that I could have come to the Manuscripts Room at any time. I didn’t know that I was allowed. I didn’t know that I could request to see certain medieval texts simply for the joy of seeing them (and not because I was some high-flying researcher with a monograph to write).
I think, probably, that this is something a lot of undergraduates don’t realise — and of course, for those outside of subjects like ASNaC, there’s probably limited appeal in the opportunity to stare at some old books. But I’m glad to see that some are taking the chance that I failed to realise I had — a group of first year ASNaCs went to the UL to see their copy of Bede recently, and I admire them for that.
More recently, we visited Newnham for some training in how to use this website, and afterwards received a tour of the library. Having had a number of late-night essay crises in the Newnham library, I assumed I knew it well enough that there’d be little to surprise me on the tour, and it’s true that most of the Working Library was familiar to me.
(Although it’s only since graduating and having the opportunity to visit lots of other college libraries that I’ve realised how lovely Newnham’s is, and how completely spoiled I was as a student there to have access to that.)
But then we had the opportunity to visit the Archives, the closed stacks in the basement, and the Rare Books Room — a room I didn’t even know they had. If you’d said to me a week ago, “What does Newnham have in the way of special collections?” I’d probably have given some answer about some old children’s books (true) and some interesting material objects (also true); I didn’t know that they had 6,000 early printed books and a handful of medieval manuscripts, all stored beautifully in a dedicated room built in a style in line with the rest of the library’s architecture while suiting the unique needs of old books.
I walked in and all I could think was, “Why didn’t I know about this?” And the answer, I guess, is that I didn’t ask. It never occurred to me that I could. I knew that the UL had manuscripts, but I assumed that you had to be a Serious Researcher doing Serious Research to be able to look at them; I guess there was some impostor syndrome at work, that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to access that material.
I’ve been thinking, also, about how it took me until final year to ever request a book from my college library, and how I think I only spoke to library staff on two or three occasions (I generally went to the library late at night, when the desk was unstaffed). Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I realise how much I missed out on by being too worried about being annoying or presumptuous.
It’s made me realise that we, as libraries, can do more to make students aware of those materials, to do more to encourage students that they can access special collections if they need or even want to. To make it feel safe to ask those kinds of questions — “Can I see some old books?” “Will you buy this obscure text?” “What kind of archives does the library keep?” — without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
The fault here is not on the librarians; I’m an anxious person, and I’m fairly sure that was a major part in my failure to ever approach the library desk unless completely unavoidable. But at the same time, if somebody had reached out to me as an undergrad and told me what I was allowed to do… maybe things would have gone differently.
I’m grateful, at least, that I get a second chance now to experience what I missed the first time around. To have spent four years in Cambridge, of all places, and never to have looked at any special collections material whatsoever, is a crying shame — but I’ve got no intention of making it five. And if I can convince one student to take advantage of this opportunity, to go and ask their librarians about their college’s archives or rare books, then I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something.