Graduate intern update: Jenny

Graduate intern Jenny Coulton tells us what she’s been up to recently…

Hello there! Many of you may have read the previous graduate intern posts by my predecessor Beth. As she moves on to the next adventure, I hope I can fill her shoes and keep you updated on what it’s been like to start working in an archive.

I’ve been at Palace Green now for almost three months, and it’s been a fun time. Half of my week is spent in the search room, which includes helping readers, answering enquiries, and getting things out from our strong rooms. It’s a great part of the job – while you wouldn’t expect a library to be a space for socialising, I’ve ended up having such lovely chats with a bunch of readers. Many people are excited about their research, and it’s wonderful to see them find that missing piece of the jigsaw thanks to you. And for others, the objects and documents are a chance to connect and learn about a lost ancestor and can be a surprisingly emotional affair. From explaining manuscript quires to a budding medieval enthusiast, to offering a tactile walkthrough of historic materials for the visually impaired, it’s been a more (pardon the pun) hands-on, and socially fulfilling, experience than I ever imagined.

An empty Barker Research Library, before the new students arrive for the day.

The other half of my week is taken up by all sorts of odd tasks. Some of them (such as fulfilling reprographics orders) are search-room tasks that spill over, but I’ve also had the chance to start learning archival skills. I’ve briefly been introduced to the joys of cataloguing both rare books and archives. There’s something about so satisfying about putting all the data into the relevant spaces, summarising what is written, and making a box of material easily findable with the right search words. Plus, I am nosy by nature, and I do love reading letters from people long gone, and learning about their daily struggles and successes. Other than that, I’ve had the chance to create box-lists, which are overviews of new acquisitions that are then passed on to the archivists to accession them correctly.

A silent Bamburgh Library first thing in the morning.

One of my favourite tasks I’ve recently completed has been creating a map for one of our historic libraries, Bamburgh Library. A map might seem a little redundant for a single room, but then you realise there are hundreds of shelves, each with a different shelf-mark on them. Again, seems simple enough, until you realise the shelves go ‘A, B, C, K, N, D’, and seem to ignore all common sense. My job was to go through the shelves and record what books were on them, what was missing, and what was in odd spots. It wasn’t the quickest task, but the library itself is gorgeous, and I found the time spent on my own surprisingly calming. Once it was done, I felt very proud of the map I had made, abstracting centuries-old shelves and classifications into black and white spreadsheet boxes, a dull, if useful, abstraction of the real thing.

I’ve not just hidden away in the darkest recesses of the old buildings, however. The last ‘big task’ I worked on was creating a handling video for new readers to watch. This would help combat some of the most common mistakes and help preserve our materials for future generation. Like this blog, it helps people understand why we do what we do, from putting books on foam supports, to placing snakes on a (plain) page. I’m more comfortable behind than in front of the camera, but I’m very happy of the video we made. If you happen to see it and keep a close eye, you might just be able to spot me artfully fumbling with some of our books and photographs.

A still from our handling video. The book is a treatise about witch-craft.

That, in a nutshell is what I’ve been doing for my first couple months. I’ve still got bits of training to complete, but it’s great to have a few projects under my belt as we move onto in the new academic year. I want to give a huge shout-out to the staff at Palace Green, and especially our librarians and archivists who have helped welcome me and teach me the ropes. I know their job can be a silent and often thankless job, so I truly appreciate everything they’ve done. Until next time, reader!

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