Placement Spotlight: CUL Special Collections

In Michaelmas term I was able to undertake a placement in the Special Collections department of the Cambridge University Library (CUL). As a medieval historian, I have come to realize over the course of my PhD that studying and transcribing manuscripts is the aspect of my work which I enjoy the most. This in turn led me to seek out this placement (with the help of the OOC DTP) so that I could gain a greater idea of what a career in archives and special collections management might entail.

After holding a series of preliminary meetings with Rebecca Costello from the DTP and then Dr Suzanne Paul, the UL’s Keeper of the Rare Books and Manuscripts, we agreed that I would spend 10 weeks cataloguing manuscripts for the Fragmentarium project. This is part of a multinational effort to catalogue the vast trove of medieval fragments found in libraries worldwide, and the catalogue descriptions which I produced will eventually be uploaded to the Cambridge University Digital Library (CUDL), alongside the digital images.

My day-to-day work consisted of going through fragments and encoding their key metadata (contents, decoration, scripts, etc.) using the TEI-XML coding language, so that I could I received training in XML at the start of the placement from the Fragmentarium research associate, Dr Marie Turner, who was also on hand to answer my many questions. While I was able to use my pre-existing palaeographical and codicological knowledge, I soon found out that there is a huge amount which I did not know about manuscripts, and that cataloguing them required a very different set of skills to writing my PhD!

As well as this, being part of such a large and innovative institution as the UL enabled me to explore the changing state of the archives field. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to meet Leontien Talboom and Caylin Smith from the Digital Preservation Team and to discuss the specific issues surrounding the preservation of born-digital materials. During a follow-up meeting I also met FRED, the forensic workstation used to extract and preserve information from obsolete storage carriers (e.g. floppy disks).

Overall, the experience was a hugely enjoyable one, which enabled me to gain important digital skills and experience which will be important both for my future research and potentially for a future career in archiving or heritage. The special collections team were incredibly supportive, and I
enjoyed the many opportunities to exchange insights and knowledge with people who are as enthusiastic about manuscripts as I am!

In February we will be holding a Transcribathon which will give postgrad students the opportunity to transcribe individual fragments so that these can be uploaded into the CUDL records. So if anyone fancies testing out their skills in reading medieval writing, please do join us!