X Close

UCL Special Collections

Home

Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK

Menu

Books, buildings, and people: an exhibition on the making of UCL Library Services

Helen FBiggs28 November 2019

How do you make a library? In our current exhibition in UCL’s Main Library, we suggest that all it takes is three basic ingredients: books; somewhere to keep the books; and people to read and look after the books. Nice and easy… right?

Of course, From Small Library Beginnings: A brief history of UCL Library Services very quickly shows us that it’s not that simple. Tracing UCL’s libraries back to the start of UCL itself, we find that a lack of funding meant that the planned Great Library was never built, and the very first library was named instead the Small Library – a diminutive start for a university library service that today supports over 40,000 students.

Buildings need to be built: it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re occasionally difficult to come by. But even at a university, people can be in short supply, too. Certainly, the library doesn’t seem to have ever lacked for users, and one never has to look far to see traces of past borrowers in the form of notes scribbled in the margins of textbooks*. However, staffing a library can be a different matter, and for some 40 years, until 1871, UCL dispensed with the role of Librarian entirely, employing only an assistant – sometimes. A lack of funding was once more to blame.

Page from 'De Situ Orbis', showing handwritten student notes along with the book's own text.

Evidence of library users. (Side note: please don’t write in your library books.) [GRAVES 4.i.26]

That only leaves books. Here, it seems, UCL has been more fortunate. From the beginning a large number of books were donated, bequeathed, gifted and even bought, so while they may not have had a home or been well looked after, they were at least available to be read…

…Until the London Blitz, anyway. The Second World War saw the most precious books and manuscripts in the library’s collections sent to the National Library of Wales for safekeeping. Of those left behind, an estimated 100,000 were lost or damaged when the university was hit during a 1940 air raid.

We’ve been careful to label the exhibition as a ‘brief’ history, and it would certainly be difficult to present a full narrative of the service’s 17 sites and almost 200 years of existence in just one display. But you’ll still find plenty of fascinating stories here: a library bell made from 17th Century parts; the student life of famed librarian S. R. Ranganathan; the rise and fall of school libraries, and the impact of this on information literacy at universities.

For more on these stories and the items that tell them, download the exhibition catalogue, which includes an introduction by Anne Welsh from UCL’s own Department of Information Studies.

From Small Library Beginnings runs until Friday, 13 December in UCL Main Library, and is open to the public on weekdays, 9.30am-5pm.

*Marginalia can be fascinating and tell us a great deal about a book’s use and its previous owners. That being said, please don’t write in your library books.

Call for Papers for ‘Paper Trails’ a new open access publication with UCL Press

NazlinBhimani23 August 2019

Often there is more than research inside the books we read. Bookmarks, train tickets, receipts, and menus tucked into pages offer clues about the life of the book itself.

Yet the lives of our research material often go unmarked, lost between the gaps in disciplinary boundaries and narrow definitions. The biographies of books and documents can illuminate their contexts, as printed matter that is sold, passed down or abandoned. What happens when we consider the three moments of production, transmission, and reception together with our own research stories? Documents, like people, have births, lives, and even deaths, so what does it mean to investigate the biographies of texts, objects, and archival records? Beyond the formal roles of cataloguing and archiving, what part do researchers play in shaping the emergent archive?

This is not strictly an intellectual history, nor even a material book history, but something more like a social history of ideas, inspired by work such as Antoinette Burton’s discussions of Archive Stories (Duke University Press, 2005), Arlette Farge’s reflection on the Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), Lisa Jardine’s discussion of Temptation in the Archives (UCL Press, 2015), and Ann Laura Stoler’s call to read Along the Archival Grain (Princeton University Press, 2009)Indeed, the stories of our research material evolve significantly over their life cycles, as Arjun Appadurai outlined in The Social Life of Things (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Beyond commodities and value, however, this new publication seeks to consider our affective relationship with research material, juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice.

The editorial board invite contributors to submit papers to be published in a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content), a fully open access platform with UCL Press described as “a living book”. We are interested in a broad geographical and chronological scope and actively welcome a diverse range of topics and authors.

We will look to publish material in four streams, which will allow us to set fully REF compliant academic work alongside work produced by practitioners for their professional development:

  • Research Stories (8-10,000 words): We are encouraging a focus on research stories to invite a more reflective methodology, offering a more inclusive and engaged commentary on the work involved in researching, ordering, and preserving the past. This section will consist of double-blind peer-reviewed academic articles.
  • Co-Production (flexible word count): Outputs from projects in which non-academic, undergraduate and taught postgraduate audiences collaborate with others (collection professions, academics, members of the public etc) to create new work that is based on research collections.
  • Collection Profiles (500 words): This stream consists of shorter, descriptive or even narrative pieces, that highlights items or collections of interest. This may be a prelude to a piece of in-depth research, but it does not necessarily need to be.
  • Engagement (2,000 words): Reflective pieces that focus on a broad range of engagement activities, from the professional’s perspective. These can be case studies, or ‘think pieces’ on particular skills or techniques.  They should inform professional practice.

Please send in proposals for publications in these streams, along with a brief biographical presentation.

Deadline for submissions is 31st January 2020. For further information, please contact the lead editor, Dr Andrew WM Smith (University of Chichester) –  a.smith@chi.ac.uk