Plans for the new, flagship University Library (NUL) are making their way through the planning application process with Bristol City Council. In this series, we learn more about the teams involved in the NUL project. Here Archivist and Special Collections Manager, Hannah Lowery, talks about what it’s like to work in Special Collections.
Q: What are the Special Collections? How would you best describe them?
A: When people ask, I always say that it’s five kilometres of materials; archives and books, objects, photographs, films and more, covering the eleventh century up until present day. We hold everything from University records dating back to the 1870s, election materials, Penguin Book archives, records relating to the West Indies and the sugar trade, and materials from our new wild film archive. We have collecting policies and archives all work together, so we’ll look at an item and decide where it would be best housed – either with us, or with another institution. We also contribute materials to lots of exhibitions, which many people may not be aware of. Very recently we have worked with the National Trust, Arnolfini and the British Library, to name a few.
Q: What’s your favourite object in the collection, if you have one? If you can’t pick a favourite, what have you enjoyed working on most in recent months?
A: I love all different sorts of things. Prior to lockdown I was doing some additional cataloguing of the Feminist Archive South which I really enjoy, and the Penguin archives are also fantastic. Last year my colleague Karen and I visited a room in the Wills Memorial building that I hadn’t visited for 15 years! It was like a treasure trove that had been locked away, untouched since my last visit, and full of University archives (or records as we call them, but not vinyl!). There are so many things that may seem like ordinary day-to-day things which can be important to record and preserve. These are the things that make up our lives, and generations that come after us will want to refer to them.
Q: Lockdown has meant big changes for all of us. How have you and the Special Collections team worked to make sure things are made accessible virtually, as much as possible?
A: We’re a small team, but we are each working on our own particular sections of the archives and books. We are continuing to improve lists and adding images and catalogues to the online archive catalogue. As well as working with the Special Collections team, we work closely with all of our University of Bristol Library Colleagues, and the Theatre Collection. We also work with the SS Great Britain (our Isambard Kingdom Brunel Archives are held at the Brunel Institute), and Bristol Archives, Museums and Libraries. We also have very strong connections nationally and internationally including the National Archives, to which we annually report what we’ve added to our collection in the last year.
Q: What does a typical day for you look like? And if there is no typical day – what’s been the most unusual project you’ve worked on to date?
A: There is never really a typical day. You tend to get caught up in things like helping in the reading room, assisting other colleagues, answering a query, or talking to other archivists – there is always something happening. Researchers will get in touch with us, including lots of scientists lately, who we help with their research. When we receive a new item, we’ll go through a cataloguing process and assessment. There is also a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make sure our items are kept in the best possible condition, including re-boxing, making sure things are kept at the right temperature and ensuring items are properly catalogued before being stored.
Q: What difference would it make to the Special Collections to have a new home in the new University Library? What things would you be able to do that you’re currently not able to?
A: It will make such a difference! We’ll have exhibition spaces with permanent and temporary exhibitions which will enable us to better showcase the Collections including making them more accessible. The Collections are already open to everyone (although sometimes you need special permission to access certain parts of the Collections), but the ability to exhibit our Collections will really change things for us. We will also have storage areas of high standard and a new office. Better facilities such as lifts will also help minimise any damage when moving the Collections. We’ll have the space to properly ‘quarantine’ new items to make sure they can safely be archived and that there are no bugs. And we mustn’t forget that many items in our Collections can’t be captured completely online due to their nature. It will just be great to have that space to put to good use.
The deadline for comment and support for plans for the new University Library has been extended. Please support the project by visiting the local authority planning portal or email the council directly using reference 20/00433/F via firstname.lastname@example.org.