My Graduate Trainee Experience: David Thomas

This week David Thomas tells us about his Graduate Traineeship at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. If you are thinking about applying for Graduate Traineeships its worth keeping an eye on LISjobnet thoughout the year – as David will show you!

Like many arts and humanities students at the end of their degree I had to decide what area of work I actually wanted to be in. Graduating in June 2014 after spending three brilliant years studying History at Cambridge University the choice seemed to be either teaching, or something vaguely related to arts and heritage. Knowing that I wasn’t really cut out to be a teacher, librarianship was at the top of the list of the few jobs that I actually wanted to try. I am a keen book collector but the real appeal of Librarianship for me is that it involves helping people, finding out new information and (let’s be honest) libraries are generally nice places to work.

Over that Summer I applied to several graduate traineeships and school library positions. I didn’t really mind where I would end up. I also did some last-minute volunteering at Chetham’s Library in Manchester (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) working with their Belle Vue Zoo archive Collection. Any experience you can get working or volunteering in a library is valuable. Early on I had one unsuccessful interview at a school in North Yorkshire but I didn’t hear back from anywhere until September when I had my interview at Reading. The graduate traineeship I’m doing at Reading is a bit different for two reasons. Firstly, it started slightly later than many others (in November) and the contract is for two years rather than one. Secondly, it is at Reading’s Special Collections and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), in fact my exact job title is University Museums and Special Collections Services (UMASCS) Graduate Trainee Library Assistant. Bit of a mouthful, but I have been really fortunate to not only work with amazing Special Collections but also the archives and Museum.

It has been an interesting time to work at MERL (what we generally call the whole building); the Museum has actually been shut as the galleries are being re-designed and it will re-open in October. This has meant that MERL has been a bit of a building site for most of the time I’ve been here (the scaffolding came down outside my window a couple of months ago and readers have had to put up with various episodes of banging and drilling). In truth it hasn’t been that disruptive as the Reading Room has remained open as normal but both the library and archives staff have spent a lot of time focussing on the Museum. The new displays will feature many Special Collections’ books for the first time which is exciting and the idea is that visitors to the museum will also want to explore the archives and books in the Reading Room.

When I say I’m a trainee librarian, people usually ask me “what does a librarian actually do?”, along with some comment about reading books all day. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect when I started either. My main tasks are shelving, retrievals, cataloguing, labelling new books and periodicals and bib. checking possible gifts. Alongside this I staff the Reading Room with a colleague two days a week. This involves answering enquiries by phone and email, doing research, and recommending and finding material for readers.

The best thing about working at MERL is the variety of what I do and the range of the collections. I am rarely sat in front of a computer all day, am able to work on different tasks and like to spend time away from my desk in Open Access or the Store. To give you a little background on the collections, before 2005 Reading’s Special Collections (rare books and archives) were housed at the University Library and the MERL (with its library, archives and objects) had its own building also on the main Whiteknights campus. The University moved both institutions to its older London Road Campus, closer to the city centre. Special Collections has around 50,000 rare books (as well as the archives) in a purpose built store and the MERL Library has a similar number of items on open shelves which readers can browse freely. On a typical day in the Reading Room we will have one person looking at steam engine drawings or farm records, one person researching Samuel Beckett, another using the archive of British Publishing and Printing, students from Museum Studies, English or History, and people investigating local and family history. It is great to work with a mix of academics, students and the general public, you never know who will come in next!

The main training I have received has been learning how to catalogue with the Special Collections Cataloguer. I catalogue MERL books on the whole but I’ve been able to do some aspects of rare book cataloguing as well. The University Library also runs a Staff Development Hour (SDH) every Friday morning in term time which offers a range of talks and demonstrations on subjects such as new technologies, providing better services for students, outside speakers telling us about their libraries, and changes happening at Reading. In addition to this, one of the UMASCS Librarians (currently the position is a job-share), did some informal sessions on historical bibliography last year and I recently went to a historical printing workshop at the University’s typography department.

I’ve also managed to go to a few external events, in April 2015 I went to the M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries Annual Conference on ‘Exploiting and Engaging Collections’ and last September I went to the Historic Libraries Forum Rare Books Cataloguing Workshop. I can especially recommend the latter if you are interested in Special Collections and want to learn about things like signatures and collation. As for my next step, I’m going to do a full time MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL. I’m especially looking forward to studying historical bibliography and thinking more theoretically about librarianship as a whole.

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