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A Special Collections Career Path / Katie birkwood
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A Special Collections Career Path / Katie birkwood


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A quick description of my career path in special collections librarianship, and some tips on how to get ahead in the field. Compiled in May 2012 for the CILIP New Professionals Day. Updated on 16 June …

A quick description of my career path in special collections librarianship, and some tips on how to get ahead in the field. Compiled in May 2012 for the CILIP New Professionals Day. Updated on 16 June 2013.

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  • 1. Career PathA Special CollectionsKatie Birkwood@girlinthe
  • 2. At university I did a BA in music.
  • 3. I took modules on the choralmusic of the twelfth and fifteenthcenturies,
  • 4. including the music sung inmedieval Paris at Notre Damecathedral.
  • 5. ‘Le point dorgue, hommage à Bach’, by Alexandre Vialle on Flickr
  • 6. (It’s the earliest known rhythmically notated polyphony. Two ofthe main manuscripts of the corpus have been digitised: and
  • 7. I was fascinated by themanuscripts in which the musicwas preserved…
  • 8. Graduale. England. 1230. University of Iowa Libraries, xfMMs.Gr.3.
  • 9. …but I didn’t want to go intoacademia.
  • 10. So I decided to try my hand atspecial collections librarianship.
  • 11. My first library job was as a book-fetcher at Cambridge UniversityLibrary.
  • 12. ‘The UL’ by Howard Chalkley on Flickr.
  • 13. I was lucky enough to be assignedto the manuscripts department,
  • 14. where I fetched a range ofamazing manuscripts and archivalmaterial for readers from aroundthe world.
  • 15. Harald Hardrada lands near York and defeats the Northumbrian army, Life of Edward the Confessor, England,13th century. Cambridge University Library, MS Ee.3.59, f. 31r.
  • 16. After a year I got a library assistantjob at Cambridge TheologicalFederation.
  • 17. The Federation libraries servemostly BA and MA studentstraining for the ministry in anumber of denominations.
  • 18. Most of the holdings are modernbooks, but there are a few specialcollections, too.
  • 19. Amongst other duties, I was askedto help list the letters ofevangelical preacher CharlesSimeon, held by Ridley Hall.
  • 20. ‘Ridley Hall, Cambridge’ by Dean Ayres on Flickr.
  • 21. At the same time, I started thepart-time MA in Library &Information Studies at UCL.
  • 22. ‘University College London’ by Steve Cadman on Flickr.
  • 23. I took the optional modules inHistorical Bibliography andManuscript Studies.
  • 24. I spent a lot of time in lovelySenate House Library…
  • 25. ‘Senate House’ by Rain Rabbit on Flickr.
  • 26. …reading up on manuscripts,palaeography, printing,typography, bookbinding, andother similar things.
  • 27. ‘Metal Type’ by Lars K on Flickr.
  • 28. I wrote a dissertation about libraryhistory:‘Our Learned Primate’ and that ‘RareTreasurie’: James Usshers Use of Sir RobertCottons Manuscript Library, c. 1603–1655’
  • 29. (It was published as an article in Library & Information History26:1 (March 2010), 33-42.)
  • 30. Six months before I finished theMA I was appointed as HoyleProject Associate at St John’sCollege Cambridge.
  • 31. ‘St John’s College Old Library’ by ben.gallagher on Flickr.
  • 32. My role was to catalogue thepapers of Professor Sir Fred HoyleFRS (1915-2001),
  • 33. Letter from Fred Hoyle to Ben Hoyle. c. 1930 | Hoyle’s walking bootsHoyle working at home in Cambridge, c. 1965 | Hoyle’s childhood telescope, made c. 1930
  • 34. and to organise and createoutreach events and resources.
  • 35.
  • 36. After the end of the Hoyle Project,I secured a couple of temporaryposts back at the UniversityLibrary.
  • 37. Firstly working in a general role inthe Rare Books Department,
  • 38. and later working specifically onexhibitions.
  • 39. In Autumn 2012 I wasappointed as Rare Books andSpecial Collections Librarian atthe Royal College of Physicians,London,
  • 40. ‘royal college of physician’ by Matt Brown on Flickr.
  • 41. which has a collection of over20,000 early printed books, andother special collections ofprinted material.
  • 42. ‘London 1633, the books of the Royal College of PhysiciansLibrary, Regents Park, London, UK.jpg’ by Cory Doctorow onFlickr.
  • 43. I’m responsible for all aspects ofcollection care, description, useand promotion,
  • 44. using all the skills andexperience I’ve gained in earlierjobs, as well as constantlylearning something new.
  • 45. Some tips for getting on in thespecial collections world…
  • 46. 1. Just as librarianship in generalisn’t about liking to read books,special collections librarianshipis about more than liking oldbooks,
  • 47. so explain your interest in the fieldin detailed, not general terms.
  • 48. 2. As with all librarianship, it’s keyto demonstrate that you’reinterested and experienced incustomer service, for exampleanswering reader enquiries.
  • 49. 3. Highlight your specialist skills,interests or knowledge, be theytechnical, linguistic, historical, orsomething else.
  • 50. 4. Demonstrate that youunderstand researchers’ and otherusers’ interests in the collections,so read around the subject.
  • 51. 5. As with all areas of library andof heritage work, money matters:
  • 52. experience writing grantproposals, attracting financialsupport, and promoting yourwork to senior management willbe invaluable.
  • 53. Want to know more?I’ve compiled more aboutspecial collections careershere.Icons by Christian F. Burprich on IconFinder
  • 54. Slideshow by Katie BirkwoodTwitterBlog