A Life in the Day of a Special Collections Curator

What do curators do all day? There is no such thing as a typical or standard day for a Special Collections curator. One of the joys of our work is its great variety, and no two days are ever the same. However to give you a flavour, here is a brief account of my activities on Monday 12 August 2013, just another (extra)ordinary day in Special Collections.

8.20: I ease myself into the day by checking emails. We recently hosted a training day for National Trust volunteers on the Stamford Papers from Dunham Massey in Cheshire. Over the weekend one of the volunteers emailed me to ask whether he might be able to consult one of the documents we looked at during the event. It’s good to see that the event is bearing fruit, and I am very keen to strengthen our links with the National Trust.

8.40: I check our enquiry management system, ‘Remedy’. Thankfully there isn’t much on it that requires my attention, and I can quickly resolve the enquiries. One enquiry requires me to locate a printed book, which is an opportunity to practice using EMu, our new collection management system. Thankfully, I manage to track the book down.

9.00: Each morning I like to visit the Reading Room, just to see who’s booked in and whether the Reading Room team needs any support or advice. It is vitally important that curators connect with the Reading Room, in order to engage with readers and to help the team feel integrated. We can also learn which collections are most heavily used, which helps us prioritize efforts in terms of cataloguing.

9.15: We recently heard that a former professor at The University of Manchester had died, bequeathing her books and papers to the Library. I arrange with Paul Holder, our Stock and Logistics Manager, to visit her house. I know from previous experience that this is likely to be a melancholy occasion, but there is also the prospect of finding some interesting and potentially valuable books and papers.

10.30: We have a visit from an Italian writer, his English wife and their son, who have asked to see our world-class collection of books printed in Venice at the press of Aldus Manutius. The writer’s wife studied Italian at Manchester in the 1970s, but she had never visited the Rylands – in fact like many people she comments on how difficult it was to get into the library in those days. So I am able to tell her about all the work we do with the Italian department nowadays, with undergraduate seminars and the Scarlet augmented reality project on Dante. We go down to the basement storage area where Thomas Gordon meets us and shows us the newly boxed Aldines in their uniform grey majesty. He does a wonderful job of explaining how we have brought together all our Aldines, finding many more in the process, and how we are recataloguing them. He really enthuses our visitors and they are delighted to be able to handle some of the items, including a copy of Il Castiglione which we purchased in New York last year. The writer mentions that he knows of two people in his apartment block who own copies of the greatest work of the press, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, including Umberto Eco!

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499). R215208.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499). R215208.

At lunchtime I do some of my own PhD research, following up references I made at the British Library last week. They relate to the provenance of our Arabic and Persian manuscript collections, which were acquired when Enriqueta Rylands purchased the Crawford manuscripts in 1901. Talk about a busman’s holiday!

2.00: I take a call from Alan Williams, Professor of Iranian Studies. He is about to start a three-year British Academy research fellowship on the Persian poet Rumi, and would like to come and look at our wonderful collection of Persian manuscripts. This is really good news, because cataloguing the Persian manuscripts is one of the priorities of the new John Rylands Research Institute. We arrange for him to come in and meet the curator, Elizabeth Gow.

Kay Ka'us in his flying machine, from a manuscript of Firdawsi's Shahnameh (Persian MS 932, f. 96b).
Kay Ka’us in his flying machine, from a manuscript of Firdawsi’s Shahnameh, Persian MS 932, f. 96b.

2.30: I exchange emails with the Head of Archives at another university, over a fact-finding visit here in November. They are bringing their Archive and Special Collections services closer together, so our experience of managing Special Collections at both the John Rylands Library and the Main Library is quite relevant to them.

2.45: I spend an hour working on an archive called the Mainwaring Manuscripts, a collection of Cheshire deeds and family papers. A student intern worked on the archive over the summer, and I need to finish off her work of rehousing the archive.  There is considerable satisfaction in seeing the physical transformation of a collection. It will also be much easier for the Reading Room staff to retrieve, and we have managed to condense the archive, saving three or four shelves. Since the main archive store is full, every little bit of space helps.

3.45: I meet a local bookseller who has brought in a small archive which we have agreed to purchase. It is the archive of the Manchester Literary Club, which was founded in 1862 and ran until the 1970s. It is a quite a modest affair, but it has research potential in the field of literary and social networks, and I can see it being used by Manchester academics and students. I make out a receipt for the bookseller, and take the archive to the Incoming Collections Room, so that it can be given a clean bill of health by the Collection Care team.

5.10: After a final check of emails, it’s time to call it a day.

What are the themes to emerge from what may seem a fairly unstructured day? There are elements of collection development, which I feel very strongly about – we need to build the collections for present and future generations; we are building links with academics; we are raising the profile of the Library with external stakeholders, as well as within the University; and we are working to improve the documentation of the collections, but we need to go much further in order to make the collections accessible to researchers. Another theme is cross-team working, which is vital to prevent a silo mentality. I really enjoy the mix of formats we have in Special Collections and the opportunities for working with and learning from colleagues in other domains.

Of course, had I chosen another day, there would be other things to report – during term-time running close-up sessions for academics and their students, working on exhibitions, promoting Special Collections through the blog and newsletter, helping with John Rylands Research Institute projects, negotiating with donors and depositors, liaising with colleagues in the University’s other Cultural Assets, holding team meetings and one-to-one meetings with members of my team, and what the printer Will Carter used to record on his invoices as ‘GBA’ –general buggering about. Life in Special Collections is certainly varied and rewarding.

John Hodgson is Head of Special Collections at The University of Manchester Library.

3 comments on “A Life in the Day of a Special Collections Curator

  1. I enjoyed reading this, John. Many thanks. It would be nice to see something from other curators perhaps….Best, Jan

  2. Christopher Monk

    I really like this piece. Engaging and informative. Now we know a little of what you get up to!


  3. David Eastwood

    I’ve just caught up with your blog of your daily life. It almost makes me hope for another life as an archivist!
    I very much wish to get my hands on the books of newspaper clippings in the DM collection. ””i would then hope to complete my history of Altrincham.

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