Saturday, 18 December 2010

Da boomting

The College in which I work runs a school liaison programme designed to promote participation in higher and further education.  The Schools Liaison Officer spends a lot of his time visiting schools all over the country to talk to the students about their post-16 and post-18 choices, and sometimes school groups (generally from schools within fairly easy reach of Cambridge) come to the College to see what Cambridge is really like.

When school groups come to the College they often come to the Old Library for a tour and a quick peek at some of our most interesting books.  These school groups are generally completely different to the groups we usually see in the Library.  Although we have plenty of school visits, both primary and secondary, these are usually from nearby schools, and, by definition, they come from schools that are actively seeking ways to enhance the classroom teaching with outside visits. 

The schools liaison visits are generally from inner city schools that might not be doing too well.  The groups are far more ethnically diverse than those we usually see in Cambridge, and the students often have had very little previous exposure to historical buildings and artefacts, or to the sort of cultural offer that we take for granted in Cambridge.

This disparity certainly makes the schools liaison visits a challenge for me.  I only see each group for a short period of time (usually 30-45minutes), so there's not much scope for getting to know the group, or to investigate different ways in which they might interpret or relate to the Old Library.  I'm always strongly aware that the (National-Trust-guide-style) spiel about the Library's age, origins, highlights, etc. would probably be utterly meaningless to them, so I try to spin out each session according to what they respond to.

Fortunately, I've never yet had a group that aren't interested in anything about the Library.  There's always something (or, usually, several things) that catches their attention, and so we talk about using the Library, or the use of Latin, or how books are made, or telescopes, or whatever else for the length of the session.  There has, I think, never been a visitor to the Library who wasn't impressed by our largest and smallest books, so we usually take a look at those, but the rest of the session is pretty form.

Free-form sessions are quite hard work, it's true.  You have to have a lot of information at your fingertips, and be prepared to explain it in new ways according to the base knowledge of whoever's asking.  But once you have mastered the information (and it's taken me a while to feel confident that I have), then it's great fun to be able to explore objects with which you're familiar in unexpected ways.  I really must find out roughly how many sheep it would have taken to make the parchment for our biggest book, for example!

The tour was cool. The big one [book] was great,
though the small one [book] was amazing.

Anyway, this is a rather rambly post that basically says that outreach to a group that you might initially think would be really hard work can actually be the most rewarding and enjoyable outreach that you do.  A group of north London teenagers whose slang seems quite incomprehensible to this Cambridge grad might seem intimidating, but when they leave a comment like this, it's impossible not to feel that it was very much worthwhile.

Thanks to various people on Twitter for their help interpreting slang that was, frankly, well beyond my area of expertise.


  1. I love it. No wonder you love your job.

  2. @thingblogging It has its perks! Although it's hard to remember it on cold days like today. Brr.

    @Suzan It was, ultimately, nothing that the Urban Dictionary couldn't handle. But a wonderful example of the diversity of English people use (I wonder if I should submit it to the BL Evolving English exhibition?)

  3. Really interesting observations on how to structure or indeed not structure your approach. Although, as you insinuate, it is probably a nerve wracking business it sounds like the young people really respond to your being in 'conversation' mode rather than 'broadcast' mode. A thought provoking blog GITM - it will make me think more carefully approach how I approach such events in future.

  4. Thank you for the link to the Hand Drawn Map Association, a brilliant project. Mapping is of particular interest at the moment as my second dissertation is about women walking in London, navigating the city and mapping personal trajectories. I hope you enjoy the exhibition when you get to it!