Behind the scenes Collections Long read

The Book Stops Here…or Tome Alone – Reading Room in Lockdown

The Reader Engagement Team feel immensely privileged to work in such a special environment, where we get to help readers every day and be surrounded by our wonderful special collections and colleagues.

When we found ourselves working from home as a front-line team, we did initially question how this was going to work. It quickly became clear that we could still offer a service to our readers whilst sat at our kitchen tables, on our sofas or in our gardens. We also saw it as an opportunity to be able to get more deeply involved with our collections. 

Here we will hear from members of the team with insights into how they have been working during lockdown.

The John Rylands Library Reading Room


Kate Miller:
I have been timing meetings and calls to fit in with my two young sons’ naps/ quiet time which has been tricky to say the least, but keeping in touch with the team has been a priority for me as we offer support to each other on a professional and personal level. We have started to think about what steps need to be taken when we do eventually reopen the Reading Room. When time allows I have been doing some work related training courses, including a fabulous one I did recently on the History of the Book. I have found that crafting has helped me wind down once work is done and the boys are in bed- weaving and cross stitch are my current favourites- also my garden has never looked better! I am very proud of the way the team have risen to the challenge of working from home.

Dominic Marsh:
I’ve been working with a number of our back office IT systems. The Library recently rolled out Office365 and Microsoft Teams to all staff and I’m part of a project to encourage staff to engage with and get the best out of these resources. I’ve also been preparing for an upgrade of our CRM system and most importantly working with our IT staff to allow readers to order Special Collections material via the Library catalogue. More on this when we re-open. I’m also hindering my children’s home education, making bookcases, playing music, and both causing, and participating in, arguments.

Catherine Smith:
While I’m working from home, I’m currently transcribing a handlist into a Word document. The handlist is The Goulden Collection, which is a collection of materials on clubs and activities for the deaf community in the 1960’s until the 1980’s. It covers many educational visits, unions, associations and their membership and activities which were available for young deaf adults. I’ve also just completed an online course on the History of the Railways and their workers, and I’ve just started  a course on Mindfulness. We are also all answering enquiries on CRM, so our readers are still connected to us.

As a team we use Microsoft Teams, and this has proved to be invaluable. We have a team meeting each week and our coordinators Dom Marsh and Kate Miller keep us informed of anything we need to know. They also keep our spirits up with fun questions about the collections and photos to identify and generally look after our wellbeing.

I’m doing lots of reading in my spare time as well as pottering about in the garden. I’ve been lucky to have a pair or robins nesting in my garden for the first time. It’s been great to watch them fly in and out of the nest as I do the washing up! I’m looking forward to being able to see my new granddaughter properly again but until then I’m grateful for technology which allows me to see her from a distance.

Angela Petyt-Whittaker:
Whilst working from home, the major project I am involved with is compiling the metadata for the painter Frank Salisbury’s ‘Autographs of my Sitters’ books (MA 2019/96), which have been digitised by the Library’s Imaging team. I am transcribing the contents of Volume 2 (my colleague Ian is working on Volume 1). This contains the signatures of the famous people Salisbury painted from 1933 -1960, including royalty, aristocracy, politicians, industrialists, theologians and actors. I have deciphered their autographs and am now in the process of researching and writing brief biographies of each person, which is proving to be fascinating. I’ve also been assisting the team in answering researchers’ enquiries on CRM as well as helping to schedule upcoming posts and monitor comments on the Special Collections blog. In addition, I’ve completed two online courses on Victorian Portrait Photography and the History of the Book – the knowledge I’ve gained will greatly assist me with my job at the Rylands. Away from work, I’ve been baking, decorating and tending my allotment!

Jass Thethi :
Covid-19 has been a difficult time for many, in different degrees and different ways, in order to counter act this I have been cultivating joy, personally and within the community, to counter act the worry and fear which engulfs the world at the moment.

The main way I have been achieving this is working to create a beautiful space in my Highfield Country Park, my local oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life. I walk my 1-year old dog, Sasha, in the park at least twice a day. When I found a volunteer scheme, called The Bee Sanctuary Movement, which works to re-wild the country park and create a space for enjoyment I was more than excited to join.

My main project included creating woodchip paths (also known as echo paths) and bramble bushes. On my days off work I would take Sasha and work moving logs and woodchip with a wheelbarrow (and the help of Sasha) to create spaces for people to walk. Once the lanes and bramble bushes were created, we began to sow wildflower seeds.

A week after jokingly calling the path Sasha and I created ‘Sasha’s Path’ I was told that all the new created paths would be named after all the volunteers’ dogs! Signs were hand painted and placed in the areas the dogs had helped create or enjoyed the most.

More about the Bee Sanctuary Movement can be found here: https://www.manchestercommunitycentral.org/contacts/view/241403

Ian Graham:
By a stroke of luck, the materials I am using for my current project were digitised mere hours before the lockdown began, enabling me to work from home with minimal disruption. The project itself is a lengthy, tricky and interesting one. Working together, Angela Petyt-Whittaker and I are cataloguing the Sitters Books of Frank Salisbury, an English artist primarily active in the first half of the twentieth century. Comprising two thick volumes, the Books contain the signatures of Salisbury’s subjects, a mixture of royalty, noteworthy public figures and largely unremembered businessmen, socialites and private individuals. Angela and I will publish a blog about the project in the near future; meanwhile, a digitised rendering of the Sitters Books can be found at https://luna.manchester.ac.uk/luna/servlet/view/search;JSESSIONID=6e494719-7d59-4663-935f-702663d581b3?search=SUBMIT&q=frank+salisbury&dateRangeStart=&dateRangeEnd=.

Although the Sitters Books are my main focus, I am also working through a fascinating History of the Book online course, as well an equally fascinating interactive palaeography course, the latter of which may have left me with a permanent squint from peering at impenetrable bygone handwriting styles.

Aside from work, my lockdown lifestyle is sensible. I take daily walks, keep to a routine and put on proper day clothes every morning. To my credit, I’ve so far avoided the madness of self-improvement; I have not learned to cook, mastered a language or taken up jogging.

View of the Reading Room towards the counter


Lorraine Coughlan:
I am currently doing some transcribing work for the Library, including a Henry Parkes letter and the text from the booklet detailing the Enriqueta Rylands exhibition held some years ago. Away from work, my knowledge of Manchester’s parks is increasing and I’m visiting some places I haven’t been to since my teenage years.

Bruce Wilkinson:
I’ve mainly been working on the Dave Cunliffe Archive, creating one large searchable spreadsheet of the material which has been box listed and I’ve produced a couple of blogs about my work with the Student Ephemera Collection.

I’m currently developing a Guide to Special Collections Template about material held in the Ernest Wilson Papers, a composer and musician of dance orchestra tunes originally from Salford, for the Literary and Performing Arts Archivist Jessica Smith and I’ll be developing a blog about him when that’s finished this week.

I’ve also been in discussions with Lianne Smith, the Christian Brethren Archivist, about using anti-apartheid and Black Power material from the Student Ephemera Collection to help her write something for Black History Month.

John McCrory:
On the day the Library’s closure was confirmed, and a spell of home-working inevitable, I was fortunate to bump into Jessica Smith, our Creative Arts Archivist, and offered a pile of interesting work (with the promise of more if necessary!). As such, I’ve been working on the collections of the architect Raymond Unwin, theologian and poet dom sylvester houédard, music critic Michael Kennedy, and the author Elfrida Vipont.

Our collections are listed in many forms, from full catalogues on ELGAR to an entry in the accession register, bound manuscript volumes to typescript box lists, and much variety in between. Amidst the gloom, the closure of the Reading Room at least offered an opportunity to work on these catalogues, ensuring our collections are better recorded for readers on our return.

Working on the Raymond Unwin Papers has been a particular pleasure. Unwin helped set the high minimum standards of social housing after the First World War, and more than anyone else determined the look and form of these estates. From my desk at home I have a panoramic view of one of those inter-war estates, and have had plenty of time to appreciate his legacy. 

The children’s writer Elfrida Vipont also wrote extensively on Quaker themes; while arranging a box list produced last summer by Nicole McNeill, I was intrigued by the title of a work Vipont wrote for a children’s broadcast on the BBC: ‘Doctor Dimsdale in Russia’. Dimsdale was a Quaker and personally summoned by Catherine the Great to vaccinate her and her son, Grand Duke Paul, against smallpox in the 1760s. He published a fascinating account of this experience, which has been digitised by the Wellcome Collection.   

It’s been difficult working without access to the collections, and one gains an even greater appreciation for the wealth of material we hold at the Library, along with our privileged access to it. However, the greatest loss has been the daily interaction with our readers, and the sense the collections are being explored, examined and enjoyed in the concentrated space that is our reading room. Of course, we hope for a safe return as soon as possible.

David Goulding:
I’ve been busy keeping in touch with the two teams I work with in my split role, taking part in wellbeing initiatives and helping colleagues with blog projects as well as undertaking online training. I am collating data to help make high-demand books available online and improving the accuracy of the ‘Locate a book’ system. Not forgetting the research enquiries, we answer as part of the normal workload. My elderly parents need more help with shopping trips and clinic visits, which has meant I have been able to enjoy their company regularly. I’m involved in various music projects, and with my partner have explored the hidden pockets of wildlife in our inner-city locale as well as caught up with cinema, theatre and friends online. All of which has helped me to successfully avoid doing battle with my hoarding tendencies and put off clearing out the spare room!

Reading Room Reception


Throughout this period of unprecedented change, the Reader Engagement Team have endeavoured to provide an efficient enquiry service to researchers from across the world and will continue to do so whilst working from home. We have also been actively involved with assisting the Library on a wide range of cataloguing and transcription projects, particularly focussing on enabling access to more digitised Special Collections. Even though we are not together in person, the lockdown has brought us closer as a team, with video calls and collaborations enabling part-time staff to interact with colleagues they wouldn’t normally see. We all hope to be back in the Reading Room in the future and look forward to welcoming our readers once again.

There will also be further blog posts from the team with more in-depth information about the projects they are working on so watch this space!

Please visit the Manchester Digital Collections website to discover more.

1 comment on “The Book Stops Here…or Tome Alone – Reading Room in Lockdown

  1. Gwen Riley Jones

    I absolutely LOVE this blog post from the Reading Room team, its great to hear about what you have all been getting up to in work and (sometimes putting off!) in your personal lives while at home. I have to say, personally, the lockdown has certainly helped me with reducing my hoarding tendencies – no access to car boot sales! Thanks for sharing!

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