Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Dr. Emily Dourish, Deputy Head of Rare Books at Cambridge University Library.
What is your role at your institution?
I am Deputy Head of Rare Books at Cambridge University Library, working with a team of three professional curators and four reading room superintendents; I’ve been at the UL for 12 years. I also worked for nearly ten years as Joint Exhibitions Officer, working with colleagues from across the Library to co-ordinate and curate our programme of major public exhibitions.
How did you get started in rare books?
My first encounter with early books came as an undergraduate studying History at Cambridge. At that time the Rare Books department was housed in the Anderson Room, our most traditionally historic-looking reading room (now the Music department) and on the open shelves was a set of the Acta Sanctorum, beginning in 1643; they’re bound in vellum-covered wooden boards. I didn’t really need to use them for my studies but they just looked so tempting! A book that was on a different scale to anything I’d used before, and several hundred years older; I wanted to know more about why someone would use this and not a modern edition of the text.
A couple of years later while I was studying for my PhD my college, Jesus, employed postgrads in the Old Library undertaking some very basic restoration work on the early collections; handling these books was a great privilege and encouraged me to feel that these books were for everyone, not only the senior academics who were publishing on them. My first library role was creating collection-level descriptions at the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre archive, and after working there for a year a post came up at the UL so I moved back.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I studied part-time for the University College London MA in Library and Information Studies while working at the UL. It was a great opportunity to formalise the things I had been learning on the job and included historical bibliography sessions in the National Art Library at the V&A; such a beautiful place to work, though walking through the gift shop every week was dangerously tempting! My dissertation gave recommendations to make possible the cataloguing of the Old Library at Jesus College, to give back something to the place where my interest really took off. I’ve also been fortunate to attend Nicholas Pickwoad’s remarkable course on bindings at the London Rare Books School.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?
This is such a difficult question! I’ve been lucky to pass some of the most amazing books to our readers, and to show visitors some of our greatest treasures and my favourite item changes from week to week. An incunable prayer book with annotations by a sixteenth-century nun, or a miniature library printed for children around 1800, or a set of almanacs belonging to an 18th-century bishop with his notes of medical recipes and his marriage to his wife have all gripped me over recent months. One that I’m really looking forward to doing some more work on is a Greek volume of Luther printed in Basel in 1567, in a somewhat damaged binding; both its boards are detached and the manuscript pastedowns are no longer pasted down , but this means we can see the sheets of an early printed volume that are hiding within the paper boards. I haven’t yet identified exactly what that early printed book is, and it will be one of those really enjoyable bits of librarian detective work to discover it. It amazes me that there are so many things still to be found in the books in this library, which have been in our collections for hundreds of years.
What do you personally collect?
I would love to collect incunabula but the budget sadly does not permit! I have a slowly growing collection of early language phrasebooks for travellers; it is fascinating to see what was considered important to be able to say. I also have a number of early children’s books, which I share with my own children.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I sing with several choirs, primarily unaccompanied music; I love the complete focus it requires. It’s impossible to think about anything else while you’re singing, which is a valuable space in a sometimes over-busy world. I also have two young daughters who take up the remainder of my time! The younger one is just beginning to read, and sitting listening to her make her way through a story book is an enormous pleasure.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Having the chance to work with such fantastic books and to share them with other people. Finding out something new every day in books that might be hundreds of years old. The satisfaction of creating a really good catalogue record!
I really do love this job and the variety it offers. One of the best parts is public outreach work with schools and community groups, and seeing a child understand that yes, that is Darwin’s own handwriting, or yes, that book was printed five hundred years ago, and yes, you can touch it (and no you don’t need white gloves!). You can see a light go on inside their head and perhaps an interest sparked that might stay with them and bring them back in future years to find out more.
I also really want to get other students to have that same experience I had, of understanding that special collections are for them too. We’re working closely with our academic colleagues to bring undergraduates into the reading room early in their university careers so they will want to come back and use our books more often, and it’s great when we see a student who has chosen to write their dissertation on one of our volumes.
I love that our readers are so excited about their work; walking through the reading room and looking over people’s shoulders to find out what they’re looking at, they are always happy to share their discoveries or the little details of what they are investigating.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
In times of limited budgets we all have to prove our worth to our institutions, and while special collections by their nature are perhaps better protected than other areas we are all increasingly involved in new ways to promote and enhance our collections. The creation of online resources like the Cambridge Digital Library enables us all to share what we have with users around the world, giving access to these often fragile artefacts in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago. This kind of resource offers much greater value to the user than a simple Google Books scan, and I think a lot more attention will be given to how to increase these digital collections and their usage.
Other forms of new media are making engagement possible with a much wider range of non-traditional groups; Colour our Collections was a brilliant project to catch a trend and bring library collections to the public in a new way. While our books, manuscripts and archives may mostly be physically contained within our libraries, we can take them out digitally to meet people where they are rather than needing them to come to us.
There’s so much great work going on around the world in large and small collections, and I’d love to see even more co-operation and collaboration with other librarians. As a profession we’re already good at helping each other and sharing ideas; it’s a collaborative rather than competitive field and I’m proud to be a part of that. Within the UL we are breaking down some of the barriers between the various special collections and seeing rare books and manuscripts as part of the same broader Library so that we are more flexible in our promotion and use of the collections. I see the future for large collections like ours as adopting the approach of smaller libraries, where we are not narrow experts in one area but able to offer guidance in many; our readers are the real experts in the material they study and we can learn so much from them.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?
We are currently actively creating a new collection of ephemeral material relating to the EU referendum vote (‘Brexit’). A century ago University Librarian Francis Jenkinson wrote an article and letters to contacts worldwide asking them to send the Library examples of any ephemeral material relating to the First World War, noting that it was intended ‘For the historian of the future’. This formed a remarkable and unique resource for scholars of the early twentieth century. We hope that the Brexit collection will form a similar resource for the events around the vote and the political times of the early twenty-first century. If any of your readers has material that could be contributed, we’d be very grateful to receive it.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We’re celebrating our 600th birthday this year with two major exhibitions. The first, Lines of thought, looks at six themes in which we have outstanding holdings and makes them accessible to a wider audience; having Newton’s annotated Principia alongside the Gutenberg Bible, the Codex Bezae and Darwin’s manuscript sketches for Origin of Species is pretty exciting! This exhibition runs until the end of September. After that comes Curious objects, a display of some of the more intriguing non-book items in our collections which tells the story of how they came to be in the Library over the last 600 years. We’ve also created an interactive book app for iPad to mark this anniversary with six Cambridge specialists discussing six of the greatest treasures of our collections; it can be downloaded free from the app store.