Susan Taylor is a librarian in the Special Collections department of The Mitchell Library in Glasgow.
Let’s face it, typical days in the life of any librarian are often not as interesting as the occasional atypical day, and I experienced many such days last summer when Glasgow hosted a cultural festival to coincide with the Commonwealth Games. The most nerve-wracking moments included an introduction to a royal guest, and TV appearances to talk about The Mitchell’s purchase of a manuscript song by Robert Burns.
My colleagues and I spent much of the Games period at Scotland House in the Old Fruitmarket, which was home to many athletes and their families. We were there to promote our new Family History Centre and, with our stall positioned at the main entrance, we were conveniently situated to chat to hundreds of people who had come in to find shelter from the occasional rain or to watch live sporting action relayed via big screen.
It so happened that I got talking to some representatives of Team Jamaica about the “Scotland and the Commonwealth” Exhibition that was taking place at The Mitchell Library. When one of them realised that we could help with family history, he told me that one of his maternal ancestors was Scottish, having emigrated from Sutherland early in the 20th century, his descendants settling in Bristol some time later.
Following a telephone call to his bemused mother in Jamaica, we were able to ascertain this ancestor’s details. Various searches using our online genealogical resources revealed the name of this relative on a boat’s passenger list. My new Jamaican friend was absolutely delighted, very grateful and went off to celebrate with his friends and to spread the word about the services of The Mitchell Library. To me, that was a magical encounter, reminding me of the value of the work I do.
The Games period was a rare opportunity to meet with colleagues from the various departments of Glasgow Life (i.e. Arts, Communities, Events, Libraries, Museums, Music and Sport and Young Glasgow) and learn more about their work and, thereby gain a better perspective on how we all contribute positively to people’s lives. The Games were also a useful catalyst for the use of social media within Glasgow libraries.
A distinctive Glasgow landmark, The Mitchell Library was established in 1877, founded with a bequest from tobacco merchant Stephen Mitchell (1789-1874), and has been in its present location at Charing Cross since 1911. As well as being one of the largest public reference libraries in Europe, The Mitchell also contains a lending library and is the hub of the city’s library network.
The Mitchell’s special collections include works of great significance and rarity, representing items which are of great importance to the history, life and people of Glasgow, such as the first newspaper and the first book printed here. We also hold many examples of milestones in book production: a particular favourite of mine is our complete set of the Kelmscott Press, established by artist and textile designer William Morris, featuring beautiful typefaces and wood-engravings. I have responsibility for one of the world’s largest collections of works by and about Scotland’s national poet, which is held in the library’s eponymous Burns Room.
The most valuable asset of the special collections department is my team. I could not carry out my daily tasks without our Glasgow Life Assistants, some of whom have worked in the building for over 30 years, making their knowledge of the collections extraordinary. As we work through what have been difficult days for public services in terms of cutbacks, and while it is often necessary to look at services through fresh eyes, there is no substitute for that experience and knowledge, and I am reminded regularly how much I am indebted to them.
Inevitably, there are many administrative tasks related to my present role, and there are pressures involved in regular shifts as Duty Librarian for the building. Happily, most of my work involves dealing directly with customer enquiries whether, for example, they are researching Italian immigrants, or looking for photographs of whisky being unloaded from boats along the Clyde.
The other main focus of my work is developing services and organising events that raise awareness of our collections and improve access to them. One of my favourite examples is “Square Mile of Murder”, where we explore a number of notorious and particularly grisly crimes committed within close proximity of The Mitchell, using artefacts from the cases themselves and other resources held in the library such as old maps and newspaper archives.
I am very grateful that Glasgow Life recently funded my further studies with Dundee University in the understanding and management of rare books, which has contributed enormously to my professional development.
My main motivators at work are my excitement when working with items from our special collections, and wanting to share that excitement with others. At the risk of sounding pretentious I have to admit that, when handling or reading a rare book or manuscript my heart always beats a little faster. Having the opportunity to do this on a daily basis is both a pleasure and a privilege, and it is what keeps me going through the dark and cold early morning commutes into the city that can otherwise be so trying.
For me, this sense of awe and delight comes from realising the significance of an item, and its impact upon people’s lives. Whether it’s an illuminated book of hours, a manuscript letter or an example of early printing, it is thrilling to see (and in some cases to actually handle) items that have been viewed and held by countless others through the centuries. I hope to convey that same sensory experience to others, something that I feel is particularly important in this age of digitisation.
By the way, did you know that there is another Mitchell Library? It’s part of the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Wendy Holz will tell you more about her work at “the other Mitchell” in next week’s blog.
Yes, next week we are departing from the norm and going international! In the meantime, thanks to Susan for a great post – please leave any comments or questions in the box below.