Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Open Sesame

St John's College Library, one of 17 taking part.
Looking for something to do in Cambridge this weekend? Then why not visit some of the Departmental and Faculty libraries open to the public as part of Open Cambridge. 17 libraries are opening, completely free, for all or part of Friday 10th and Saturday September. Some are old, some new, some famous and some obscure. I can't pick my favourites to mention here - all are interesting and worth a visit!

This is the third Open Cambridge weekend to have been organised by the Community Affairs team in the University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications (what a mouthful!), and the second year to have an Open Libraries strand. Open Cambridge happens annually during National Heritage Open Days, and it's designed as an opportunity for local people to see inside University, College and city buildings to which access is usually closed.

Open Libraries is my baby.  It developed after I made an unsuccessful bid for 2009 Fund money from the University at the end of 2008.  The inspiration from the bid came from the success of opening St John's College library to the public for our first Hoyle Day in Autumn 2008, during which people asked 'so when are you open again?', and 'which other libraries are open?'. This brought about a light-bulb moment: why, I asked myself, aren't more of these fabulous places ever shown to the outside world.  So I consulted with some librarians, and made a bid for funding to publicise and run a day of public open-access (a 'Cambridge Open Libraries Trail') to some of Cambridge's 100 libraries, all of them interesting either for architecture or content or both, and supported it with statements of approval from a number of Cambridge librarians. 

That the bid wasn't successful was no bad thing. Making the bid brought the idea to the attention of the Community Affairs team who suggested that the idea could be incorporated Open Cambridge.  I took on the role of recruiting libraries to the event by contacting libraries directly via email lists, and not relying on the possibility that information sent to generic college or department contacts might filter through.  I felt that it might be useful to have a 'library' face encouraging participation (although I was very new on the scene and probably seen as an upstart with crazy new ideas), and so I also managed responses and gathered all the necessary information from participants to compile the Open Cambridge programme.  All the difficult work (taking tour bookings for those libraries who prefer to give tours instead of having open-access days, press and publicity, design and branding, and so on) was handled by the Community Affairs team.  This year I've taken my hands even further off the reins and my only input has been to advertise it firstly at librarians to encourage participants, and now to anyone who'll listen to encourage visitors.

The Libraries strand of Open Cambridge 2009 was a definite success.  Visitors commented on welcoming and friendly library staff, and that it was good to see inside libraries, that they enjoyed viewing special displays and exhibitions of library materials, and that they'd like to see more libraries in the future.  So we're trying to build on all of that this year.

Open Libraries is hopefully doing something to break out of the #echolib, both by showing the public that these libraries are all here, but also by gaining higher visibility and status within the University.  It might not look like much - 17 libraries opening for a few hours to the great unwashed - but in the context of the Cambridge library world, where change is too often measured over decades, I think it's no mean feat.  I hope that Open Libraries will continue in the years to come; maybe it will come to be seen as an integral part of the weekend, something that both the libraries and the public look forward to...

As this and other recent initiatives (cam23, camlibtm) have shown, just having a go and seeing what happens will often reap great rewards; there are people out there who are keen to try something new if they're given an outlet. TeachMeet co-conspirator Celine (@cjclib) said to me recently "am starting to realise you are the queen of "you may as well..." & making big success of it!".  Maybe she's right, I shouldn't like to say.  But I think maybe that "you may as well..." is likely to make a success of itself just as long as you give it a chance.

Open Libraries is happening only because of the work put in by staff at all the participating libraries, to whom I'd like to say a huge thank you. Thank you for taking a chance and doing something new. Thank you for putting in the extra work and time. May you have many visitors.


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