My internship with Academic Liaison and Special Collections

By James Wilkinson

After one of my friend’s mentioned a potential career path in librarianship, and that she was in the middle of undertaking a librarianship internship here at the University of Leicester, my ideas for potential career options was expanded massively. It seemed obvious once I had thought about it; I’ve just completed a degree in English and American Studies, and I didn’t feel that my passion for books would end any time soon. However, I realised that my real passion for books comes from the older, more unique and historical books. Things like John Milton’s first manuscripts of Paradise Lost. We all know it was published as an epic, but archived materials show that he originally intended for it to be a play. Allowance into this material and the broadening of our understanding of historical/literature figures is what I find particularly interesting. So, with that, I sent a few emails over to the library and enquired about taking part in an internship with both the Academic Liaison and Special Collections Team at the University library.

The internship was to be split into two parts to spend an equal amount of time with each team. I started off with Academic Liaison and was given some insight into the work that the librarians do for various academic departments across the University. What I took for granted as a student was the access to databases. Throughout my degree, I think almost every essay I wrote incorporated the use of JSTOR or Project MUSE. Also important is that the aforementioned Milton document was found through a professor’s access to Early English Books Online (EEBO). The importance of the subscriptions to these databases cannot be understated to the career and affluence of students at the University.

Another side of the Academic Liaison role is the support side. A certain level of competency is required to navigate the library’s website, simply because there is so much information on there. Members of the AL team run many different workshops to help out those who aren’t so adept at deciphering the various menus of websites, which comes in handy for students who don’t speak English as their first language or are a mature student (not that age necessarily correlates to a lack of computer skills!). The workshop was there to help distance learning master’s students and research for their dissertations. Upon reflection, I really could have used one of these sessions when doing my research for my BA dissertation in first semester but hey ho, it’s over now. This is just one example of many different supportive events that was run to help students use the library more effectively, and I shamefully admit to not properly using the various strands of support that was on offer to me as a student.

My time with the Special Collections team had me getting my hands in a ‘project’ so to speak. The team are basically trying to expand one of their collections, the East Midlands Oral History Archive, and get the ability to upload more of the older interviews conducted of the collection onto the Special Collections website. The collection is a series of interviews that were conducted in the 1980s to people who had lived through the turbulent parts of the 20th century. The project was important because it introduced me to the idea of both online and audio archiving. It never occurred to me that interviews conducted in the 80s would allow us access to the memories of people who were born at the tail end of the 19th century, and could therefore give us some insight into growing up in Victorian Leicester! I had to first of all look through the database to see which interviews were not already uploaded online and then see whose interviews we could choose to upload.

A part of the interviewing process is the copyright waiver, which gives certain rights to the interviewee (things like reproduction, what can be done with the interviews through researchers etc.). A problem that occurs through this, however, is that the copyright forms the interviewee’s signed did not cover the allowance for material to be uploaded onto the internet (because it didn’t exist…). A separate strand of the project then was to find the addresses of the interviewee’s whose interviews were hopefully to be uploaded, and ask for their consent. However, as most if not all of the interviewee’s in question were born before 1900 the likelihood of them still being alive was fairly slim, so the question of consent is then passed on to their next of kin.

While the letters were drafted, I was tasked with entering in new metadata for the proposed sound files. Metadata is basically data about, well, data. The metadata for these sound files spreads over many different fields including details about the interviewer, interviewee, the recording device, what the interviewee talks about, how long the file is, when it was conducted etc. It’s basically a system that allows itself to be identified amongst the great pools of interviews that were conducted, as some of them cover similar topics but from differing perspectives. This really satisfied my need for organisation and putting things in the right place.

After this was done I was sent over to where the East Midlands Oral History Archive is run to help with the digitisation of more sound files. The original interviews were conducted via tape recorder, which poses an interesting challenge to transferring them into an MP3 file. Through electronic wizardry that my decidedly illogical brain cannot fathom, the tapes are transferred onto CD-Roms, which makes the process of digitisation a lot more easy as laptops do have the hardware to play CDs! Would have been a lot easier if laptops could do the same with tapes but never mind. As the interviews were made through tape recording, this also means that the interviews are separated into chunks of sound file. I had to go through the CDs and append the sound files to make them one big file instead of five little ones. It was a case of converting them into MP3 files and sending them off for approval. What could have been done is entering the metadata of the files onto ContentDM / the Access Database (and, like I said, it definitely fulfils my OCD needs), but I didn’t have access to a computer that had the programmes installed. Bummer.

Something else I was given to do was to help with a collection called ‘Vanished Leicester’, which is a collection of photos of streets and buildings in Leicester that have now been demolished, giving an interesting look into what Leicester was like in the immediate post-war period. The city, much like Birmingham and Coventry, was highly industrial and had many factories dotted all around the place, a lot of them being hosiery factories. My task was to look through the collection and find the exact placement of the addresses of the sites that had been photographed. As whole streets have been completely changed over the last few decades, this was a challenging task.

One interesting find I made was a factory called the Britannia, named so for having an imposing statue of Queen Victoria on the roof. This was located on Granby Street, next to Calais Hill which I believe is now some sort of apartment block that was made in the 70s (and is therefore a huge eye-sore). The building that was next to it, though, is a pub that is still standing and under the same name as it was back in the 50s and 60s. I used a website called Digimap, which is basically a database of historical maps of England and is accessible to students at the Uni of Leicester. Another great find was actually the house that I currently, as of the writing of this blog, live in! It’s a house in South Highfields, just off of London Road. I looked through the various decades of maps that Digimap has to offer and saw that my house has been there since at least the 1880s. Also interesting is that the road was called Mecklenburg Street, not Severn Street as it is now called.ReducedMap

I had my suspicions that the house quite old, being a townhouse and having a servant bell (which is now used for the doorbell!). I then thought it would be interesting to see how the campus has changed from ‘Counties Lunatic Asylum’ to the Fielding Johnson Building that stands today. The campus went from being a park area with tennis courts and fields to the campus we know now. It’s cool to see how the campus was adapted and how it slowly grew from the Fielding Johnson building all the way down University Road (which was called Victoria Road in its pre-University life). Having caught a bit of a bug for looking at familiar places to me, I thought I would look up my home back in Surrey, and I wasn’t too surprised to find that not much has changed with the set-up of the village even since the 1870s! I suppose that’s what happens when you go to more rural areas instead of towns which are constantly changing and altering to fit the times (and the population).

Overall, my internship with the David Wilson Library has only enthused me more to carry out a career in the archiving sector. The need for the maintenance and preservation of old documents (whether paper, photographic or audio) is so important to research and our understanding of history. If you are considering entering into a career in this field (either librarianship or archiving), then I would absolutely recommend it with the David Wilson Library.



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Margaret Maclean

About Margaret Maclean

Library Assistant, Rare Books and Archives in the University Library

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