A day in the life of a rare books librarian
Susan Taylor, Special Collections, The Mitchell Library, Glasgow
Our special collections have grown by purchase and donation to include much unique and distinctive material, and works of great significance and rarity which are of great importance to the city. However, not every resident or visitor is familiar with our holdings, and so I work to raise awareness by creating listings and finding aids, adding information to catalogues, and aligning resources to customers’ needs. I have to strike a balance between making collections accessible, whilst safeguarding them for future generations, and so I identify priorities for digitisation, which can facilitate access to collections whilst also aiding both their conservation and preservation.
A core function of our team is to deliver an information and enquiry service. I’ll assess new enquiries and, depending on their level of urgency, either answer them myself or allocate them to one of our Glasgow Life Assistants. They are our greatest asset as there is no substitute for their combined expertise.
There are many essential administrative and professional tasks - revising and redistributing staffing sheets to cover staff absence, purchasing new resources whilst monitoring expenditure, attending meetings and so on. When acting as Duty Librarian, I am responsible for the safe clearing and re-entry of people to the building during emergency situations, and deal directly with customer complaints which, although sometimes disheartening, are the most direct way of measuring our efficiency and effectiveness and shaping future services.
Happily, much of my work involves planning and facilitating learning programmes and engagement activities on rare books, manuscripts, family history and local history. One of the more unusual events is ‘Square Mile of Murder’, where participants explore a number of notorious crimes committed within close proximity of The Mitchell, using trial transcripts, maps and newspapers as well as original artefacts from the cases.
For an author talk, I’ll introduce and thank the speaker, and field questions from the audience, or I might be required to prepare a presentation, or write a magazine article, advocating for the collections within the institution and beyond.
I regularly prepare displays – either pop-up affairs for passing customers, or more formal presentations to organised groups or visiting dignitaries – which can be labour-intensive. Manoeuvring a double elephant folio volume around a listed building also requires lateral thinking… The job requires co-operation with other library teams, but communicating with colleagues with diverse priorities and on different shifts, is not always easy. It can take time, effort and compromise to create and sustain effective working relationships.
When a special collections department is based in a large public library, it is not removed from the general ebb and flow of life; rather than an oasis of calm, it can be a highly-pressured environment with a demanding workload and rapidly-changing priorities. Having a sense of perspective (as well as a sense of humour) is helpful.
My recent experience of working from home has brought aspects of the job into sharp focus. Digital tools were used to great advantage to communicate the value of our collections in Facebook posts and Wikipedia contributions. It was also an opportunity to consider expanding services to incorporate web-conferencing tools. However, I missed witnessing the positive, and often emotional, impact of special collections – on previously bored children delighted by the life-size, hand-coloured engravings in Audubon’s Birds of America, rowdy teenagers silenced by an Auld Lang Syne manuscript, or reticent adults moved to tears by an ancestor’s burial record. Conveying that sensory experience is particularly important in this age of digitisation. Such moments are most satisfying, as they give my work real meaning and purpose.