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Wisdom on Wednesday from last Friday …

July 31, 2013

Last Friday I went on a bus-man’s holiday; well sort of. I am neither a bus-man or a Reading Room assistant though I do spend some of my time at work fulfilling this role. I am expected to man an information desk in the main library where I welcome students on the Life Science floor  and direct them to their particular subject areas and try and answer questions regarding their studies.  There is no way I can engage more fully; I am merely an interested and willing signpost.

In the Reading Room at Special Collections just down the road; the client group is much wider and the requests more diverse.  There may be one person from the local community looking at a tractor drawings and another PHD researcher from Australia, reading the works of Samuel Beckett and 10 or 15 others in between .  Again, I know little of the subject matter; but can always find someone or something that will allow the student to enjoy a good learning experience.  This means; particularly at the Museum of English Rural life I do spend much time fetching and returning  various items to the archive store.  It is the reader who must do the the research, using the books, letters, documents and drawings to make his story, wagon, thesis or family tree.  The student does all the hard work I am a signpost.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be the student.  Although I am always making use of the materials at the main library and at special collections for my blog it is always secondary sources.  I often promise myself that I will go back and and look more fully after I have published the post; but I never do.

However for the past few weeks I have tried to find fresh and new material. For my last birthday I received a lovely card by the artist Cyril Power; I looked for literary works about him in our catalogue and discovered very little; it was wasn’t until later did I discover more.  While strolling in Oxford I came across a little shop and a gallery of his work was on show.   When we got talking, I discovered the owner of the shop was Cyril Power’s grandson and that the artist had had a close relationship with a fellow printer, Sybil Andrews who went on to become a highly respected lino-cut printer of the Grosvenor School. It would seem she had a far more interesting tale to tell.

As we had nothing in our collections about Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews or the Grosvenor School, I would have to find someone who did. I didn’t take long to broaden my search and duly made a appointment to visit the Special Collections at Bury St Edmund’s Borough Council where Sybil Andrews had deposited her archives before emigrating to Canada in 1947.

So this is where I changed roles and became the researcher.  It was a new and daunting experience and the result will, impact on the way in which I deal with students in the future.   All I wanted, was to add some flesh to the bones that I had already about Sybil.  I really didn’t want to sort through letters, archives, photos or boxes of stuff.  In my heart I wanted to be told the story.  Was I expecting too much? Had I been watching too much TV? Did I want to be spoon feed information? Had I become too dependent on Wikipedia?

My relationship with Sybil Andrews after all wasn’t going to be a lasting affair.  There were other fish to fry and other printers to find.

Also, I am certainly never in the position to spoon feed the students or readers; I cannot be expected to know everything in our collections.

So what was the outcome for me?

I was pleased I had done my homework; I had some good bones.  I also have a good understanding of art history and how an artist might progress and develop; so I had a good start.

However the ‘Reading Room Assistant  was just what I needed he pointed me to the letters, archival material and many examples of Sybil Andrew’s work and her development while she lived in Bury St Edmunds … needless he was a far cry from a reading room assistant of my experience rather more a Doctor and Head of Collections!

So, hats off to a very different reading room experience … the result of which will follow.


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