Whilst studying History at Aberdeen University, I developed a fascination for a specific part of the library; that being Special Collections. Now studying Information & Library Studies at Robert Gordon University my fascination with special collections has been rejuvenated. On patrolling various special collections websites, I found the remit of University of St Andrew Library Department of Special Collections most interesting “to preserve and develop the collections in our care to make the collections accessible to both academic and public audiences.” This inspired me to seek my placement at St Andrews.
After conciliation with my course supervisor it was off to The University of St Andrews. However, as I approached the Special Collections department it was clear that they were indeed in temporary accommodation and the building did not add to my excitement -especially after visiting the newly refurbished main library which is visually impressive- however, the excitement of what lay behind the walls kept me going and I must rejoice! The building does not merit the treasures housed within. I was given a tour of the department and could not help but smile; the range of materials is outstanding and the staff shared my enthusiasm. The scope of wonders and personal highlights are too vast to mention and I could not possibly do them justice, so I encourage visitations. However, aside from my fascination and wonder at the collection I was on work placement and so was given a series of projects from areas of the department.
Special Collections has four main areas at St Andrews and my placement would see me sample each discipline. The first of my endeavours in Special Collections was working with the Reading Room team. Within any organisation standardisation is imperative and I was instructed on how to standardise spread sheets for the floor plans in locating Manuscripts. Although, this took the excitement away from looking at the rare materials, this was a critical process for the reading team in locating materials and proved extremely rewarding as the databases were used immediately upon completion. This also gave me insight into how the Special Collections department classified and shelved its material. After this task was complete I was making my way into the world of Muniments.
Due to Special Collections having moved, some of the muniments (University archives) were not stored correctly for archival purposes and were required to be filed chronologically with any duplicates being disposed of. This was extremely beneficial as from start to finish I carried out the processes of storing muniments within Special Collections, gaining experience in record management as well as the archival process. This project then led swiftly to my project with Manuscripts.
The project in which I was given here was to catalogue the Lumiere Press Ephemera Collection. Coming from a library setting where cataloguing is extremely fixed and there is not much room for creativity, I found cataloguing manuscripts liberating. Whilst cataloguing manuscripts the description field has no limitations so you can be as detailed as you like, which at first made it problematic as I had the tendency to deem everything important and to have extremely long descriptions, but I found this not entirely necessary or indeed feasible. However, I managed to get my technique right and included relevant material only and completed the task in time. Yet again, I was able to see the benefits of this straight away as the records went up online for people to access and it was very satisfying (yet worrying) that patrons would be accessing my catalogued entries in order to find this information.
Into my last week of placement, my final task was something not necessarily linked to Special Collections; but that of Social Media. Most universities boast the same achievements, whether it is in league tables, employment rates, or in reputation. However, what actually distinguishes universities is uniqueness- the ability to say, “Come study here and you will have access to these materials not found anywhere else”- and this is why Special Collections is imperative to the University. Therefore, marketing material and data is important, and while learning that the Special Collections team at St Andrews uses Twitter and Facebook amongst its marketing arsenal; none has been more successful than the Special Collections Blog “Echoes from the Vault.” This blog interacts with patrons and displays beautiful images of rare books and manuscripts with text. It is in this very blog in which I have been asked to write about my time within Special Collections. Although, I could have written solely about the fascination and wonder of all what the Special Collections department curates, I am here on work experience and can only say the insight into Special Collections has been most beneficial and will stand me in good stead for starting work as a professional. I must implore readers to visit the Special Collections department if you can for research purpose or just out of curiosity. My time here has been both fun and inspiring and I am sad to see it coming to an end. I now feel ready to make the transition from student to working professional thanks to this placement and can only thank those involved profusely. However, what professional job will I go into: Librarian or Archivist…
Ian is a post graduate student and he is currently working towards finishing his degree in Information and Library Studies at Robert Gordon University. He began his placement at St Andrews at the beginning of April and will be finishing this week. He will graduate and in December and hopes to have his decision between librarian or archivist made.