This week's post is from Louisa Yates, Director of Collections and Research at Gladstone's Library in Flintshire, the UK's only residential library.
Like others who have blogged for the 23 Librarians project, I’m not a librarian. In 2008 I was finishing an MA in English and wondering what to do with my life. I’d applied for PhD funding but that was a one-in-a-million chance and so I needed to get practical. Like any good research student I made a list of all the places that I thought I’d like to work. A distinct theme emerged: publishing, an archive of ‘something old’, museums, charities, libraries, universities. I wanted to write books and read books and talk to other people about books (preferably reclining on some books while I did so). So, books.
Then the million to one chance actually happened. I got the funding, stopped thinking about the outside world and spent four years writing a book of sorts about neo-Victorian novels.
Four years later I emerged with a doctorate and still no idea what I should do. I was lecturing part-time at two universities in the North-West. Talking about books was wonderful but neither were the Proper Job that a Grown-Up should have. But this was 2011. The cold realities of the economic climate meant that Proper Jobs were in short supply. Where on earth was I going to find a job that combined books, a love of neo-Victorianism, a desire to extend education beyond of the university sphere and a wish for variety?
Well, since 2012 I have been Director of Collections and Research at Gladstone’s Library. It’s the only Prime Ministerial library in the UK. Even more excitingly, it’s the only residential library in the world (well, we’ve not found another yet). People come from all over the world to read and think while staying here. Established in 1889 by Victorian Prime Minister and legendary bibliophile William Gladstone, St. Deiniol’s – we became Gladstone’s Library in 2010 – has nearly 200,000 printed items and nearly 250,000 manuscript letters. That number includes several distinctive collections, including the Glynne collection of pre-1800 works and the recently donated archive of the Crime Writers Association. The largest of our collections is probably the Glynne-Gladstone archive, a 250,000-stong collection of letters, diaries, sketchbooks and all the wonderfully varied ephemera produced by a large tight-knit family while at home and away.
The main collection is housed in two large two-storey reading rooms and ranges through theology, politics, history and literature with a bit of everything else thrown in along the way. Post-Victorian acquisition decisions are inspired by the Foundation Collection, Gladstone’s original donation of the 32,000 volumes that comprised his personal library and represent a lifetime’s collecting. Often annotated, Gladstone’s books show a mind keenly preoccupied with almost every aspect of the world in which it found itself as well as the historical precedents that shaped it. Space forbids us from faithfully collecting in every area (we no longer collect law texts, for example) but our aim is to collect and curate a contemporary version of Gladstone’s preoccupations and interests.
As for a typical day, I don’t think I can describe it! We’re a small, tight-knit team who run a library that is also a place to stay, eat and talk. Every day is different. But I can mention a few of the things that the library team focus on most:
1. Talking (and its close cousin, emailing). We spend a lot of our time simply talking to people about the library and what they could do here. Meetings, presentations, daily glimpses of the library, helping work experience students, organising group visits. We learn so much from our users. I recently spent twenty minutes discussing a recent PhD student’s thesis ideas; he might well be helping us with our new acquisitions in the future. I’m director of Gladfest, the library’s short-lived but hugely-popular literary festival – at the moment I seem to talk about nothing else!
2. Access. Like all libraries, we work hard to facilitate people’s access to the collections. A typical day might see us induct several new members and help other users find books. We’ll work on the catalogue, review our usage figures and decide which new books to buy. Particular to my role is liaising with universities, research councils, academics and postgraduate students to facilitate their research projects and how we might obtain research funding in the future. Much less glamorously, there is also the daily wrestle with the photocopier (is there a library in the world that doesn’t have an uncooperative copier?)
3. Digital. If people cannot get to us, or perhaps can only visit every once in a while, that’s fine. We do a large part of our talking via social media. A lot of the library’s arts programming, such as our Writer in Residence scheme, is promoted online. Always popular are our tweeted pictures of books @gladlib. Nineteenth-century engraved plates are irresistibly beautiful – they demand to be shared worldwide. More formal digital solutions also fall under my remit. We’re currently working to develop our library catalogue so that users can log in, save searches, and email book lists to themselves. The Library’s Warden, Peter Francis, just wandered into my office and asked if the catalogue can host audio files…
4. Learning. The books on the shelves underpin a host of programmes designed to encourage people into the library – and once there, to think about what they find, share what they read and perhaps even produce writing of their own. We’ve run courses on writing, reading, fiction, and film. Archbishops have talked about poets; poets have talked about Chartists; we’ve all talked about reading, writing and thinking. Twice a year I co-direct the Gladstone Centre, a consortium of people interested in Victorian studies from across the North-West.
5. Collaboration. Alongside Gladfest, the major project occupying my time at the moment is the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium. While in the very early stages, this promises to be a truly unique approach to digital access. In practical terms, this means we have to get on with cataloguing tens of thousands of letters ready for scanning! I’ve had to be quite inventive with this, drawing on all my research experience and talking to a wide range of people in order to develop metadata capture techniques that suit our collection. I’ve also recently been elected to the committee of the Association of Independent Libraries, a group of libraries who face many of the same challenges and relish many of the same freedoms as we do.
You can probably tell that I love my job. It’s great. Even though I’ve written about my job history, and my job experience, I’ve noticed that information studies is a career that seems particularly engaging to those of us with varied career backgrounds and a mixed bag of qualifications. Hurrah, I say!