Bright Young Librarians: Robert MacLean

Finebooks_photo_BobMacLean.jpgOur Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Robert MacLean, Assistant Librarian in Archives & Special Collections at the University of Glasgow in Scotland:

What is your role at your institution?

I am an assistant librarian in the University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections. My primary role is overseeing and carrying out teaching sessions using our collections, something I'm now doing in concert with my archivist colleague Claire Daniel following Special Collections' recent merger with the University Archives. But like so many folk working in special collections I have all sorts of "hats" and enjoy carrying out a range of other activities too. These include working on the Glasgow Incunabula Project - our big programme of cataloguing in detail the thousand-plus incunables in our care - rare book cataloguing, enquiry response (particularly detailed ones relating to historical bibliography), blogging and collection promotion, and supervision of placement students and interns.

How did you get started in rare books?

I became interested while still a Geography undergraduate (I graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2001). One of our honours assignments included a visit to the Library to look at Victorian documents on "slum clearance" and handling these strange things with their odd orthography, unfamiliar typefaces and strange smell gave me the bug. On graduation I got a temporary contract in the University of Glasgow Library cataloguing nineteenth century books for the online catalogue. Subsequently I managed to swing a transfer and permanent post in Special Collections, as a library assistant involved with reading room supervision, enquiry response and rare book cataloguing and I've been there ever since, eventually being promoted to assistant librarian.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

At the University of Strathclyde, also in Glasgow. I studied for the Masters part-time over two years, attending lectures one day a week, whilst still working in Special Collections full time, making up the hours I missed by working evenings and weekends. It was hard work to be honest but definitely worthwhile since I learned a lot about wider library issues beyond my own experience and it also gave me that bit of extra confidence that I hadn't missed any basic lessons from the 'Big Book of Librarianship' during my on-the-job training!

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

Wow that's such an unfair question to ask. In fact, I'm inclined not to believe a special collections librarian that comes up with just one answer to this! The things I favour tend not to be the shiny, illuminated or finely bound (although obviously I love those too!) but the grubby, cheap, broken or very well used. Books that - going beyond their text - can tell you a story through provenance, marginalia, binding and any other copy-specific material feature are what really interest me. That all said my current favourite item is mostly interesting for its text rather than any paratext! It's a nineteenth century manuscript travel diary of a Scottish gentleman who travelled to the South of France for the winter. It's far more interesting than its catalogue record would lead you to believe, and is one of those gems that you occasionally just stumble across in the book stacks by chance while looking for something else. The diary is studded with original photographs and fantastic pen-and-ink sketches. The author is hilarious: hugely grumpy about all sorts of things from his wife and daughter's proclivity for packing too much, French railways, French restaurants, French bureaucrats questioning his "unexceptionable" mastery of the French language, and of course, the French weather. Brits abroad eh? Plus ça change. I've taken photos of each page and I'm slowly transcribing the whole diary and I'll blog about it from the Archives & Special Collection blog at some point soon.

What do you personally collect?

Well I'm not really much of a collector at the moment. I mostly seem to collect lots of books about books - book history etc. However I did recently buy my very first early printed book. I was on holiday seeing my sister, who lives in the south of France, and found a small collection of late eighteenth-century French schoolbooks sitting out in the sun at a car boot sale! I successfully impressed my sister with the "I bet I can guess the publication date just by looking at the binding" game - just a couple of years out for the first volume - only to be punished for my hubris by guessing the other volumes' dates wildly wrongly, to my sister's great amusement. I bought my lucky guess for just three euros, a 12mo guide to "Good Christian living" printed in Narbonne, bound in tanned sheepskin and with a charming nineteenth-century school prize-giving inscription.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to keep busy and play plenty of tennis. I also love hill walking. Glasgow is only an hour's drive from some spectacular mountains and I love nothing more than getting out into the hills on the, admittedly rare, occasions that we get some sunny weather. 

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Showing things to people. Every single day working in special collections you come across something cool and interesting that you just need to share. Actually I expect my colleagues are secretly delighted that, now Twitter is around, I don't feel the need to chap on their doors all the time to say "COME LOOK AT THIS!!" since I post stuff online instead! This thrill in showing, sharing, contextualising and talking about rare books is one of the things I enjoy most about my teaching role; being able to share these wonderful things with people and explain why they're interesting and exciting is so much fun and a great privilege. And seeing as I caught the rare book bug while still an undergraduate student, I always hope that my teaching sessions might offer a similar experience to others.

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

From an academic special collections standpoint there has surely never been a better time. The "material turn" in the arts and humanities has made the rare books we care for valuable to researchers as never before. Each and every surviving copy of a book has potential interest for researchers exploring the production and consumption of texts. It's vital therefore that we care for and - as far as we are able - describe these books, copy-specifics and all, to make them findable. This interest is also feeding into undergraduate teaching with primary source sessions increasingly sought after, which is fabulous to see. The power and reach of various social media platforms - Twitter [@UofGlasgowASC] being just one example - is also allowing us to share and enthuse about our collections to a non-traditional audience as never before, generating much interest from the general public in the process. It's a really exciting time to be working in special collections. Yet not everything is rosy. There's rarely enough money around for most to easily do all the things they'd like and all that their various, enthusiastic, users want them to do. There are probably fewer professional-grade librarians around than there have ever been before and new professionals are often not appointed at the same grade as retiring colleagues. With lots to do the temptation will increasingly be to fill the gap with unpaid internships; while these will doubtless be great experience for the intern, they effectively slam the door of the profession to those unsupported by the "Bank of Mum and Dad", which won't be great for the future diversity of the profession.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

Well there are so many possibilities but one which I really should plug is our incunabula collection. Numbering in excess of one thousand, it is the largest collection in Scotland and one of the largest in Britain. We've catalogued each one in a huge amount of detail going beyond the basics to some in-depth description of provenance, marginalia, decoration, binding, the whole works, with each entry illustrated with a few images. The Glasgow Incunabula Project site - which is now a city-wide project, including the incunable holdings of other Glasgow institutions - allows you to search through the whole lot using a range of indexed entry points. We hope that it's going to be really useful for all sorts of researchers.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Well we've recently renovated the ground floor of the Library installing a publicly accessible "virtual" exhibition space, so hopefully we'll be populating that space soon with some interesting and attractive visuals of our holdings. And 2018 will see the 300th anniversary of the birth of William Hunter, one of the University of Glasgow's great benefactors. He studied at the University before going on to become a very successful physician, man-midwife and collector. His amazing collections were bequeathed to the University of Glasgow following his death in 1783, becoming The Hunterian, the first public museum in Scotland, the 10,000 volume library of which now resides in Archives and Special Collections. Along with our colleagues at The Hunterian, and throughout the University, we'll be collaborating to celebrate this anniversary with various events throughout the year, so look out for announcements about that.

Image Courtesy of Robert MacLean.