Libraries, the universe and everything

First month at the Morgan
October 21, 2013, 01:12
Filed under: Libraries | Tags: , ,

I have been in my new volunteer job for a little over a month now, and this seems like a good time for some reflection on how things are going so far. Regular readers may recall that I visited the Morgan Library back in June, and was completely blown away by the small part of the collection that was on display. T wondered if they had a volunteer programme that I could apply to, and I was delighted to discover that not only do they welcome qualified volunteers but that they were actually looking for someone to work in the reading room.

Compared to other library and museum volunteer programmes I must say that I’ve been particularly impressed by the way the process is handled at the Morgan (and no, that isn’t just because they gave me the job!). Their ethos is that appropriately-skilled volunteers are a valuable complement to the work of the paid staff, and should be recruited accordingly. Consequently the volunteer page on the website presents the job descriptions and required skill-sets for all the current vacancies, I was invited for a first interview with the Director of Volunteers before meeting with the Head of the Reading Room to discuss the role and my suitability for it – it all felt exactly like applying and interviewing for any other kind of job. (Many other organisations I’ve come across invite applicants to submit their details, but don’t provide much indication of the skills required, or whether there are even any vacancies to begin with.)

So far it appears that volunteers here are treated pretty much like the regular staff, which is both refreshing and rewarding. In some of my previous library volunteering experience there was a very distinct line between staff and volunteers, and whilst I could understand the reasons for that it was still quite alienating, particularly for someone with the right professional skills who could have contributed much more if given the opportunity to do so.

My title is Reading Room Assistant (which pretty much speaks for itself), and the job involves reading room invigilation and assisting researchers. Due to the rare and valuable nature of much of the Morgan’s collections there are tight access and handling policies in place. Would-be researchers must apply in advance, the relevant departmental curators grant permission for the items requested to be produced, and only then can appointments be made. The reading room is fairly new and purpose-built, but can only accommodate a limited number of researchers per day, and of course fewer readers means more opportunity for the staff to ensure that everyone is set up properly and handling the material correctly.

One of my favourite things about working in reading rooms is the unending diversity of research that goes on, and with a collection like the Morgan’s that translates into regular opportunities to encounter some truly fantastic stuff. Recently I’ve seen drawings by Raphael, letters from Henry Matisse, autograph manuscripts by Dickens and Wilde, and a superb folio manuscript (MS 875) with hefty boards and metal bosses, and those are just my personal highlights!

Due to past experience I feel very comfortable handling rare books, manuscripts and archival material, and invigilating a reading room. Obviously some of the manuscripts are different to any I’ve handled personally before (e.g. MS 875 as described above!), drawings are presented to readers in a way which is new to me, and I’ve had to battle with learn how to work the microfilm reader/printer, but these have been easy enough to deal with. The part I perhaps hadn’t anticipated so well was that coming in with a level of professional competence would still not save me from a sense of being totally at sea. This is a particularly multi-faceted collection, so I oscillate from feeling fairly well in control to completely lost several times a day.

Once again I’ve been tremendously lucky with my colleagues – this seems to have been be a theme in my career so far and I couldn’t be more grateful.  I’m always happy to ask questions when I’m learning, but not only is everyone very friendly and approachable, they often provide unsolicited information and interesting facts about things I haven’t thought to query.

In short, I absolutely love working here, and I find it difficult to keep the superlatives to a minimum when describing it to anyone! I feel very privileged to be able to handle such incredible material on a regular basis, and I can’t wait until it all feels a shade more familiar.

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[…] sensation, and even a 2 hour shift could feel like eternity. Consequently my delight about snagging a volunteer job at the Morgan Library was even greater than it should have been, and I’m pleased to report that I still love working […]


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