Category Archives: day in the life

A day in the life of…

Karen Syrett, Archivist/Librarian/Curator at the British Academy

Friday 5 May 2017.

I wear many hats at the British Academy but I’m starting today in my curator’s hat. Since Christmas I have been collecting together a series of articles on the art displayed at the British Academy. Lisa Milroy wrote a great piece about her painting Ugliness, Dawn Adés and Patrick Hughes made a short film about Patrick’s wonderful Studiolo, and members of the Pictures Committee contributed terrific pieces on various other artworks in the Academy’s collection. These are now available on our new webpage which was launched this week. The plan is to add at least one new item each month, so my first job today is to send out some nudging emails to next month’s contributors.

New art webpage

Time now for my archivist’s hat. Over the past few months I have been cataloguing and repackaging the Secretary’s Papers. Yesterday, I completed the last file so this morning I shall finish off the top level description and add the location details to the catalogue. Then, I’m off down to the basement to spring-clean the archive store room – a job that has been on my ‘to do list’ for ages. It takes well over an hour to hoover between all the uneven bricks but by the time I finish I have 3 hoover bags full of dust and detritus – as I said, it has been on my list for a while!









After lunch I pull on my librarian hat and catalogue some books. The books in the Academy’s library either come from our Fellows or from our research award holders. Books that have been deposited recently include Does Terrorism Work? by Professor Richard English FBA and Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley. Handley’s book was written with the support of a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and has been nominated for this year’s Wolfson History Prize.

Books catalogued and ready to go on to the library’s shelves

Finally, I set up my first display in our newly acquired display case. I share the case with the Publications Department and it is now my turn to put it to use. Having spent quite a bit of time recently cleaning and repackaging the Secretary’s papers, I have decided to do a display on Caring for the Academy’s Archives. I’d saved some rusty paper fasteners and dirty smoke sponges so I put them into the case along with a blunder trap, a data logger and some melinex. I also include a pair of white gloves with a caption stressing that they are only ever used for handling photographs!

New archive display for the lobby

After all that, there is only one thing left to do – put on my party hat and head for the bar!

A day in the life at the National Aerospace Library

Guest blog by Tony Pilmer, Librarian at the National Aerospace Library, Royal Aeronautical Society, London

One of the National Aerospace Library’s goldmines is our pamphlet collection. It contains  marketing and technical material from around the world. Much of the material was issued by the great names in aircraft manufacturing such as Junkers, Handley Page, Hawker Siddeley and De Havilland. We also have reports from the Air Ministry, Ministry of Munitions and Ministry of Aircraft Production, early airline timetables, aeronautical research papers and much, much more. As with all of us, as they have got older, they have acquired some aches and pains – a snagged cover here, a rusty staple there, etc. So late last year we started a project to help stabilise our delicate material so it would be around for future generations of researchers.

In the depths of December, a group of intrepid volunteers from the RAeS Farnborough Branch turned up for a day’s training course at the National Aerospace Library. Thanks to some help from the RAeS Foundation we had all the equipment that the group required and the National Trust’s Adviser on Libraries Conservation, Caroline Bendix, as our trainer, to give us all the key skills we needed. What became apparent was that this was not an ordinary assignment for Caroline. Normally faced with the cream of National Trust volunteers, she was not used to a group of retired aeronautical engineers, model makers and aero enthusiasts asking questions relating to feathering techniques and the strengths of differing materials – these were not the typical questions raised at Blickling Hall or Cragside!

Volunteer training  Volunteer training

Despite this our volunteers’ skills and experiences have really enhanced the project whether by using magnets to identify stainless steel staples that will not rust and do not need replacing or using a drill to make cleaner, smaller and more accurate holes in paper that a needle could ever do. As Caroline said, drills are not normal conservation equipment but they have worked really well for us!

Aerial Derby before preservation

So what is our band of volunteers doing? A typical donation to the NAL was a 1913 Aerial Derby programme. Packed with photographs, maps and biographical snapshots of competitors and manufactures, it paints an amazing picture of the intrepid days of early aviation. However, rusting staples had started to eat away at the paper and the covers had become torn and scuffed.

So our volunteers removed the rusty staples, cleaned the pages, repaired the tears and holes and then re-sewed the pamphlet. Once placed in an acid-buffered envelope and a box, it should be available for researchers and enthusiasts for many decades to come.

Aerial Derby after preservation   

However, some of the material we have found is beyond our volunteers’ training. We have found a large number of books that require professional work and so we have put many of these items into our Adopt a Book appeal. The RAeS Foundation grant also enabled us to buy some box board and inert polyester which allows our librarians to make boxes and covers to help protect some of our other delicate material.

As well as a steady supply of coffee, our volunteers have enjoyed working with a steady stream of amazing and sometimes weird material. A technical report that described experiments using circular runways caused a lot of discussion and so did experiments showing that supersonic aircraft did not seriously harm the built environment. Recently we discovered a plan of a D shaped aeroplane which someone pointed out would have saved Armstrong-Whitworth a large amount of money when they were sued by an American company after the Second World War for “copying” their D shaped aircraft designs – our plan dates from 1932. We’ve also enjoyed repairing some beautifully designed marketing material from Rolls-Royce, though the US Government Printing Office’s use of large industrial staples has not won many friends in the Farnborough area. However, the big danger is getting too caught reading some of the amazing material rather than repairing it. Perhaps the toughest assignment was attending our Volunteer Garden Party. It was a tough job celebrating our work whilst job sitting in the sunshine, drinking tea, eating home-made cake and watching the aircraft taking off and landing at Farnbrough Tag Airport – but somebody had to do it.

Volunteer Garden Party  

Update: After two years the project is still going strong. A crack team of our finest volunteers have started to look at some of the rarer material held in our collection and one of our volunteers has also received training to repair bindings, so work will soon start repairing some of our hardbacks. So far we have filled over 250 pamphlet boxes and reviewed around 30% of our reserve collection……… just don’t tell them that we have over 40,000 technical reports to look at too!

Originally published on the CILIP Local Studies Group in October 2015.

A day in the life at the Royal Astronomical Society

Guest blog by Sian Prosser, Librarian and Archivist at Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London (Twitter: @astro_librarian)

The Royal Astronomical Society Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of works on astronomy and geophysics, both ancient and modern, as well as a significant archive containing institutional records, and working papers by astronomers like William Herschel. Our users are mainly Fellows of the RAS, external researchers, and visitors from astronomical societies, schools, and college groups.

This morning a Fellow is bringing a group of summer school students to the library to look at textbooks used by students in medieval and early modern universities, such as the 1485 edition of De sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco, which was used by the Fellow to demonstrate that astronomy students were taught that the earth was spherical, not flat. One student asks about the presence of holes in one book, and learns that ‘bookworm’ is not just a figure of speech! Education and outreach are key activities of the RAS, and the Library is seeking to host more such visits in the future.

Once the group has left I have a chance to catch up with my colleague, Beth Gaskell, who works in the Library for one day per week, helping to keep the current journals up to date and carrying out invaluable work to maintain the historical journals collection. The rest of the week I am a ‘solo librarian’ and carry out a variety of tasks, from shelving to digital scanning. I deal with many enquiries from users all over the world, asking for information about astronomy and geophysics, or about the history of the Society and its members, which often require some archival research. The library can be a valuable resource for Fellows who are not affiliated to a HE institution.

The library is always acquiring new books in astronomy and geophysics. I’m not doing any cataloguing today, but do need to update the library website links to the online catalogue, as I’ve upgraded to an externally hosted version. I also need to spend some time looking after our collection of astronomical instruments, many of which are on loan and require the paperwork to be kept up to date, and others which are in house and need to be cared for properly.

At the moment I’m working with two Fellows, Dr AEL Davis and Dr JV Field, to put together a display of major works by Johannes Kepler. They are visiting this afternoon to look at the exhibition space and choose which pages the books will be opened at. This will be the last exhibition of the summer. After that, I’ll be putting together a different display every month to correspond with the themes of the public lectures.

The title page of De stella nova (1606) by Johannes Kepler

Although I’m a solo librarian most of the week, it’s not a solitary job, as I work closely with colleagues in events management, IT, education and outreach. I am also regularly in contact with fellow librarians, especially my neighbours in the other learned society libraries of Burlington House.

Originally published in the Geological Society’s Librarians e-newsletter in autumn 2015.

All change at the British Academy library!

Guest blog from Karen Syrett

The hiring out of our public rooms provides an important source of revenue for the British Academy. Although the bayed library with its views over The Mall meant that I had a fantastic office, it was a very under-used room. So, it came as no surprise when the Academy finally decided to re-configure the library in order to add the room to its portfolio of event spaces.

To enable the necessary building work, a total of 8,944 books had to be moved out of the library but, as the work took place in various stages, they didn’t all need to be moved in one go. The project took place over the summer, our quietest time of the year, so neither storage nor time was an issue. I decided to undertake the work myself and to factor in a bit of a spring clean as well! The move also provided an ideal opportunity for a long overdue stock-check.

To start the project, new bookcases were built in two rooms on the second floor – the meeting room and the new Fellows’ Room. Once these rooms were ready, I was able to load up my trolley and begin moving the 3,442 books designated for the new shelves. Working out how to arrange the book collection was the hardest part of the whole project. The British Academy Fellowship is organised into 18 academic sections and the library follows that structure. I wanted to make sure that books belonging to one section stayed together and that the new arrangement was coherent – this involved a lot of maths! Luckily the two literature sections fitted into the meeting room, so they were the first books to go to their new home upstairs. History and archaeology form the majority of the Academy’s books so I wanted to keep these books downstairs in the new library. That left the rest of the collection for the Fellows’ Room. Trying to figure it all out was like doing battle with a complicated jigsaw – especially when some last minute changes to the rooms meant I suddenly had fewer shelves!


The old library


Making a start


That didn’t stay clean for long!


The first trolley load is ready to go

It took 2 weeks to move the books upstairs but once they had all gone, it was time to pack up the remaining 5,502. When boxing up these books, I was careful to label the boxes as I went and to make sure that the boxes were all packed in the same way so that re-shelving the books later would be as straightforward as possible. In addition to giving the books a bit of a clean, it was also very satisfying to get them back into their proper order – needless to say I’m a bit tetchy these days when I notice that someone has put a book back in the wrong place! During the stock-checking process I identified around 500 books that could be disposed of, so I contacted Dan at The Book Rescuers to arrange for the unwanted books to be collected. The Book Rescuers work with charities in Africa to give children the vital chance of an education – none of the books end up in landfill. You can read more about them here: The remaining boxes were stored in the Reading Room until the new library was finished, fortunately there was help on hand to move the boxes – there were well over 200. The last thing to move out of the library was me – I now occupy an office on the third floor. It took several weeks to transform the library space which gave me plenty of time to recover from phase 1!


I was busy packing boxes when the Queen went by!


Inevitably the building work overran so I didn’t have much time to get the books back on to the new library shelves before the first event was due to take place. Although I managed to get all the boxes emptied in time, there was still some fine tuning to do. Eventually all of the books were accommodated and there is even some room to allow for growth. Needless to say, the new library has proved incredibly popular, in its first year it has been used for everything from conferences to fashion shows!

The new library set up for its first dinner

The new library set up for its first dinner

A day in the life at the Naval & Military Club (In & Out) by Kath Posner, current APML Chair

kath3So it’s a typical Wednesday here at the In & Out (is there such a thing?)

First thing I do when I arrive at my desk is check my emails. As I only work here two days a week, there are obviously a few to deal with, and a quick scan through determines the urgency.

Most pressing, today was a missive from the Club Historian – an author who is writing a history of the In & Out for which I have been doing some of the research.

I should add at this point that I have been doing a lot of work on the Archives over the past year, sorting out around twenty boxes of random documents stretching back 150 years, some tied with ribbons and others loose, storing them in labelled acid-free files and cateloguing them in an easily-searchable Excel spreadsheet.

Having dealt with this, I went on to answer enquiries from Club Members and members of the General Public about their relatives. This year has seen a marked increase in queries from the Public about relatives: people seem to have developed a huge appetite for genealogy research, whether because of programmes like Who do you think you are, or the centenary of the First World War I do not know, but it is a part of my role which, owing to my Research background, I relish.

After dealing with these I went on to normal Library duties: cataloguing the latest acquisitions, photographing them for the Facebook page and weeding the collection. The In & Out’s collection is almost exclusively Military History, with an emphasis on personal stories and biographies and, as much of it is donated by Members, it requires a great deal of tact when deciding what to accept into the collection.

As well as my In & Out duties, I found time to deal with APML tasks: coordinating the next meeting, which includes a lunch means chasing up guests and ascertaining any special dietary requirements as well as seeing if there are any pressing issues members want to talk about and checking on the needs/availability of speakers. We have an antiquarian books expert from Christie’s coming to speak at the next meeting, which will be great fun. I am also recruiting speakers on Resource Discovery, Genealogy and Conservation, so I am kept busy!

So – that’s been my day so far…..enjoy yours.

Guest blog from Karen Syrett of the British Academy

karen1Hi, my name’s Karen Syrett, I am the Archivist/Librarian at the British Academy. The Academy moved to 10 Carlton House Terrace in 1998 but for the first 90 years of its life the house was the London home of the Ridley family – a wealthy coal mining family based in Northumberland. When war broke out in 1914, Lady Ridley decided to open up her London home as a Hospital for Officers. She started with just 25 beds in the ballroom and drawing room but, as the war progressed, Lady Ridley made more room available by moving out a lot of her furniture and pictures and opening up further wards on the ground and first floor. By 1917 there were 60 beds, and huts had been built on the terrace to cater for soldiers suffering from poison gas.


The Hospital was staffed by a resident doctor and volunteer nurses (VADs) who worked alongside qualified nurses. One of the VADs was Aileen Maunsell. Aileen was 19 when the First World War broke out and, like many girls her age, she quickly volunteered to attend home nursing courses and become a nurse.

Aileen’s grandson, Hugo Gell, recently brought his grandmother’s scrapbook and diaries along to the Academy for me to have a look at.  They provide a wonderful insight into the life of the hospital. This is how she describes her first day as a nurse:

Thursday 3 June 1915 – Off at 8.30 by taxie to nurse at Lady Ridly’s Hospital 10 Carlton House Terrace. Put in Long Ward with Sister Bell & Nurse Paice 8 patients. 3 bad stretcher cases & 1 bad arms. Off from 2 to 4, got Red X uniform at Harrods. Dead beat by 8.30.


Aileen Maunsell and patient in one of the huts on the terrace

Aileen’s work at the hospital was varied to say the least. She took the dressings to be sterilized at St Thomas’s Hospital, she bathed and fed the patients and took their temperature, she cleaned the wards and made the beds. She learnt how to ‘work electricity’ on patients and how to deal with haemorrhages. In January 1916, she even records the outbreak of a manicuring craze which lasted for several days: ‘Busy morning – manicured folk’. Aileen also spent a lot of her time chatting and laughing with the patients and was no doubt involved in concocting many of the nicknames given to the nurses and soldiers; hers was Dinkie.  The young convalescing officers were often bored and therefore boisterous but it is clear from her diaries that Dinkie was more than capable of giving as good as she got:

Thursday 11 October 1917 – Great rag in evening, pillow fights…sponges, cushions, pillows & paper flying. I upset all Mr Walton’s water by mistake unfortunately – Sis[ter] Jones furious. All blew over though in the end.

When Aileen slipped coming down the black marble staircase a few days later, she sprained her ankle and had to go home for a few days. The event was recorded in a poem by one of her patients:

Last week our Dinkie fell down stairs…
The North Ward all dissolved in tears
When they heard the news.
Young Duncan was disconsolate
And Barry got the blues.
Life is weary, life is sad
What shall we do without her
It’s only ‘cos I feel so bad
I write this song about her.

One of the patients dressed up to help the nurses

One of the patients dressed up to help the nurses

The soldiers’ injuries were horrific and the work was hard but there was also a great deal of merriment at the hospital, and romance. Aileen received at least two proposals of marriage from her patients before finally accepting Mr Gell. Philip Gell was admitted to the hospital towards the end of the war and the couple married in 1920.

It has been a real privilege to read Aileen’s diaries. Now, as I wander around the building, I can’t help but imagine all the soldiers and nurses who spent such an intense time in these rooms, and I always take extra special care whenever I come down those black marble stairs!