Working with the Special Collections: a Trainee’s experience

By Georgie Moore, Library Graduate Trainee

As the Library Graduate Trainee for 2021-22, I have one year to gain experience and develop my skills across a range of library activities. As well as the busy side of Reader Services, I am fortunate enough to be involved in the College’s Special Collections. Here are four of the tasks I’ve been working on during my first months at St John’s, and how they contribute to the preservation of our collection.

1. “Book first aid

Like many colleges, St John’s works with the expert team at the Oxford Conservation Consortium to preserve and repair damaged items. However, in-house we perform our own “book first aid” to minimize further damage and make sure we don’t separate any books from their spines or cover boards. These before and after photos illustrate the protection “book first aid” offers.

I found that the front board of this bound volume had detached, so it was an ideal candidate for some cotton tape. Overall, the aim is to tie tightly enough to minimize slipping, but not too tightly as to cut into the boards. It’s important to tie the knots on the fore-edge side (by the page block) to avoid them pressing into the spine. Another consideration is choosing a cotton tape of a similar shade to achieve a discreet look. Previously, we only stocked cream tape, so one of my tasks over the students’ Christmas vacation will be to replace the earlier individual cream tapes with pairs of tonal tapes.

2. Invigilating readers

Invigilating readers is about far more than making sure they don’t run away with the items! From the perspective of collection care, one of the key duties when hosting a researcher is ensuring the book or manuscript is well-supported. As they move through the volume, we recommend adjustments to the foam rests to compensate for the shifting pressures on the binding. In advance of their arrival, this means getting familiar with how the item they will be studying responds as the pages are turned, so we can give the appropriate guidance to the reader, and support to the book or manuscript.

The foam rest arrangement for one of our 15th century Caxton volumes

3. Finding aids

Since the renovations started on the Old and Laudian Libraries, the historic collections have been moved into storage in our new building. One of my ongoing projects was creating a shelf guide for one of the basement stores to act as a finding aid. Now the guide is complete, the next challenge will be working through the list of volumes with detached spines and boards, using the guide to locate them, and then deploying my aforementioned “book first aid” skills.

One of the twelve bays in the store I compiled a finding aid for

4. Twitter

In case you hadn’t heard, we have a Twitter account dedicated to our Special Collections, and you can find us @StJohnsOxLib. Whenever I’m down in the stores, I keep my eyes peeled for Tweetable content. Usually, I hunt for intriguing bookplates, marginalia, or images which will make eye-catching photos, and then write up a brief explanation. Although this may not contribute directly to the care of the items, Twitter helps our Collections reach a wider audience, and potentially inspire further research.

I can’t claim credit for my favourite post of the last month, but here is Senior Library Assistant Dom’s tweet: ‘The Great Eater of Kent’ who ‘ate a Ducke, guts, feathers and all’.

I have only just started to get to know the huge diversity of the St John’s collection, but I am optimistic that as I continue to develop my Special Collections skills I will find my own favourites amongst the thousands of volumes.

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