Our names are Jennifer Stewart and Honor Wilson and we have just completed a four-week Special Collections Internship at the National Library of Scotland. We both had backgrounds working within the archival and library sector prior to commencing our internships: Honor had volunteered at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections and is about to enter her final year of an MA in Classics also at the University of Edinburgh; Jennifer had been working in a private library and archive and is about to embark on a Masters in Information Management and Preservation at the University of Glasgow.
Although we both had previous experience of book cataloguing and working with archive material, this internship provided a unique opportunity to expand our knowledge and gain invaluable insight into the work of the National Library of Scotland. We are grateful to the Cross Trust for funding this opportunity and to the Library staff for ensuring that our time here was informative and enjoyable. During our four weeks at the Library we divided our time between different departments allowing us to gain an overview of the Library while also acquiring in-depth knowledge of specific jobs.
In our first week we shadowed the Special Collections Assistants and spent time in the Special Collections Reading Room helping the staff with public services relating to the collections. This included responding to reader enquiries, following up permission requests, and organising the fulfilment of reprographic orders, as well as working in the Special Collections Reading Room. One of the most interesting aspects of this placement was gaining an insight into the ways public access can impact a collection and its management. During our time with them, the Special Collections Assistants were preparing to showcase an item from the Astorga Collection in one of the display cases in the Special Collections Reading Room. By placing an item from this collection on display their aim is to raise awareness of this important and unique holding of pre-1800 Spanish material. We were able to gain an understanding of the processes involved when arranging a display within the Library. Week one also included our first opportunity to get hands-on with the Library’s collections which involved rehousing photographs taken by Scottish naturalist Tom Weir. This was the first time either of us had worked on a photographic collection and learning how to handle material of this kind was a valuable experience.
We spent our second week in Archives and Manuscript Collections where we were each given a week-long cataloguing project. Honor worked on an archive belonging to the Scottish author Agnes Owens, a collection of early and annotated manuscripts which provide a fascinating insight into the author’s creative process. Jennifer worked on an acquisition from the Victor Gollancz Publishing House which contained material relating to the doctor and author A. J. Cronin, providing snapshots of the publisher’s relationship with the author throughout his career. Working on a focused, independent archiving project was a fantastic opportunity for us to experience the day-to-day work of the Archives and Manuscript team. Our final day with them was spent learning about digital archiving, we retro-converted CD-ROMs and floppy disks belonging to Scottish artist and author Alasdair Gray. Neither of us had previous experience archiving modern materials and we were intrigued to learn about the unique challenges involved in preserving and presenting items from the digital age.
After spending our third week with the Digital Department we now recognise the many steps involved in the digitisation process and have an overview of the Digitisation Production Workflow. We spent two days in the digitisation studio where we were able to gain practical experience of the digital capture process and contribute to the Library’s goal of digitising a third of its collections by 2025. We each captured two books from Rare Books Collections and a variety of OS maps, adding to the extensive collection of maps already available online on the Map Website. The Digitisation Team is also responsible for producing websites to tie in with current exhibitions in the Library. We were shown the “Scottish Enlightenment” website which complements the “Northern Lights: the Scottish Enlightenment” exhibition and allows people from all over the world to experience the Library’s exhibits even if they cannot visit in person.
Our fourth and final week at the Library was spent in Collections Care working closely with the Collections Audit Officer. We were tasked with auditing a series of pamphlets, dating from the late 16th century to the 19th century, on a wide range of topics including animal husbandry, millenarian prophecies, cholera, and etiquette. During this placement we audited 2,543 pamphlets and uncovered 186 cataloguing discrepancies. These discrepancies can make collections difficult to find and therefore auditing is a vital aspect of collection care. One particularly exciting discovery was a pamphlet which was unique within the Library’s collections and had not previously been catalogued. It also appeared to be absent from WorldCat meaning it may be a very rare item. In addition, we made a detailed check of 21 manuscript volumes, belonging to Hugh Miller a Scottish geologist and writer, totalling 4,691 folios. Our final two days were spent in Rare Books Collections where we learned about the early processes involved in paper production, book printing and book binding. We also carried out a shelfmark audit of the Lauriston Castle Collection and were able to highlight gaps in the cataloguing of the collection.
Having spent four weeks at the National Library we can testify to the variety and depth of work carried out here. From handling rare books to digital capture, no two days of our internship were the same. We have learned so much during our time at the Library and the broad range of our experiences will be invaluable to us in the future. We are indebted to the Cross Trust for enabling this opportunity and we are both extremely grateful to all the members of the Library’s staff who mentored us during our internship and made our time at the Library so rewarding and fulfilling.