Tag Archives: Work experience

‘This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before…’: Reflections on work experience in Special Collections by Alice Dunn

We were delighted to be joined last week by Year 12 student Alice Dunn for a week of work experience in Special Collections. Below Alice shares some of her impressions and reflections on her experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Alice for her excellent work and wish her every success for the future.

My name is Alice Dunn, and I have spent a week in a work experience placement with the special collections and archives department of the University of Exeter. I am a year 12 student at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, and very luckily for me the special collections team have been kind enough to facilitate my fascination with literature and history, and by extension with the vast collections kept here! 

Map of Devon from an atlas of the counties of England and Wales [Rare books B 1590/SAX/XX]

My placement began on Monday with an introduction to the collections and the work done regarding them, including their preservation and conservation. I measured the temperature and humidity in each of the rooms archives were stored in, and recorded these daily observations to ensure these conditions were optimum; extremes of either temperature or humidity can damage the items. What was particularly exciting was learning to handle the materials – there were a number of different items with which I was able to practice, including a 1579 hand-coloured Atlas of the counties of England, produced by Christopher Saxton! I learned that the best way to handle these materials is not, in fact, with gloves (with the exception of photographs), as their role in reducing dexterity increases the risk of tearing pages, but instead with clean hands. This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before; while I have learned about these time periods in history, or read new editions of texts, to handle materials which are hundreds of years old brings a sense of connection with the past that I do not think I could have otherwise felt. Down to the very knowledge that the ink on that page was handwritten by someone who experienced the things I have learned about from books, or to read the annotation of readers, like me, who annotated books they read, but in the 16th century (not like me!), my experience with archival materials has allowed a cohesion of my knowledge, ensuring enrichment in my future learning. While looking around the collections, I was also fortunate enough to be shown materials such as a sheet from a 1478 Caxton print of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and Golding’s handwritten manuscript of the first draft of The Lord of the Flies, (though, due to its fragility, handling is avoided), both of which resulted in vast amounts of excitement on my part!  

Bills relating to elections in Devon, 1835, and to a concert in Exeter, 1858 [EUL MS 269]

Over the next few days, I was given a few projects to work on. On Tuesday, I sorted through letters to, from, and regarding, Agatha Christie, (some of which were handwritten by Christie herself!), selecting those that were relating to Poirot for an exhibition to go alongside a talk on him. After this experience I feel I am justified in stopping anyone from criticising my handwriting again, or else admitting that Christie, despite her literary genius, may not have been popular among teachers or A-Level examiners! I also looked at a collection of political bills from 1835 and researched the context behind these to aid the writing of a social media post about them, and the information I learned from this seems since to appear in my day-to-day life with astonishing frequency (namely in Middlemarch, which is active in its discussion of 19th century politics!). Throughout the week, I also accompanied team members in receiving and unpacking new materials that had arrived in the post, learning about the process of ‘accession’ before cataloging, and how to write titles and descriptions for these so that they can be best found by researchers. As part of this, I studied a recently received item which has not yet been cataloged, creating resources like a map on which all the places mentioned are flagged, as well as using university records to find out more about the individuals mentioned. This will ensure the item is better understood, so that when it comes to cataloging it can be organised in the collection more easily, and so that its description will be as accurate as possible, making it more accessible to researchers.  

Archives in the strongroom

In aiding retrievals to accommodate researchers’ requests, and reshelving after the resources have been used, I also came to learn about the organisation of the archives themselves. The breadth of the collections means the system in place is integral to ensuring they can be fully utilised by others, and thus learning about the system of cataloging here, and the differing one in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum where I was fortunate enough to be able to get a tour and speak to staff, has given me a much deeper understanding of the day-to-day process of keeping archives.

On Thursday, the staff at special collections had arranged for me to visit the closely interlinked Digital Humanities Lab at the University. I was given a tour of the building, and was fascinated to learn the role technology can have in the study of humanities, both in relation to archival materials and not. Due to the fragility of many of the items, including wax figurines and skulls, many objects will have 3D printed copies made to enable hands-on interaction. The intersection between archives and photography was something I had never thought about, but constitutes much of the work done by the Digital Humanities Lab – they have two purpose-built photographic studios, enabling photos to be taken in such high-quality, flakes of paint can be seen on the surfaces of pages. The Exeter Book (a book of Old English riddles from the 10th century, some of the oldest surviving pieces of English literature today) is owned by Exeter Cathedral, and while it is not linked to the university nor their collections, it was recently photographed and digitised by staff at the Digital Humanities Lab using their specialist photographic equipment. Having attended seminars and lectures with universities on the poems and riddles in this book, the accessibility created by technology is of importance to me, and thus it was fascinating to discover the work that is done to aid this.  

While I was initially most attracted to this work experience placement from more of a researcher perspective – I’m always fascinated by materials which can tell me more about my areas of interest – it has resulted in a better understanding of what it means to be an archivist, and, as a consequence, an interest in the role for its own sake; whether or not the collections I have looked at in my placement have been relevant to what I want to study in the future, they are intriguing in themselves, and not because they relate to what I already have knowledge of. I have had the most enjoyable week learning new skills and information – I don’t think I could’ve found another placement that so well supported my interests, while expanding my knowledge of everything! A big thank you to the Special Collections and Archives team for being so accommodating! 

Collage of images from the University of Exeter Special Collections

Behind the Scenes at Special Collections: A Week of Work Experience

The new display outside the Ronald Duncan Reading Room

We were delighted to recently welcome Rosie and Scarlett, two Year 12 students from Colyton Grammar School, for a week of work experience at Special Collections. Their task for the week was to create a new display focusing on the Syon Abbey Collection, which involved handling, researching, digitising and curating a selection of rare books and archival items.

The new display is open to everyone and can be found by entering the Old Library on Streatham Campus via the main entrance, turning right at the barriers and walking down the corridor towards Seminar Room A/B. The display is located on the right outside the Ronald Duncan Reading Room.

Scarlett and Rosie have kindly sent us their thoughts and impressions of their week of work experience in Special Collections, which you can read below. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Rosie and Scarlett for their excellent work and wish them every success for the future.

Scarlett’s impressions:

Rosie and Scarlett handling books from the Syon Abbey Library

When I first started work experience at Special Collections, the only time I had seen books older than two hundred years was behind a glass case but by the end of my time I had handled plenty of rare, old books safely.

During my time there I had the opportunity to research extensively and explore their Syon Abbey collection and helped develop a display on it with the other work experience member.

To start with, we began to research Syon Abbey and looked into the vast history of the abbey, its community and the nuns there. As one of the oldest English Catholic communities to continue meeting throughout the Reformation there was much to cover and explore and our research was well aided by the vast collection of such treasured books that brought to life the history of Syon Abbey in our hands.

We also learned how to handle old and delicate books and spent time making sure we would treat them correctly whilst researching. Well accompanied by our book snakes and cushions – tools that help support particularly old books – we began our research.

Installing the new display

To find a starting point, we searched for inscriptions made by the nuns in their books and made note of them. At times handwriting was indecipherable but that difficulty was rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing one nun’s distinctive handwriting or name in multiple books. Their inscriptions ranged from jokes regarding piety, descriptions of nieces getting married or just their own names.

Next, we decided on four nuns to focus on, each of us researching two in great detail for the display. This gave us a wide scope of the abbey as the nuns were from different times and fulfilled different roles for their community. We both created biographies for our nuns which gave a broad overview of what their day to day life would have been like and what they did in the abbey.

Finally, we began putting the last touches together for the display which entailed photographing documents, mounting them on boards and arranging our text and images to create an engaging display.

Rosie’s impressions:

Reshelving books!

I spent the last week with the Department of Special Collections at Exeter University for my Year Twelve work experience, and it was amazing. I was a bit nervous when on the first day, and took a lot of comfort in the fact that one of my friends from school, Scarlett, had the same work experience, but I really shouldn’t have worried. My supervisor for the week was Annie Price, who was absolutely lovely and so helpful, and while I didn’t speak to the other members of the department as much as they were working on their own projects, I still felt so much like part of the team.

Special Collections works with significant historical documents and manuscripts, especially from people who were connected to the South West. For example, there is an extensive William Golding archive – author of Lord of the Flies – , which contains artefacts such as correspondences between Golding and publishers and his friends, as well as the original manuscripts of some of his works, like the Lord of the Flies manuscript.

Scarlett and I, however, were working on the Syon Abbey collection, which involves a great majority of the extensive library of the nuns of Syon Abbey. They had a fascinating history originating in England, traveling around Europe due to external pressures, significantly to Lisbon, and finally returning to England, mainly based in Chudleigh and South Brent, which is where the link to Devon comes in. During our stay, we got to look at and handle books from as far back as the seventeenth century, which was an amazing opportunity. I almost couldn’t believe it! Before we were allowed to handle these precious artefacts, we were trained in the correct way to take the books out of shelves and read them without damaging the spines or the pages. There were a load of things that I had never considered, like what we called book snakes, which are soft weights to hold the pages flat while you read, while not putting oils into the pages like holding it with your fingers would.

Planning the new display

Our task for the week was to create a display about Syon Abbey, so we took quite a few old books and manuscripts out of the library to help us. We went through each book to see which nun had owned each book, and if they had written anything particularly interesting. The majority of them only had a name at the most, but the few that had more were intriguing and occasionally hilarious. My personal favourites of each were, respectively, an account of Napoleon invading Portugal and the subsequent consequences, and one joke about not being able to trick God, but by keeping a religious book she could trick her peers. We narrowed down our options of nuns to research, and chose two nuns each to focus on for the display. I chose Sister Constancia Sorrell – who recorded Napoleon invading – and Lay Sister Mary Gomes – who joked about not being able to trick God.  I think that one of the best parts of the week was constructing the actual display, and seeing the outcome of all our hard work, which I, at least, am very proud of. It felt a bit like being an interior designer, as we wanted the display to be eye-catching and visually appealing while still conveying the interesting things that we learnt in the week, and hopefully getting other people interested in the subject and the monastery. We had to establish a title for the display, and while I’m disappointed that my various nun puns were vetoed, – I was particularly fond of “Nun so Faithful”- I thought that “Her Book” was equally effective, with the reference to how they wrote their names in their books, for example, “Mary Gomes her Book” and also with the extra reference to the “Book” as the Bible.

In the end, the week was so fun and interesting, while also feeling productive and like we achieved something, and I have definitely gained a new respect both for the nuns of Syon Abbey, and for the archivists at Special Collections who work with so many precious artefacts and make them accessible to people like you and me.

I would like to thank everyone who works at Special Collections for being so helpful and welcoming, and especially Annie who made our week there so memorable.

I hope that this has encouraged anyone reading this to think about visiting or researching either Special Collections or the amazing history of the nuns of Syon Abbey.

You can find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection in our blog posts and online guide

 

Thoughts of a GBP intern: my internship in Special Collections

From January to March 2017, we were very lucky to have Emma Burman working with us as an intern on the University of Exeter’s Graduate Business Partnership scheme. Now Emma looks back at her internship and reflects on how working in Special Collections has helped her on her chosen career path…

 

My name is Emma and I worked as a GBP (Graduate Business Partnership) intern in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections for three months from January to March 2017. GBP is a scheme designed to help get graduates into paid internships in organisations usually based in the South West. Before you ask, ‘isn’t an internship just slave labour?’, the answer is no; the best part of these schemes is that you truly are valued. You gain paid work experience, and you are assigned a job role with its own projects and responsibilities. So they really are the perfect opportunity for any graduate!

I graduated from the University of Exeter in July 2016 with a BA honours degree in History. I had known that I wanted to work in the heritage sector for a couple of years, and I had already gained voluntary experience within several museums and heritage organisations. However, after completing my university degree I found it really difficult to find a job. Most roles required relevant work experience, but in the typical catch 22 scenario, the only way to get the experience was by securing one of these jobs. As a result I ended up working part-time in customer service, trying to gain more work experience by volunteering, whilst also applying for countless jobs.

As a recent graduate of the University of Exeter, the Career Zone had regularly sent internship opportunities to me. They were generally science, geography, marketing or student services related roles, which didn’t suit my interests. However, one day I saw an advert for two heritage and museum roles. They looked perfect, so I applied for them both in the hope that this could be my chance to get some paid experience. Lo and behold, I was offered the role of Heritage Collections Support Officer, working within the University’s Special Collections team.

So for three months I worked full-time within a heritage organisation – my dream come true! And it really has been a wonderful experience. My main role when I arrived at Special Collections was to update the Heritage Collections website with information about various collections from the archives. I really enjoyed this project as it required a lot of in-depth research into the collections, and it provided me with the opportunity to look at and handle archival material. I also used social media and other forums, such as articles for the Arts and Culture Magazine, to advertise these updates and the work I was doing for Special Collections.

The updated Collection Highlights on the University of Exeter’s Special Collections website

My final project was to design, research and curate an exhibition on the Norman Lockyer collection, which went on display in July as part of the International Astronomical Union symposium at the University of Exeter. It was a real honour to be entrusted with the responsibility of independently curating the exhibition for this event.

The exhibition of material from the Normal Lockyer archive for the International Astronomical Union symposium

Through these projects I have learnt a lot more than just the basics. As an intern, everyone on the team has offered me the opportunity to learn about their role. I have learnt skills such as cataloguing, website maintenance, and copyright procedures.

Helping an archivist to catalogue material from the Syon Abbey archive

I was even invited on a trip to the South West Film and Television Archive in Plymouth by one of our archivists to research and listen to reel to reel tape recordings from the Ronald Duncan Collection, and I became a bit of an expert on using the machines! As a result I have gained many new and different skills that are really useful in this profession.

Using a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the South West Film and Television Archive

I think the GBP schemes are invaluable as they offer university graduates the opportunities that many employers ordinarily might not be able to. They give them a chance to get their foot in the door, gain new skills, learn about the working world, and earn a good salary. I feel the importance of these schemes is evident in the fact that since being employed by the University, I have been offered a job in a heritage institution and I now feel optimistic about the future. So for any graduates, my best piece of advice would be to apply for a GBP scheme internship, because the skills and experience you will gain from it will really help you to pursue your career and achieve your goals.

Click here to find out more about Graduate Business Partnerships at the University of Exeter.

Click here to view some of the collection highlights held at the University of Exeter’s heritage collections.