Volunteering at Magdalene Library: A Student’s Perspective

As a finalist, the sudden panic to find a career path after finishing your degree is a familiar feeling to a lot of students, and I was no exception. Over the summer I had researched a few different career options for English graduates—the classic paths being teaching, publishing, journalism—all wonderful professions, but none of which really appealed to me. It was only when I began attending some of my college library’s workshops and study groups that I realised just how wholesome and varied the academic library community could be. Keen to get some library experience, I began emailing any and all college libraries in Cambridge, sheepishly asking for volunteering opportunities. After receiving over twenty emails which began with ‘thank you for your email, but unfortunately…’, I was on the verge of losing hope, when I was greeted by the friendliest message from Lauran, Magdalene’s Deputy Librarian. Before long, we had arranged a meeting, I was shown around Magdalene’s gorgeous new library, I met the lovely Ellie, was given a delicious cup of tea, and we had a chat about what I was hoping to learn in the coming weeks.

A collection of books in Magdalene library labelled by Liz.

On my first week, I helped Lauran unload some donations from Eamon Duffy, a fellow and former President of the college, and also had a look around the Pepys Library (I was absolutely thrilled to see a copy of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in there!). In the following weeks, Lauran and Ellie showed me a little about how cataloguing works and, eventually, I was trusted with reclassifying some old and processing some new books in the Japanese Literature collection. I was surprised by how satisfying I found the process of stamping the books, applying new bookplates, and making fresh spine labels—it felt like I was really making my mark (figuratively and literally) on the library, and it was rewarding to know that my small actions of stamping and labelling would contribute to making literature more accessible to students. I felt like I was making a real (albeit small) difference.

It was great to be exposed to so many new books and, because part of the job was researching the books to find bibliographic information, it made me desperate to read them myself (quite a few have ended up on my Christmas list!). I even undertook my own project of reclassifying the entire Duncan Robinson collection of Architecture books using an updated system. I loved coming into the library every Tuesday, wheeling my book trolley into the lift, giving myself a little wink in the lift mirror because, standing there, with a trolleyfull of books, glasses on, pencil behind my ear, I saw the person I always hoped I would become. I started to feel like not just a member of staff but a member of the family. On our breaks, we would chat about books and travelling and school and university, and Lauran learned very quickly that I was fond of her Twining’s green tea, a cup of which she automatically poured me every week! Being in the company of lovely staff and lovely books made me think of my time in relation to those Tuesday afternoons, and I found myself eagerly looking forward to them every week.

Part of the job I didn’t expect, but ended up loving, was using the internet to research the books I was working with on. I found myself googling some unusual things, like, ‘asylum architecture’, ‘where is Harwick Hall?’, ‘why do buildings collapse in earthquakes?’ and ‘when was Hampton court built?’. It actually made me want to study architecture—can’t say the same for the law books though! I felt privileged to be included in important things like social media meetings and deciding on a scheme for mystery book loans at Christmas. One of my highlights was spending my volunteering session listening to Christmas classics in Lauran’s headphones and wrapping up some of our gift loans as neatly as possible; I couldn’t wait for the students to see the incredible books Lauran and Ellie had picked for them. It was the perfect festive end to my wonderful term at Magdalene.

Lauran and Ellie have taught me so much and my time volunteering in the library has helped me realise how much I enjoy the work. I’m hoping to secure a library traineeship and learn even more about the profession. Who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll return to Magdalene, or another college, as an employee this time!

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