After finishing my final year I was lucky enough to undertake a month long internship at the Cadbury Research Library which is the home of the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections and holds approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books and 4 million manuscripts. I had seen the advert through the careers network earlier in the year and I had been using the library during the research of my dissertation, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for me. I had been interested in rare books and manuscripts during the final years of my degree and the advert mentioned heritage which seemed to fit into other work experience that I had carried out in museums. I realise now, however, that at that point I really had no clue about the work involved in libraries and archives! Throughout the four weeks I learnt an enormous amount about the way libraries and archives differ and I have had a real insight into the role of an archivist, something I am now seriously considering as a career path.
I was chosen along with Hannah Hickman, a Masters student studying at the Shakespeare Institute, to work towards an exhibition and a cataloguing project. As soon as we arrived we were welcomed in as part of the team. Our supervisor, archivist Jennifer Childs, had organised a very detailed schedule for the entire four week period in which she planned time for the exhibition, cataloguing and sessions with each member of staff. This approach was so refreshing and I really appreciated how she had planned the internship to benefit us instead of leaving us feeling like spare parts. During the internship we worked towards an exhibition for the centenary of The First World War which will open in September and will be placed in the Main Library. Jenny and the team offered helpful guidance and trained us in different skills but we were also given the freedom to determine the nature of the exhibition. Jenny planned the schedule so that we had time to work on every part of the exhibition and we were able to experience all the steps involved, from selecting material and narrowing down a theme to working in the conservation studio with conservator, Marie Sviergula to prepare our chosen materials. We also worked on two digital exhibitions on Flickr and the archive catalogue CALM’s image gallery which involved experience in reprographics and Photoshop.
The second part of the internship was spent working with an archivist on a cataloguing project. I worked with Anne George on the Save the Children collection and had the opportunity to sift through the papers of Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb, who founded the organisation. The papers, from the early 1920s, were not catalogued and I worked on putting together a more detailed list of items to then catalogue them on the programme CALM. I was trained to use the programme and by the end of the internship I had catalogued just over 500 items! It was hard work looking through folders of small papers and trying to make sense of handwritten scribbles but I found it incredibly interesting. It was a privilege to be able to read through her notes and see history playing out in such a personal way. I really enjoyed making links between figures and events because with every new newspaper cutting or letter I was getting another glimpse into the time period. I also felt very lucky to be able to work with an archivist and contribute to her project.
I am so grateful to the team at the Cadbury Research Library for making the internship so worthwhile in terms of the skills gained but also the knowledge I now have of career paths into archives. Each team member was so interested in our plans and offered invaluable advice. I have enjoyed working at the Special Collections so much that I plan to continue volunteering there during my MRes course starting in September.
Our exhibition, ‘Rest and Recreation: volunteering during the Great War’ opens September 4 in the display case in the Main Library foyer.